A Long Read: Saints or sinners? We take a look at the phenomenon of MLMs
In the 1980s everyone was selling Tupperware. There were Tupperware parties, and stay-at-home mums dared to dream of a big boost to their income.
Brand ‘ambassadors’ were dotted around every neighbourhood, touting the same snazzy sales pitch whilst they invited themselves in for a cup of coffee.
Successful companies like Avon sprouted up, giving mums' flexible working hours.
The brand had many high-profile celebrity reps and the products were high quality.
Some people like the personal aspect of catalogue and word-of-mouth sales models, enjoying the convenience. Others prefer to be left in peace at home.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and these generally fondly considered home-based traditional companies have morphed into 'Multi-Level-Marketing' companies, or MLM’s.
They are touted as an opportunity to be your own boss and prosper, with flexible working hours, others worry they are just a rebranding of what used to be called pyramid selling.
Social media sites like Facebook and Instagram are the perfect platforms for MLM ambassadors, as they can reach a large audience and recruit more members to their teams.
MLMs often target young women, a lot of them stay-at-home mothers, with the premise of flexibility.
They often say you can “choose how much you work” or “how much you earn".
This is a very attractive prospect for stay-at-home mums, who can work around the school-run and bedtimes.
There are now hundreds of MLMs, popular brands include, JuicePlus, Scentsy,Tropic, Boutique Babes, LulaRose, Utility Warehouse, Usborne educational books and many more.
They are often beauty products, clothing or health products.
And as well as largely being sold by women they tend to appeal to women. Eighty-three per cent of all MLM ambassadors in the UK are women.
Lynn and Downham have many mums who have worked or continue to work in MLMs.
Amy Garnett, 27, from Downham is a stay-at-home mum of four children and is an ambassador for Scentsy.
She said the wax-melt company “changed her life”.
Amy told the Lynn News: “I love the brand and use it myself. I really believe in the worth of the products, they smell amazing and everyone I’ve sold them to, agrees.
“Before I was bored at home and felt my life didn’t have purpose. Being part of Scentsy and building up my team has allowed me to meet so many people and I feel really happy every day, it’s a positive thing and I can’t find many regular jobs that I can fit around my kids.”
When asked how much she earns from selling Scentsy, Amy said: “You earn what you put in. It varies each week, I choose my working hours, that’s the beauty of it.”
Katie James, 23, an Usborne Books rep from Swaffham has had a positive experience with MLMs and wants to warn against naysayers.
Ms James said: "There's so much negativity out there about MLMs being pyramid schemes. You get what you put in, it's simple."
Usborne, a well-known publisher, expanded out into a sister company Usborne at Home in 1981.Using the reputable and well-known branding has assisted in the company's success, as many people don't realise its direct sales (the term Usborne use rather than MLM).
Katie said: "I got into it because I love reading and selling children's books has been a fun venture. My friends kids love getting the books too.
"I make around £50 a week, and as a stay at home mum that keeps me ticking over and gives me an opportunity to connect with people when I feel lonely.
"I adore my job and can't thank the company enough for making my life worthwhile again.I know I could earn more if I wanted to.
"Its not like I'm flogging diet pills l, its books and they contribute to the educational needs of young children.
"There's something so special about selling books on a one to one basis, my customers connect with the product and know exactly what they are buying."
But some have concerns about the business model employed by some MLMs.
Zoe Brown, from Lynn, worked with a popular health company that she doesn’t want to name.
She said: “I want to warn other people about MLMs. They are dangerous. You are given a bogus sales pitch and told to have a ‘story’.
“My mum died when I was little and I was encouraged to use that in my sales pitch. Every time I said ‘I’m doing this for Mum’ I felt sick, it felt like a joke to her memory. But that’s how they play you. You have to make it part of your lifestyle and totally commit, even then you earn peanuts. Any company that has a business model that relies on converting customers into market adversaries is not selling a product of value.”
One Downham woman, Lucy Rose, 34, spoke of being “harassed” into signing up to an MLM.
She said: “I met a friend of a friend out in town and she was so nice to me and invited me to lunch. We both had young kids so I thought we were making a connection, plus I trusted her due to our mutual friend.
"At lunch she said she ran a business for mums but was very evasive about what she actually did. Soon she was showing me clips of an MLM scheme.
"After that she would text and call every day, invite herself round and push her script on me constantly. I signed up just to make her go away and eventually her calls trailed off. It felt violating and a little hurtful.”
Jon, a man from Downham, wanted to speak about his experience with one particular big hitter in the MLM world.
He said: "I found it all very odd and wasn't exactly sure what I was being sold. They have a pitch that insists on secrecy and it comes across as very suspect from the offset.
"A mate of mine who I hadn't seen in years suddenly started getting very friendly and I was enjoying our renewed connection. We went for beers, had a laugh, talked about our wives. It all seemed so normal.
"Next thing I knew he was at my kitchen table showing me a recruitment video and charts that said I could earn up to £3K a month."
Jon added: "My mate told me it was a 'money saving' business. At first I thought it was his own venture and wanted to help him, but my stomach sank as he showed me video after video, pressured me to sign up there and then and wanted me to host a party in my home.
"He then went on to say that he had a heart condition, which he used in his sales pitch. 'You have to have a story, you aren't selling a brand you are selling yourself, your experience,' he told me.
"I thought it was strange that he was being encouraged to link a serious medical condition to hawking electric."
Jon signed up in the end, but didn't sell the product.
He said: "I felt like I was lying about what I was doing to people and it just felt wrong. UW encourages you to keep it all secret until you pitch, which to my mind effectively bamboozles customers into saying yes.
"My mate started to get aggressive and we no longer went out for beers. He would tell me to make lists of people I hadn't spoke to in years and get in touch with them to sell UW. That's what I saw what he had done to me and I felt like our friendship was a scam."
Jon showed the Lynn News his commission statement, which said he had earned -£4 and it would be taken from his personal account each month.
"Up until last year, after signing up in 2017, I was being charged £4 a month for my 'commission statement' and I haven't the faintest as to why. I assume that's the money he's making from me being swiped out of my account.
"It makes me angry and when I have complained and try to ask why they are taking money from me I don't get a straight answer. Imagine if you sign 100 people they decide not to sell and each gets robbed of £4? It starts to add up. Its such a small amount, you give up arguing, but I guess that's how they get you."
Jon expressed that he was aggravated when his friend started to tell him to travel for three hours for a training session, that would be "essential".
He said: "I said to him 'mate I've got a lot on, I work full time and have a kid I can't just drop everything to come to a training session in the Midlands.' He wasn't having any of it and guilt-tripped me about my family's future, saying I wasn't serious about providing for my daughter."
Love them or hate them it doesn't seem MLMs are going anywhere anytime soon.
They pose a question about today's gig economy - where millenials and Gen Z are now juggling several low paid jobs, often one of them an MLM, in a bid to make ends meet.
Is something that provides income, a chance to build friendships and interchangeable life skills really a bad thing? Are they the future of employment in an increasingly saturated UK job market where graduates and other professionals struggle to find work? Or is the industry exploitative? Let us know your experience.