I’ve been rolling this post around in my mind for a while now. Because I want to get the words just right.
Recently the attack dogs have been out again against the direct selling industry. In this case, a reporting fellow with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute named Virginia Sole-Smith. She wrote a scathing review of Mary Kay Cosmetics, and has since seen fit to lump the rest of the industry with it.
The problem with the article? While I have no doubt that the experiences she relates are true, there is no balanced reporting. It feels very much like she went in with an opinion, and then found sources to support her point of view. Even though she has never worked in the industry before, so truly has no first-hand knowledge of the industry. Add to this the fact that reporters are supposed to look at both sides of an issue, and it makes me question both the integrity and the competence of the reporter in question.
And the thing is, I understand why there are people who don’t like the direct selling industry. It isn’t for everyone, and not everyone who tries it will be successful. Some people do invest more than they make (although if you’re strategic, there’s always a way to at least break even if you want to. And the DSA’s buy-back policy requires DSA member companies to refund your returned new inventory up to 90% within 12 months of purchase.)
For a large part of my life I was one of those haters. I refused to go to direct selling parties. I just assumed the whole thing was a scam. Until I got involved with the industry. And I began to understand the industry in a whole new light.
You see, it’s easy to find haters for any industry. Pharmaceuticals, Investment Bankers, Education, Tech…you name the industry, and you can find people that hate it. And the fact that so many people have the option of trying direct sales or being touched by it in some way means millions more opinions, some of which will be negative. Sometimes those opinions are grounded in fact. Sometimes not. But unless you sincerely look at both sides of the issues, you will never know the truth.
I have spent my recent career in direct selling trying to promote ethical marketing of the business opportunity we offer. Over-promising helps no one, and success requires work. But isn’t that true of any entrepreneurial venture?
I recently read an article on TechCrunch about founders of startups, and the challenges it presents. Typically founders (and I lived that life) put in a LOT of money and hours, trying to make a business work. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, no matter how hard you work. And at the end of the day, if it doesn’t work, you’re out a lot of money. And sometimes you lose a lot of other things in the process.
The thing about direct sales, however, is that it gives many people an entrepreneurial option that doesn’t require nearly as much of a financial and hourly investment. The average direct seller only works about 5 hours per week and gets a lot of training and support from the parent company. But just like with any entrepreneurial venture, sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t. But in direct sales, if you sell you get paid. That doesn’t always happen with your traditional entrepreneur. Will a direct seller sometimes invest more than they make? Yes, if they’re not careful. But at least they walk away with product. The traditional entrepreneur can walk away with nothing to show for their investment if it all goes wrong.
For a society that celebrates the entrepreneur, the startup, we’re really missing the boat when it comes to direct selling. It’s the lowest risk way I know to start a business. And what Ms. Sole-Smith refers to as “building an income on the backs of others” I see as providing additional opportunity. In an age where unemployment is rampant, those “backs” as she puts it are looking for a way to earn an income. Direct sales is an option that helps people make money. Those that don’t want to be there don’t have to do it. It’s that simple.
And I haven’t even begun to address all the business training and personal development that direct sellers receive. Or the recognition, which I sure didn’t receive when I worked in corporate America. Being recognized for your efforts is a good thing, and it builds people up. I, for one, am in favor of that.
In comments on one of the posts about this issue, people held up training that a direct sales leader gave to her team, and used it as a way to vilify the industry. Clearly these people have never worked in sales. Because the training is nearly the same as training I have written and seen in several industries I have worked in over the years. Concepts such as “overcoming objections” are not new, folks. This is classic sales training. Direct sales did not invent it, and the next time you talk to the cable company, see whether or not they use exactly the same techniques.
And so I’d like to issue an invitation to Ms. Sole-Smith: Work as a consultant in a direct selling company for a few months. Attend the trainings. Sell the product. Work with people. Watch what happens when someone achieves something they never thought they could, and is recognized for that. And enjoy the checks that come your way when you work hard and do your job.
Do I wish that every single one of the millions of people involved in direct sales did the right thing always? Absolutely. And through the work of organizations like the Direct Selling Association and the Direct Selling Education Foundation, along with ethical companies themselves, we work every day towards making that a reality.
But I will not stand by quietly while people try to discredit an industry I have come to love, when I have personally seen the difference it has made in the lives of people, including lives in my own family. I encourage direct sellers to stand up and tell their stories. Write about it on your own blogs. Share with your friends and neighbors. It doesn’t need hype. Just be honest about your struggles as well as your victories. And let people see why direct selling is a legitimate business model that has helped people reach their goals…whether it be a few hundred dollars a month, a full time income, or simply some great products and a night or two out of the house and away from the kids.
Direct selling is many things to many people. Don’t let the uneducated try to characterize what you do based on THEIR assumptions of what you want. Speak up and tell your own story. Let’s fill the web with the good news of direct selling.
Jennifer Fong is a former direct sales company founder and president who currently consults with direct selling companies, helping them and their salesforces market their businesses effectively and ethically online. Jennifer’s former direct sales company donated 100% of its corporate profits to charity, and was presented with the Direct Selling Association’s Vision for Tomorrow Award for Corporate Social Responsibility in 2008. This opinion piece is written to express Jennifer Fong’s personal views on the current attacks on the industry. She does not represent the views of any individual direct selling company or the Direct Selling Association, and is not compensated for writing this blog.