The False Lure of Multi-Level Marketing

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Multi-level marketing (MLM), or network marketing, is a nonsustainable business model because it does not provide a valuable service but simply a product that has been marked up in price.

MLM is based on the faulty premise that as you network with people, all you have to do is find a few individuals who are excited about the idea and want to join the pyramid. You will get paid not only for your own sales but also for sales in your downline, those under you in the pyramid, all the way to the seventh level.

So theoretically, even if you only recruit two people and they only recruit two people, by the time you reach the seventh level, you will have 255 people in your downline supplying you with commissions. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.

First of all, only a limited number of people will be attracted to MLM. Think of fishing for recruits to join your downline like offending all of your friends, neighbors and relatives and seeing who can tolerate it. Most people can’t take the constant rejection. The few who can stand being rebuffed can only handle it from someone who is not a close friend or family. Building a relational business model with acquaintances and strangers is not possible.

The few who do respond will be more motivated by the money-making opportunity than the product. And when the hose doesn’t flow with cash, the average recruit opts out of the scheme after three months.

With half of your people dropping every quarter, you can’t build a business. No matter how hard you work, you’ll spend all your energy looking for new people and training them. Burnout is pervasive. Although some MLM participants try to automate the process through audio and video pitches, this strategy simply removes the personal touch required to persuade newcomers. Millions who have tried are shamefully quiet about their lack of success. It is like trying to fill a bucket with no bottom.

Even if you could draft sufficient numbers of people, you still would not be actually running a business. True businesses add value to people’s lives. If you leave the pyramid, it is irrelevant. Everyone still gets the product. Your presence in the pyramid doesn’t add any value, either to the company or to those buying from it.

You don’t actually take orders, which typically are transacted online. And you don’t actually sell a product or service. People are lured into MLM schemes because supposedly they won’t be required to sell. They’re told they can simply cash the check, which sounds like a very attractive option. Unfortunately, many people inexperienced in business believe that’s what business owners do.

Nothing could be further from the truth, however. Real businesses sustain themselves by making a genuine contribution to society. The more real value they can offer, the more people are willing to pay for it. Every successful business owner knows that to stay competitive, you have to be thinking all the time about how to add more value.

Most MLM participants gross very little. In many cases, the money they earn doesn’t even cover their own use of the product. It certainly is not enough to compensate them for their time and expenses even at the minimum wage. Many lose substantial amounts by purchasing additional tools that promise to boost sales and numbers of recruits.

Because it requires more of your time and effort, MLM is even less sustainable than buying lottery tickets. The few successes are simply those positioned at the top of the pyramid who collect from the endless recruiting hopefuls churning at the bottom.

True entrepreneurship, in contrast, is decidedly worthwhile. Many people with a high net worth made their money by starting and running a business. Along with the satisfaction of hard work well done, successful business owners enjoy a plethora of financial and tax-planning opportunities as well as the satisfaction of seeing their vision made real.

Hundreds of legitimate business opportunities are available for entrepreneurs who want to build companies that provide real value. But entrepreneurship is for those who feel empowered by hard work, not those trying to escape it. There are ways to find the right business adventure to sustain a lifetime of hard work, but MLM will always be a distraction from a genuine vocational calling.

Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash

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David John Marotta is the Founder and President of Marotta Wealth Management. He played for the State Department chess team at age 11, graduated from Stanford, taught Computer and Information Science, and still loves math and strategy games. In addition to his financial writing, David is a co-author of The Haunting of Bob Cratchit.