BK Boreyko Tries His Hand at Magic: Does he pull it off?

01c62c29d34ede51f7c12ef645d59945I can remember where I was sitting when I saw David Copperfield’s infamous Statue of Liberty trick.  I was right in my living room, sitting three feet from our “big screen” 25 inch television.  I was speechless!  I had my imagination running wild….where in the world did it go!?  Is magic real!? As it turns out, years later, people revealed the logistics behind the magic: it was a revolving stage.  The statute was shown between two pillars, the curtain was lifted to conceal the statute, and as David Copperfield was doing his thing, the stage rotated without audience detection.  When the curtain was dropped, the audience (and those of us watching on television) were staring out into the ocean without even realizing it.

Changing the optic! Pure genius!

With BK’s latest announcement, he’s attempting a similar effort.  In summary, he’s changing the perspective (words) about MLM without changing the model itself.  He’s just rotating the stage while keeping the statute (the model) in tact.

In BK’s video below, he SPRINTS from the MLM category, claiming that Vemma is “more like Amazon and less like Amway.” I’ll start this breakdown with the obvious points first:

(1) Amazon is not a member of the Direct Selling Association;

(2) Amazon does not terminate its affiliates for promoting other MLMs;

(3) Amazon does not bind its affiliates to non-solicitation clauses (commonly done by clients of mine and every other company in the MLM industry);

(4) Amazon does not have monthly volume requirements.  BK makes it clear: “We no longer require our affiliates to buy products.”  Well that’s good to know, because you technically were never supposed to have such requirements anyways.  I know, I know….it’s debatable whether a company can impose a purchase requirement. ViSalus does it (I think).  But in my opinion, I advise all clients to stay away from required monthly purchases. Instead, Vemma is doing what 95% of all other MLMs do: they’re now requiring VOLUME.  Can this volume be achieved via the now optional Autoship? Yep.  Will the majority of reps qualify in this manner?  Probably.  Does this “change” make Vemma more like Amazon and less like Amway?  No. Ironically enough, Amway has ZERO volume requirements for reps to join.

(5) Amazon does not have a genealogy for calculating commissions i.e. there’s no opportunity for recruitment;

(6) Amazon discloses its revenue from customer sales. While BK implies of significant customer activity, we have no way of knowing the numbers.

Affiliate vs. MLM

In his video, BK distinguishes affiliate models from MLMs as follows: affiliate programs are more customer focused and there are no requirements to buy product. Please remember, the entire point of an MLM sales strategy is to SERVE CUSTOMERS. If Vemma was not on this track before, what in the world were they doing? And I’ve already opined on the issue of required product purchases. They never should’ve had those requirements in the first place. Going with a volume requirements puts them in line with most other MLMs out there (keyword being “IN-LINE”…..not ahead).

Real Changes

These are the changes that seem legitimate:

(1) Affiliates are all Customers first. When a “Customer” enrolls another customer, they become an Affiliate and qualified to earn commissions (after they generated the volume via personal purchases and/or sales). This is interesting to me. Do these Customers go on the Affiliate’s front-line i.e. like a personally enrolled affiliate would? If so, Vemma made it more difficult for affiliates to sling participants down in depth. This would legitimately slow recruitment; thus, look more like an Affiliate arrangement. If, on the other hand, these “Customers” are given a position in the genealogy and can benefit from their upline’s actions on a later date, we’re back to David Copperfield’s rotating stage. If the latter is the case, regulators will not consider those people as Customers in the event of an inquiry (my opinion).

(2) There’s a “Custiliate” program. Friend and MLM consultant, Mel Atwood, coined the phrase “Custiliate,” so I’ve got to give credit where credit is due. A Custiliate is a hybrid between a customer and an affiliate. The Customer cannot earn the big bucks but there are some financial incentives available. There’s nothing earth-shattering here. There are numerous companies out there that offer incentives for customers to share the products with other customers. With Vemma, they’re giving customers “credits” that can be redeemed for product sales. This is a good thing and most companies need to implement similar incentives. The key question: will the incentives lead to an increase in customer revenues? If an MLM is selling $1,000 lemonade, the policy would be lipstick on a pig because there would never be legitimate demand for such a product. If Vemma’s product is priced outside of the market, the Custiliate program is window-dressing. If it’s in-line, it’ll help drive the numbers up. This is not proven by making comparisons with Red Bull. It’s proven by customer revenue. It’s that simple.

(3) Vemma now pays full CV on customer activity. This caught me off guard. Why in the world were they allocating 50% on customer volume? This would be a dis-incentive for distributors (affiliates) to accrue customers. Why pursue customer sales that yield 50% CV when they can recruit and get 1 to 1 on the volume for their commissions? This is so bad, I’m not convinced I’m right. If they fixed the 50%, good for Vemma. They’re now in-line with other MLMs (again, in-line…..not ahead).

Conclusion

At a time when the industry needs to be more united, BK’s announcement of “big changes” is counter-productive. Will these changes lead to meaningful changes in Vemma’s sales culture, leading to a more customer-oriented company? Or is he just rotating the stage, using the right words and gestures while only changing the perspective?

What do you think?

If you’re reading this via email, click here to view BK’s announcement video.

MLM Income Claims: Basic guidelines for companies and distributors | FTC (Part 2)

INTRODUCTION

In the last article, MLM Income Claims: Basic guidelines for companies and distributors | FTC, we walked through the Federal Trade Commission’s (“FTC”) recent allegations against Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing (“FHTM”) regarding income claims made by its distributors. In this installment, we’re going to see what it takes to give an adequate disclosure for the claims made.

The format is simple: First, I’m going to lay out what a company needs to provide for its distributors in order for them to give proper disclosures. Next, I’m going to walk through the examples cited by the FTC against FHTM and demonstrate how to make a proper disclosure under the circumstances using the framework provided by the court in Nat’l Dynamics and the FTC’s .com Disclosure Guidelines. The goal of this post is to provide you with practical, blanket instructions to make adequate disclosures. Ready to get started? All right, let’s get down to business.

THE INCOME DISCLOSURE DOCUMENT

The best way for a company to ensure that claims regarding its payment plan are given properly is to put the information on a silver platter for the distributors to use. It’s not the distributors’ job to gather the data; it’s the distributors job to zealously represent your company and all the while properly disclosing the information provided to them. This is why every company should provide its distributors with an income disclosure document: the ultimate, end-all-end-all, “Swiss Army knife” for distributors to give income claims.

At a minimum, an income disclosure document should include:

  1. A statement of the average amount of time per day, week or month spent by the distributors at each rank to achieve the various levels;
  2. The year or years during which the disclosed results were achieved;
  3. A statement of the average earnings achieved by all distributors at each rank;
  4. The Highest and Lowest earnings achieved weekly by distributors at each rank; and
  5. The percentage of distributors at each rank who achieve the average income.

Here is a (very) simple example of what an income disclosure document should kind of look like. This can be done on Excel in 10 minutes:

disclosure chart

These are some specific examples referenced by the FTC in its lawsuit against FHTM.

RECORDED VIDEO PRESENTATIONS

Claim #1:

One distributor claimed in a recorded video presentation that “four months into the business [with FHTM]… I had actually quadrupled what I have ever made as a Registered Nurse.”

Claim #2:

A distributor claimed on her Vimeo site that distributors who reach the National or Executive Sales Manager levels “are making thirty-, forty-, sixty-, seventy-thousand a month.”

Claim #3:

The FTC alleged distributors frequently made lifestyle claims, such as highlighting extended family vacations to exotic locations, driving nice cars, and purchasing large homes with luxurious amenities.

The Answer

If you will remember back to the FTC’s Disclosure Guidelines for Online Marketing: How to get it right (Part 2), we explained that a text income disclosure displayed in the video DURING the claim in addition to a more detailed audio and video formatted disclosure at the end of the testimonial was the best strategy. During the video disclaimer at the end of the testimonial video, an image of the company’s income disclosure document should be displayed with audio narration regarding the average earnings.

Regarding Claim #2, the court in Nat’l Dynamics provides some guidance:

Statements of ranges may be deceptive if the earnings ranges are too large. A consumer presented with a statement that thousands of distributors have earned from “$ to $” is likely to assume that the average lies somewhere near the middle of the range, and that substantial numbers of people have achieved results in the top of the range.

In order to provide an earnings range like the one given above, it must be provided with a “clear and conspicuous” disclosure of the percentage of all distributors that achieved results within the range. If the ranges are from $0 and up, the disclosure only needs to indicate the number of distributors within each range or the percentage of distributors in each range. Luckily, all of this information is provided in our income disclosure document shared above.

RECORDED AUDIO PRESENTATIONS

Claim #4:

The FTC alleged that a distributor on a recorded conference call stated that someone earned over $50,000 in his sixth months with the company alone and that he “earned millions and millions beyond that” in subsequent years.

Claim #5:

Regarding another conference call, the FTC alleged a distributor stated that someone else was earning “over $100,000 a month” after three years with the company.

The Answer

It’s impossible to give an audio disclosure simultaneously as an audio claim (Go ahead and try it out loud to yourself). Since the claim is in audio format, we must provide a disclosure in audio format as well. Using the information provided in the income disclosure document, all earnings discussed should be addressed.

This isn’t a science, so you must get creative in order to find the easiest and most efficient way for you to equip your distributors with the tools they needs to give adequate disclosures. One suggestion is to provide distributors with a script to read before these calls that explains the average earnings. Another option is to provide an audio file to download on your homepage that distributors may attach to the beginning of their audio presentation before they post it.

Since the audio claims were posted on team websites, a hyperlink could also be provided under the audio clip like this: “The average distributor earns $___ per month. Click here for more information and disclosures about the income ranges discussed in the audio presentation.”

TWITTER

Claim #6:

The FTC alleged a distributor posted on her Twitter account about a recruiting meeting, encouraging people to “Bring ur friends & learn how 2 make $100k aYR.”

The Answer

I’m going to preach this until the cows come home: Do not make income claims via Twitter. “But Kevin!” you say, “I can simply insert a hyperlink to a proper disclosure, right?” Wrong! There is simply not enough real estate to provide an adequate income disclosure on Twitter.

FACEBOOK PHOTO

Claim #7:

The FTC alleged that at a national convention, 30 top earners were called to the stage to be presented with a mock check for $64 million to represent the amount of money they earned with the company. Several distributors later shared a photo of the presentation on Facebook.

The Answer

In the caption of the photograph: “Results not typical. The average distributor earns $____ per <week, month, year>. Click the link for a full disclosure.” The link should lead the consumer to a page where they will be provided with an image of the income disclosure document.

CONCLUSION

It’s time for the industry to wake up and smell the coffee.  The FTC is taking these earnings claims very seriously.  And as technology is making it simpler for distributors to make these sorts of claims, the responsibility is increasing for companies to properly educate the field. Looking forward, it’s vitally important to have adequate compliance training and to supply distributors with the up-to-date information that they need to make proper income claims. Most importantly, the information needs to be provided in such a way that they any consumer can look at the information and be able to understand the underlying facts so they may make a fully informed decision.

Herbalife Announces FTC Investigation

Herbalife announced that the FTC has initiated an investigation. While it’s not pleasant to deal with a government subpoena, this gives Herbalife an opportunity to put this issue to rest. Watch the video below to get my thoughts. In summary, I believe the FTC will use the data it collects from Herbalife to sharpen its saw in an effort to create better guidelines for network marketing companies. They’re not going to sue Herbalife (though I’m sure they’re thinking about it). If you’re reading this via email, click here to watch the video. The paper referenced in my video can be found embedded below (or here).
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Zeek Receiver Sues Insiders: Paul Burks and Others Served With Lawsuit

Hat tip to Don Ryan over at ASD Updates for breaking the story on the lawsuit.

 

FTC Responds to Senator Markey’s Letter about Herbalife

MLM LawIn January of 2013, Senator Markey from Massachusetts called upon the FTC to investigate Herbalife. I made three predictions regarding the FTC’s response to Markey’s letter. I predicted: (1) The FTC would respond AFTER Markey’s requested dealing (Feb. 28); (2) the FTC would say nothing about Herbalife’s business model; and (3) the FTC would use this as an opportunity to start a broader conversation to help add clarity to the “gray” in the industry.

Well, there are two ways to look at my predictions regarding the FTC’s response.  I was either 66% wrong or 33% right. I’ll let you decide;)

The FTC’s letter to Markey is below. If you’re reading this via email, click here to read the letter.

The letter is easy to understand and interpret. Basically, the FTC cannot comment about Herbalife (which was the one prediction I got right). This is a quick summary of the letter:

85% of the letter was spent justifying the existence of the agency. I’ve paraphrased this part of the letter: “We’re busy and we’ve had a number of successes recently with respect to pyramid schemes and weight loss claims. While some say we’re dormant, we’re doing our best.”

The remaining 15% contains their response regarding Herbalife. It’s included below. I’ve paraphrased: “Thanks for bringing these concerns to our attention. We’re not able to talk about it. Just FYI, we assess a number of factors before making a decision to take actions. The factors referenced here are nebulous so as not to commit ourselves to anything specific. If consumers are having problems, give them our information.”

I have mixed thoughts about this response. I was hoping for something with more substance…something about their vision for the industry. But alas, we’ll save the discussion for improvements for a later date. At some point, the industry needs some help. The regulators are not able to squish all of the bad guys, which has led to a dirty environment.

With respect to the allegations against Herbalife, Ltd., a number of statutory provisions and the Commission Rules of Practice prevent me from discussing what action, if any, the Commission may take in any particular situation. I can assure you, however, that the information you provided and the concerns you expressed are being carefully considered. In general, in determining whether to take enforcement or other action, the Commission may consider a number of factors, including the nature of the practices at issue; the type of violation alleged; the likelihood of preventing future unlawful conduct and securing redress or other relief; the nature and amount of consumer injury at issue; and the number of consumers affected.

Complaints from consumers can provide valuable information that we frequently use to identify deceptive and unfair practices in the marketplace. Therefore, please encourage your constituents to file their complaints with the FTC, in English or in Spanish, by visiting the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant at https://www.ftc.gov/complaint or by calling 1-877- FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).

Senator Markey’s Letter to the FTC: Prediction

Recently, Senator Markey from Massachusetts called upon the FTC to investigate Herbalife.  His full letter is included below. Click here to read if you’re reading via email. It’s worth mentioning that that the letter was likely originated by someone at Pershing Square, as observed by John Hempton. Markey has useful letterhead, being a U.S. Senator and all. I digress…

These are my predictions:

  • The FTC will respond. While Markey’s letter called for a response by February 28, I’m guessing they’ll respond after the deadline but by late April.
  • The FTC is not going to respond specifically about Herbalife. Three points worth mentioning here: (1) The FTC lacks the data to provide any meaningful commentary about Herbalife; (2) If the FTC had a problem with Herbalife, they’re not going to announce same at the behest of a Senator; and most importantly (3) Herbalife is not a pyramid scheme.  Ackman is playing another confidence game, and the market has grown immune to his tricks.
  • The FTC is going to take this as an opportunity to start a broader discussion about the network marketing space.  There’s an ocean of gray that separates legitimate network marketing companies from illegal pyramid schemes.  As a result of this ambiguity, fraudulent programs are flying under the guise of network marketing, claiming legitimacy because they’re “just like Amway.”  In my opinion, this is the underbelly of the space that the FTC needs to address, not companies like Herbalife.  What will these guidelines look like in the future?  That’s a different set of predictions for another time.

The video is a short one. I hope you find it informative. If you’re reading this via email, please click here to view the video.

Update: Herbalife’s CEO, Michael Johnson, personally wrote a response to Senator Markey. It’s also included below.

So You’ve Heard I’ve Been Retained?

In this video, I explain what it means when our firm is retained by a network marketing client. The fact that I’m retained should never be viewed as an endorsement of the program. There’s a lot that goes one when I’m working with a client and I make it very clear that my name is never to be used in a promotional sense i.e. “We hired Kevin Thompson and he says we’re a great company.” I want you to have a better understanding of what it means when I’m retained by a client. Watch this video to understand more.

The Cease and Desist

lawyer_joke_accounting_cartoon

If you’ve been in business for very long, there’s a good chance you’ve received what I call an “eat s%@#” letter from a lawyer. These are commonly referred to as “cease and desist” letters and are designed to serve two functions:

  • Intimidate the other side in an effort to get them to stop doing something; and,
  • Put the other side on notice that if the bad behavior persists, they could get sued.

Cease and desist letters are commonly used by network marketing companies when distributors are raiding the downline.  I’ve sent dozens of these letters to disgruntled distributors on behalf of companies, usually with a bit of discomfort while hoping the information I’m fed is accurate.  This is my litmus test I explain to clients before sending a C&D: if they’re willing to spend the money to sue the other party if the letter is ignored, I’ll send it. Otherwise, I’m not interested in allowing a client to take a gamble with my credentials.  I’m not a fan of sending hollow threats.  When someone sees a C&D on Thompson Burton letterhead, it needs to be known that we follow up, otherwise C&Ds are meaningless.

Negative Online Commentary

Negative online commentary is the cost of doing business. If you’re doing anything meaningful, there’s going to be some skeptical people. And if you’re doing something shady, there’s going to be a lot of skeptical people, some of whom will choose to write an article about you or your business. It’s the nature of the internet. We all have the power to publish content at the push of a few keys. While I have several thoughts on how companies should deal with negative online articles, I’m going to focus instead on what they should NOT do: have their lawyers send Cease and Desist letters.

In all of my years seeing online publishers post negative commentary about companies here and there, I have never once seen an author actually heed the C&D (hey, that rhymes). Troy Dooly gets them. BusinessForHome gets them. And now we can add Oz over at BehindMLM to the list. Oz was recently sent a C&D regarding his review about “BidsForMyMeds.” And what was the result? The article was not pulled down. On the contrary, Oz dedicated another article to the business and made the poor lawyer famous. Unless a company is willing to defend itself publicly on a platform it does not control, it should always lead with a hand shake instead of a handgun. Be proactive instead of reactive. I have yet to see an instance where an online author posts blatant lies about a company or person. In that scenario, it might make sense to throw a punch. In nearly all cases, the authors are providing their opinions. As biased as those opinions might be, they’re still opinions and given broad protections under the First Amendment.

Scope of the First Amendment

When you’re thinking about calling your lawyer to send one of these nasty-grams to an online meanie, it’s important to understand the limits of First Amendment protections. Below, I’ve inserted some notes from one my talks a few years ago with respect to the First Amendment and blogging. Bottom line: save the Cease and Desist for those occasions when the damages are real, you’re justified and you’re fully prepared to go the distance. Otherwise, throw water on the fire instead of gasoline by reaching out human-to-human and engaging in a conversation. Keep your emotions under control.

If you’ve received a C&D, how did you handle it?

Beginning of my notes

DEFAMATION

A statement is defamatory if it “tends to injure the plaintiff’s reputation and expose the plaintiff to public hatred, contempt, ridicule, or degradation.” Phipps v. Clark Oil & Ref. Corp., 408 N.W.2d 569, 573 (Minn. 1987).
The defendant must have known or should have known that the communication was false. The statement must also have been a statement of fact.

Defamation Per se

Some statements are so defamatory that they are considered defamation per se; and the plaintiff need not prove that the statements harmed his reputation. The classic examples of defamation per se are allegations of serious sexual misconduct; allegations of serious criminal misbehavior; or allegations that a person is afflicted with a loathsome disease.

What Constitutes Injury to Reputation?

The plaintiff must establish proof of damage to reputation in order to recover any damages for mental anguish; see Gobin v. Globe Publishing Co., 232 Kan. 1, 649 P.2d 1239, 1244 (1982).

Libel-proof plaintiffs

Some plaintiffs have such poor reputations to begin with, they are considered “libel- proof.” A plaintiff is “libel-proof” when his reputation has been irreparably stained by prior publications. At the point the challenged statements are published, then, plaintiff’s reputation is already so damaged that a plaintiff cannot recover more than nominal damages for subsequent defamatory statements. Marcone v. Penthouse Int’l Magazine for Men, 754 F.2d 1072, 1079 (3rd Cir. 1985).

Defenses to Defamation

Truth is an absolute defense.

If the communication is designed as a parody where a reasonable audience would not confuse it as factual, it is not actionable. Falwell v. Hustler Magazine. In Falwell, the Supreme Court held, “At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern. The freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty – and thus a good unto itself – but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole. We have therefore been particularly vigilant to ensure that individual expressions of ideas remain free from governmentally imposed sanctions.”

In the mid-80s, Hustler magazine printed a satirical advertisement talking about Jerry Falwell’s “first time” with liquor. The advertisement was a play on words that made it seem like Jerry was talking about his “first time” with his mother. Since the advertisement was clearly a parody and one where a reasonable audience would know that the statements were not factual, Jerry Falwell lost his lawsuit.

“Actual Malice”

If the Plaintiff is considered a Public Official or Public Figure, they have to prove that the Defendant acted with malicious intent to harm the Plaintiff. It’s an extra element that makes it more difficult for public figures to file suit against their detractors.

What’s a Public Figure/Official

In general, Public Officials are individuals that hold public office while public figures are individuals that are in the forefront of particular issues.

Large, publicly traded companies are typically treated as “public figures” for purposes of First Amendment cases. If a citizen lashes out at Comcast and communicates false statements. Comcast would have the additional burden of proving that the individual acted with malicious intent to harm the company.

Opinion defenses

The First Amendment protects statements of opinion, as distinct from statements of fact, against claims of defamation. A statement is an opinion when:

(1) the statement is genuinely believed; and
(2) that there is a reasonable basis for that belief; and
(3) that the speaker is not aware of any undisclosed facts tending to undermine the accuracy of the statement.

Prefacing a sentence with “in my opinion” is not always the cure. Statements of opinions can be actionable when one of the above factors is absent.

– end notes –

Dawn Olivares, Operations Officer for Zeek Rewards, Pleads Guilty To Two Counts of Fraud

Dawn Olivares, operations officer at Zeek Rewards, pled guilty today to two counts of criminal charges for her involvement with the ponzi scheme. The SEC broke the story this morning in an article titled “SEC Charges Woman and Stepson for Involvement in ZeekRewards Ponzi and Pyramid Scheme.” The copy of Dawn’s guilty plea is signed below (hat tip to Don Ryan over at ASD Updates for finding the document). She pled guilty to both counts levied against her: Count 1 = Securities and Wire Fraud. Count II = Conspiracy to Defraud the IRS. Both counts carry a maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment. The charges were filed and a plea was entered the same day, which tells me this was all negotiated between Olivares and the federal authorities. We’ll see what kind of penalty shakes out of this. See below for an excerpt from the SEC’s press release:

The SEC alleges that Dawn Wright-Olivares and Daniel Olivares, who each now live in Arkansas, provided operational support, marketing, and computer expertise to sustain ZeekRewards.com, which offered and sold securities in the form of “premium subscriptions” and “VIP bids” for penny auctions. While the website conveyed the impression that the significant payouts to investors meant the company was extremely profitable, the payouts actually bore no relation to the company’s net profits. Approximately 98 percent of total revenues for ZeekRewards – and correspondingly the share of purported net profits paid to investors – were comprised of funds received from new investors rather than legitimate retail sales.

If you’re reading this via email, click here to download a copy of the guilty plea.

Article on Seeking Alpha: Ackman’s Folly With Herbalife: 7 Assumptions That Led Him Astray

I published an article on Seeking Alpha yesterday. SA is a site dedicated to stock analysis. As a wannabe-tech nerd, I think their site is brilliant. People interested in a stock can subscribe to receive updates when articles are published about the specific stock. If you have the mobile app, you’re notified when new articles are live. Herbalife has been a widely discussed stock over the past year. It’s been almost a year since Bill Ackman gave his first presentation about Herbalife. In this article, I outline the seven assumptions that caused Ackman to miss big. The article got 90+ comments on day 1. Some favorable, some not-so-favorable.

Check it. Chime in. Share.

Bill Ackman’s Folly With Herbalife: 7 Assumptions That Led Him Astray