Direct Selling: The Great Equalizer and Opportunity

This article was written by the former President of the DSA, Neil Offen. It was published in Direct Selling News magazine. The article was so well-written that I requested permission to republish on my site. In the article, Neil dispels of several myths about network marketing and he casts a strong vision on ways to improve its reputation. I’ll gladly share my site with anyone willing to LEAD the industry in a better direction. At a time when the industry is being attacked by people with a financial incentive to bring it all down, this content is important and it’s very worthy of your attention. +Kevin Thompson

By Neil H. Offen

Neil Offen New Perspectives Direct Selling

It has been slightly over two years since I retired after 40 years with the Direct Selling Association (DSA), first as a staff attorney and lobbyist and eventually as President and CEO. In addition, I was there at the creation of the Direct Selling Education Foundation (DSEF) and the World Federation of Direct Selling Associations (WFDSA), serving as Vice Chairman and Secretary General, respectively, of those two organizations.

I have spent some 42 years in our industry—the reality is that it’s a method of distribution more than an industry per se—representing it, protecting it, promoting it and policing it. To say the least, I have seen much change, much adaptation, and much growth and innovation during that period. At the same time, I have seen the industry’s core values remain focused on empowering people one individual at a time, seen it being led by women and men of integrity and high moral character, and seen a continuing commitment to and passion for our distributors by corporate management.

I have also witnessed a spirit of service by our industry and its companies, their personnel and their representatives in the field in the various communities in which they operate. Given all of the good that our industry represents, it is disappointing to see the negative attacks on it. At this juncture in the road, the direct selling industry faces the question: Do we let our critics define us or do we take steps to make sure we better control our own reputation?

To explain what I mean, I will be focusing on four areas. One disclaimer that I need to make at the outset is that I am speaking for myself and only myself. I am not representing the DSA, the WFDSA or any other entity.

The four areas I will discuss are the industry’s attributes, the negative myths and canards leveled against it, the actions that can harm the reputation of the industry, and finally, what I see as possible solutions and courses of action that will continue to protect, promote and enhance the reputation of the direct selling industry. I use the terms sales personsconsultantsdistributors and representatives interchangeably throughout the article.

Do we let our critics define us or do we take steps to make sure we better control our own reputation?

Direct Selling Attributes: What Are They?

All of us working in direct selling believe in its positive attributes. I’ve listed here those truths about the direct selling opportunity that I believe are most powerful:

  1. It empowers people. Its diversity is without bounds. It offers opportunities for people to set their own objectives, great or small, through full- or part-time efforts, for career opportunities or merely for supplemental income. It is an industry that directly ties reward to effort. It does not discriminate based on race, gender, national origin, religion, age, physical condition, educational background, political beliefs or financial resources;
  2. It provides unlimited flexibility for the individual to achieve her or his own   goals and control the time spent in the business as well as how that time is spent;
  3. It drives micro-enterprise development wherever it operates—in a world seeking and needing such enterprises—and is a robust, grassroots source of business skills education, guidance and training;
  4. It motivates people through providing recognition, quality products and services, technical resources and an overall nurturing environment with ongoing symbiotic support;
  5. It provides opportunities with minimal capital investment or risk of loss;
  6. It provides consumers with outstanding product warranties and guarantees in each marketplace in which it operates;
  7. Its rules and standards, through company policies and through the independently administered direct selling associations’ codes of ethics, protect both salespeople and their consumers from abuse;
  8. It is a simple business, though not necessarily an easy one, and due to the independent contractor status of each salesperson, it allows great ease of entry and egress;
  9. It is global in nature and borderless in promotion of common core values and ethical standards;
  10. It is innovative, adaptive and technologically friendly;
  11. It has a strong public service and corporate social responsibility orientation at both the corporate management and the individual distributor levels;
  12. It offers social contacts in a world where more and more people are becoming isolated from one another;
  13. It is cause-oriented where its distributors believe in the product or service or opportunity and that they are helping to fill a valuable need of friends, family, neighbors and the public at large; and
  14. It is a source of social and economic stability and opportunity within all its markets

“Direct selling motivates people through providing recognition, quality products and services, technical resources and an overall nurturing environment with ongoing symbiotic support.”

Myths and Canards

Several untrue assertions regarding our industry permeate the Internet and mainstream news media. The following are some of the misstatements or outright lies often attributed to our business model.

Myth No. 1: All—or almost all—people who participate in direct selling lose money.

In my experience, the reality is that an overwhelming majority of people who join a direct selling company to sell products and build a business do profit from it. DSA research shows that over 80 percent of business-oriented recruits have very modest goals when joining a company and the vast majority, whether still with the firm or no longer in the industry, have their expectations met or exceeded. The distributors earning the highest level of income are the business builders who typically spend significant time on the business selling, recruiting, motivating and training distributors and consumers in their organizations. They generally constitute between 10 percent and 20 percent of the salesforce. There is nothing wrong or unethical about this model, and this is similar to most non-direct selling retail sales organizations.

In addition, the industry has implemented safeguards against financial loss. The biggest protection against financial loss for all participating in our business is the unconditional product money-back guarantees for consumers and, for sales people, our minimum 90 percent inventory buy-back. All DSAs require their member companies to offer buy-back protection to all their distributors. Membership in a DSA is an added protection from abuse for sales people, potential sales people and consumers.

“DSA research shows that over 80 percent of business-oriented recruits have very modest goals when joining a company and the vast majority … have their expectations met or exceeded.”

Myth No. 2: Self-consumption by sales persons is a problematic practice.

In fact, there is no binding precedent that establishes that a set amount of sales must be sold to persons outside the sales organization. The seminal FTC/Amway case in 1979 created a “70% rule,” but that rule only applied to the requirement that the distributors certify that they had sold at least 70 percent of their inventory in the prior month before they could be permitted to buy additional inventory. (Note: This case was long before the industry adopted the 90 percent inventory buy-back standard as part of the DSA Code of Ethics, which occurred in the mid-1990s.)

Our industry’s standard of the buy-back removes the possibility of inventory loading if the firm is bound by the buy-back and it is properly administered. A distributor who purchases a product to personally consume it is a “consumer,” and there is nothing inherently wrong with paying compensation on these product sales.

Myth No. 3: Multilevel direct sales firms will fail due to geometric progression and turnover rates.

This simply may seem logical mathematically, but only if you start with the assumption that everyone is purchasing products solely to qualify to earn large amounts of compensation by creating a network and earning compensation on similar downline purchases. It does not occur in the real world because the assumption is faulty. Most persons signing up as salespeople in our industry are either seeking to buy product at a discount or for supplemental income, putting in less than 11 hours per week, and not that much in every week.

The FTC tried to make the geometric progression argument to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in the Ger-Ro-Mar Inc.  vs. FTCcase back in 1975. Ger-Ro-Mar sold bras and lingerie. In the words of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals:

“We find no flaw in the mathematics or the extrapolation [presented by the FTC] and agree that the prospect of a quarter of a billion brassiere and girdle hawkers is not only impossible but frightening to contemplate, particularly since it is in excess of the present population of the Nation, only about half of whom hopefully are prospective lingerie consumers. However, we live in a real world and not fantasyland (emphasis added).”

As stated above, the reality is that a majority join a direct sales firm either after having been a customer or wishing to buy its products at a discounted price. Most sales people and most direct sales firms market low-ticket, consumable products, and my educated guess is that over 50 percent of such sales people are sales people in name only. They buy the firms’ products at a discounted price for personal consumption and do not sell products or recruit other distributors. This percentage of “discount buyers” may approach over 90 percent of the salesforce of some firms and account for over 90 percent of product sales.

As with any sales organization, the industry experiences a high rate of turnover in its salesforce, but people join and leave a salesforce for a variety of reasons. For example, if a woman was working only one month before Christmas to earn Christmas present money, she would contribute to the high turnover rate even though she might return year after year for decades during the Christmas season. In addition, based on data that I have seen over the years, many sales people sell for more than one direct sales firm during the year, either simultaneously or at different times. I believe that between 10 percent and 20 percent of the sales organization falls into this category, thereby overstating turnover rates.

One final point on the geometric progression canard: I believe that the turnover rate of retail store personnel and franchise employees is very high. Strange that we don’t hear more about that and the fact that some work in retail stores because they are given employee discounts as part of their compensation plan. According to recent data, retail store employee discounts are often extended to the employee’s family and even sometimes to friends.

“The percentage of “discount buyers” may approach over 90 percent of the salesforce of some firms and account for over 90 percent of product sales.”

Actions That Can Harm the Reputation of the Industry

The reputation of our industry can be negatively impacted by a number of factors including the following:

1. Misconduct by a Member of a Salesforce

As sales people in any industry, most participants in direct selling conduct business in an ethical and consumer- and recruit-friendly manner. It is unfortunate but true that the reputation of the industry is negatively impacted if a participant inappropriately markets products or the income opportunity in a misleading way. Given the millions of participants in the direct selling industry, even the acts of a small percentage of participants can create significant reputational harm. Examples of acts that can damage the industry’s reputation include:

  • Exaggerated earnings claims made to prospective recruits;
  • Exaggerated or false product claims;
  • High-pressure recruiting and sales tactics; and
  • Excessive non-corporate training/motivational expenses.

2. Business Practices

It is also important that companies properly evaluate business initiatives and compensation incentives before they are implemented to make sure they do not motivate or incentivize problematic behavior.  For example, I believe that compensating the salesforce for sign-up fees—which is one strong indicator of a possible pyramid scheme—as well as sales kits and aids, samples, and training fees and materials can create an incentive that increases the cost of the investment to join the business and the associated potential risk of loss to a new participant.

“It is important that companies properly evaluate business initiatives and compensation incentives before they are implemented to make sure they do not motivate or incentivize problematic behavior.”

3. Enforcement of Distributor Policies and Codes of Ethics

If a company fails to diligently monitor the activities of its salesforce and enforce its ethical standards, regulations and policies, it will ultimately contribute to inappropriate actions that damage not only the reputation of the company but also the industry. A large number of participants join our industry each month, which makes it an imperative that companies adequately train the salesforce on marketing claims, legal requirements and the industry’s code of ethics. Companies cannot be passive in this effort.

My Vision

Having touched upon some of the attributes, myths and problematic practices, let me now turn to a view of the future that maximizes our positive attributes and potentially helps quash some of the negative stereotypes and myths that presently afflict us. Here are my high-level recommendations for the industry that I believe will further strengthen the industry and its reputation.

1. Continue to Enhance Consumer Protective Measures

I believe our industry has done a remarkable job developing consumer and distributor protective policies and codes of ethics. The industry standard of a 12-month return policy plays a critical role in protecting distributors from inventory loading risks. Unconditional 100 percent consumer product money-back guarantees should continue to be encouraged.

The DSA Code of Ethics establishes a baseline of important ethical practices for companies to follow. It is important that we continue to evaluate whether there are additional measures that can be adopted to further enhance the protection of consumers and distributors. The following are areas where I think additional protections may be beneficial to consumers, distributors and the industry:

Compensation Summary: I believe the industry should adopt and implement an industry-wide standard of transparency and disclosure regarding various relevant aspects of compensation earned by its salesforce members. Many of our companies already make such disclosures, which provide prospective recruits with protection from misleading claims that could be made by a participant in the salesforce. No one can criticize us if we provide full disclosure of earnings. Presenting prospective recruits with detailed distributor earnings data during the recruiting process as well as on our websites and in our literature will eliminate most of the risk of the salesforce exaggerating the opportunities we are offering.

It is important that such disclosure be complete and provide sufficient information to furnish a fair overview of the earnings potential. Creating an industry standard will assist other companies and provide a norm they can follow. Once in place, all companies taking this transparency approach would be free from any charges of financially misleading members and prospective members of the salesforce.

Minimizing Risk of Loss: A critical component of the industry’s code of ethics is its 12-month inventory return policy, which was adopted to reduce the risk of loss for new participants. Salespeople utilizing the return policies should be able to do so easily and expeditiously. The industry also needs to remain diligent in monitoring and evaluating trends and developments in business practices and activities of direct sellers to identify additional measures that should be adopted to ensure the industry always has comprehensive measures to protect consumers and distributors.

For example, I recommend that it should be made more clear that the current buy-back policy includes other purchases by new participants in the business such as sales aids, training costs and starter kits. I believe that DSAs should promulgate code provisions to codify some of the best practices in the industry, including restricting payments on certain types of compensation.

“I believe the industry should adopt and implement an industry-wide standard of transparency and disclosure regarding various relevant aspects of compensation earned by its salesforce members.”

 

2. Educate Our Constituencies

  • Members in the DSAs should take the opportunity to participate in industry research and surveys done by outside third-party firms retained by DSAs so that the industry will have accurate and credible data for use with the press, governmental entities, academia and other constituencies.
  • Member companies can further increase their focus on educating their salesforce and customers regarding compliance policies and codes of ethics. Having a salesforce that is knowledgeable about the code of ethics—and their responsibilities under such code—is important to the long-term success of our industry. Member companies should have the necessary compliance staff and provide the training to accomplish this. I believe the head of this function should report to the CEO or general counsel. Companies should also have a whistle-blower system in place.
  • Member companies should work to further improve their customer relations departments with a philosophy of total consumer and distributor satisfaction and excellent service. This is not just good business, it’s also smart business.
  • There should be ongoing and significant public education efforts portraying the industry as it truly is, through public relations efforts based on solid data and useful information, public service activities, promotion of quality research, excellent use of social media channels and targeted projects to educate key influencers in society (e.g., legislators, regulators, the financial press, the “style” and general news media, academia, think tanks and consumer protection organizations). We have an opportunity to tell “our story,” much more effectively. This will require substantially increased financial commitments by the companies to those efforts.
  • Annually, the WFDSA global “best practices” exchanges will ensure our industry is operating in all our markets on a consistent basis, at the highest ethical levels, and with the most effective ways to protect our corporate interests through taking the high road in building and sustaining our reputation, image and brand. Strengthening DSAs across the globe strengthens our industry. All industry firms should belong to the national DSA in the countries in which they operate.

Conclusion

Now is not the time to relax in our efforts to be a consumer-friendly, consumer-protective industry. This is critical to our long-term success and the success of the people who rely on this industry for income opportunities and life-enhancing products. We must constantly evaluate our business trends and practices and be willing to take additional steps to protect our industry and its participants.

Having worked in 50 countries throughout my career, I have seen that the DSAs that are most successful are those with the support of the majority of companies in the country. I believe strong DSAs are critical to success, and I can’t emphasize enough that all industry companies should be members of the association in the countries in which they do business to most effectively do the job necessary on behalf of the industry.

“Now is not the time to relax in our efforts to be a consumer-friendly, consumer-protective industry”

Our business model not only works, but it is also a good thing for free enterprise, society and individual freedom. Its success is built on maintaining existing and establishing new personal relationships based on truth and trust. We and our sales people want happy customers and satisfied recruits. We and our sales people want to be good corporate citizens and contribute to society. In other words, we and our sales people want to do well while doing good.

The original article is published on the Direct Selling News website. Direct Selling News is the trade magazine serving direct selling and network marketing executives since 2004. Subscriptions are available in the App Store and Google Play Store via this link: http://directsellingnews.com/index.php/dsn/app

MLM Detractor Blatantly Mischaracterizes the Law: Ignores Facts and Precedence

Bruce CraigRetired Wisconsin litigator, Bruce Craig, wrote an article featured on Seeking Alpha titled, “An Investor’s Guide to Identifying Pyramid Schemes.” While the title certainly implies a hint of objectivity, it’s simply false advertising . In a nutshell, the author holds on to his long-standing, 30+ year view that all MLMs are pyramids. Unfortunately, Craig willfully omits several well-known facts that obliterate his entire argument. It’s this kind of willful omission that makes him guilty of the very behavior he claims to be against.

Bruce’s thesis is simple: When analyzing a MLM for legality, retail sales do not matter…at all. In fact, he essentially concludes that all MLMs are illegal. If there’s any sort of recruitment element to a program, it’s “inherently deceptive” due to their “exponential characteristics.” In other words, with no limits on recruitment, epic doom is inevitable. This “all MLMs are pyramids” rationale is made crystal clear in Bruce Craig’s 2009 letter to the FTC when he says, “[The Amway case] has effectively legitimized pyramids, now called MLM’s.”

True North

I always respect people’s right to voice their opinions. While I might disagree with the points, I think good, open dialogue is the only path to progress. But…in the Seeking Alpha article, Bruce crosses a line. He is not providing objective, well-researched information to investors, as implied in the title. He’s making a carefully crafted argument. The article is “Outcome Determinative,” meaning he begins with the end in mind (all MLMs are pyramids) and stitches quotes together in support his argument. While making his argument, he leaves out several material bits of information.

Bruce Craig’s “True North” is ultimately protection of consumers. When he says he cares about consumers, I believe him. But as Abe Lincoln said in the recent movie (“Lincoln”), “What good is True North if you end up stuck in a swamp?” At some point, critics like Bruce need to be practical. Taking the position that all MLMs are illegal immediately removes you from the conversation. Completely. And without influence, there’s no change. The industry is not going away. Instead of drawing hard lines and praying for a nuclear bomb to decimate the entire industry, wiping out even the cleanest of companies, he and critics like him should try to offer suggestions to make the industry better. I have a personal experience of being hammered with the political process. I tried to pass an anti-pyramid bill in Tennessee in 2010. The bill was killed by the DSA. Instead of whining about the political process (as done in nearly every article posted by critics), I joined the DSA. I’m a firm believer that the right ideas win over time. Bruce’s article lacks objectivity, which is why it will only serve to excite the critics and be largely ignored by everyone else, including regulators.

I’m going to address Bruce’s points in no particular order.

Market Uncertainty With Respect to MLMs

When writing about his motivation for the article, Bruce writes, “The recent incident involving David Einhorn and Herbalife (HLF) drew my attention to the stock market and the subject of pyramid schemes. It seemed that the significant drop in Herbalife’s stock price reflected a market uncertainty about the inherent stability and legality of this company.”

This is false. As a quick recap, Einhorn asked a few questions during an earnings call with Herbalife. During the call with Einhorn and shortly thereafter, Herbalife’s stock dropped 20% ($1.7 Billion loss in value). The market was not reacting to uncertainties about Herbalife’s model, the market was reacting to Einhorn. Einhorn is a legend on Wall Street, having successfully shorted multiple companies, including Lehman Brothers and Green Mountain Coffee. The market perceived that Einhorn smelled blood with Herbalife. Herbalife’s stock dropped 10% during Einhorn’s 5 minute conversation on the earnings call. 5 minutes is hardly enough time for analysts to research MLM law and thoughtfully conclude that the Herbalife stock was junk. They were reacting to Einhorn. Despite this “market uncertainty,” the other publicly traded companies in the MLM industry are doing just fine. The average rate of return on the publicly traded MLMs is well over 30%, soundly beating the DOW, NASDAQ and the S&P 500. It’s not even close.

Misleading Analysis on BurnLounge

In his article, Craig referenced a definition in the judge’s final order against BurnLounge. This case represents the most recent case against a pyramid scheme. In the final order, the court defined “Prohibited Marketing Scheme” as:

An illegal pyramid sales scheme . . . in which participants pay money or valuable consideration in return for which they obtain the right to receive rewards for recruiting other participants into the program, and those rewards are unrelated to the sale of products or services to ultimate users. For purposes of this definition, ‘sale of products or services to ultimate users does not include sales to other participants or recruits or to the participants’ own accounts.

If you were to read this definition out of context, it would certainly seem that it’s illegal to pay commissions on product consumption generated by distributors (known as internal consumption). In fact, if interpreted literally, this sort of definition would spell the end of the network marketing industry, period. Bruce takes advantage of this quote and contrasts it with a seemingly contradictory statement the FTC made in 2004. In the FTC’s Advisory Memo to the DSA, it said, “In fact, the amount of internal consumption in any multi-level compensation business does not determine whether or not the FTC will consider the plan a pyramid scheme.

There are 3 key facts that Bruce fails to mention:

1) The definition in the BurnLounge order is IDENTICAL to the definition found in another case against a pyramid scheme twelve years ago (FTC vs. Equinox). The FTC’s advisory memo quoted by Bruce came well after the Equinox case. The FTC made its position clear: Paying commissions on internal consumption is fine.

2) The definition that Bruce quoted was specifically limited to the BurnLounge case. First, it’s clear when it reads, “For purposes of this Final Judgment….the following definitions shall apply.” Second, Bruce failed to reference the other part of the FTC’s memo…the one that clearly says that the definitions found in the Orders do not represent the “general state of the law.” It’s pretty important…and he left it out. The memo says,

[T]he FTC often enters into consent orders with individuals and companies that the Commission has determined have violated the FTC act. To protect the public from those who demonstrated unwillingness follow the law, these orders often contain provisions that place extra constraints upon a wrongdoer that do not apply to the general public. These ‘fencing-in’ provisions only apply to the defendant signing the order. . .”.

It’s crystal clear. Despite what Bruce was suggesting in his article, the FTC was not contradicting itself in the BurnLounge order. It’s doing exactly what it’s been doing over the past twenty years. Bruce Craig is not a disinterested reporter looking to provide help for investors. He’s an opportunist taking advantage of media generated by David Einhorn to lob a grenade at an industry he clearly hates.

3) Bruce fails to reference the BurnLounge Statement of Decision. Prior to the Final Order, the judge wrote a 31 page opinion where he stated his conclusion about BurnLounge. I summarized this BurnLounge Statement of Decision on my site. While Bruce argues that retail sales have no place in pyramid scheme analysis, the judge in BurnLounge dedicated almost 10 pages to the value of the BurnLounge product (or lack thereof). He ultimately concluded that the products had SOME marginal value; thus, he discounted the amount of consumer harm. If everything hinged on the “exponential characteristics” of the marketing plan, as submitted by Bruce, there would be zero need to discuss the product. Bottom line: retail sales DO matter. If the products have legitimate value as demonstrated by retail sales, it’s indicative of a legitimate program. Speaking of retail sales, even the FTC’s own economist, Peter VanderNat, wrote about the importance of retail sales when distinguishing legitimate MLMs from pyramids. There’s just no way around it: retail sales matter.

The rationale that led Bruce Craig to reference a single sentence out of context while ignoring the 31 page Statement of Decision is beyond me.

Tolman Case

While Bruce was eager to reference two pyramid cases from over 35 years ago, he ignores a case that was published in 2004. In Tolman, the court held that paying commissions on downline purchases “does not, by itself, render a multi-level marketing scheme an illegal pyramid.” Paying commissions on internal consumption is perfectly legal.

Bottom Line

Critics are desperate. It’s not just Bruce Craig. There have been a number of negative reports lately, all having commonality on a certain line of thought: “MLMs say that everyone can win….and since people fail, it’s fraud.” They’ll use words like “destined to collapse” without referencing a single case of market saturation. And they’ll never reference the technology tools available today that eliminate all geographic barriers for distributors; thus, negating their saturation arguments. They simply hate the space and they want it gone. And now they’re growing angry because they’ve been largely ignored by the FTC over the past several years. It’s not a surprise: their position is logically, politically and economically untenable.

The space needs to improve. I agree on that point. I’ve written exhaustively about my ideas to improve the MLM space. The industry is not perfect, but it’s still a great space. And whether the critics like it or not, the business model is accelerating. Peer to peer advertising is a much more cost effective and efficient means of distributing unique products and services. While I agree that the space needs to improve, I take exception when another lawyer makes an argument while leaving out material information. It’s just poor form.

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DSA Convention 2012 – Inspiring Entrepreneurs

This year’s DSA annual meeting was held in Dallas, Texas. It was a really cool event! We had phenomenal speakers, the best being none other than George W. Bush. I was skeptical before joining the DSA two years ago. I’m just not a “trade association” kind of guy. I’m so happy I joined! It’s a great organization charged with a complicated and important task of representing the interests of a very diverse industry. While I give the DSA a hard time about not doing enough with respect to the DSA’s pyramid legislation, I understand that it’s hard for a trade association to pivot when it’s trying to appease hundreds of companies, each with a unique set of needs and concerns.

Below are some of my favorite pictures from the DSA convention.

IMG 4896

I have a lot of respect for Richard Bliss Brooke. He’s been very supportive of my participation in the DSA.  He encouraged me to get involved in both the Ethics Committee and the Government Relations Committee.  As someone that wanted to positively impact the direct sales community, getting involved with those committees was a crucial first step. He also gave me a kick in the ass to get started on my book. I made a commitment to get the content done by September 3. I’ve got a lot of work to do!

IMG 4897

Joe Mariano is someone else I hold in high esteem.  As the president of the DSA, he’s got a very challenging job. As a trade association, the DSA is comprised of over 100 member companies and a few hundred supplier members.  He’s got the difficult job of aggregating the collective will of that community while leading a team that follows legislation all across the country.  It’s really incredible when you think about the complexity of the entire operation. Joe has been very generous in allowing me to be part of the important conversations about the industry.  

Gerald Nehra is one of the kindest men I’ve ever met.  He’s also a great competitor.  He was one of the original MLM attorneys.  Without him, I’m not sure if I’d be having as much fun right now.  And he’s got a very kind, loving and generous wife.  For two years straight, I’ve attended the convention stag.  I’ve never been able to bring my wife, which makes it weird showing up at a party solo.  Both years, Gerry found me and invited me to sit at his table. I always enjoy chatting with him and his partner, Richard.  In reality, there’s only a handful of competitors that are serious players in the industry. Nehra and Waak are two of them.

By far, The most moving moment was when Rich DeVos welcomed his two boys, Rich and Doug, into the DSA Hall of Fame. I’ll be honest….I shed a tear or two. As a father of three children, I was simply amazed at the unique moment Rich DeVos got to share with his two sons. It made me assess my path and wonder if I was on track to leave a lasting legacy for my children as Rich has done for his. With Rich on stage, telling stories about the start of Amway, and seeing the pride in his eyes when his boys took the stage…it was just awesome. I recorded his speech, without permission. I’m not sure if that’s ok. But until someone says otherwise, check it out below.

This is my full library of pictures from the DSA event.  Unfortunately, I didn’t take very many.

Minnesota MLM Survey – Ignore It

By way of the Lawyer’s Council and Government Relations Committee, I learned of a “survey” that’s being sent to all network marketers in the state of Minnesota.  See below.  As explained to me, their Department of Revenue is trying hard to  build a case that MLM companies have a nexus to Minnesota for the purposes of income tax.  Apparently (I’m not an expert with taxes), the questions are clearly slanted towards establishing a nexus.  The Department of Revenue in Minnesota smells money in the MLM space and they’re looking to score.  

Call of (No) Action

Ignore the survey.  We’ve been advised to discourage salespeople from responding.  The survey is optional.  If you have members of your team in Minnesota and you hear about this survey, tell them in your best Italian accent “Forget about it!”

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ACES Radio Live With Troy Dooly and Jim Gillhouse

When both Troy Dooly and Jim Gillhouse call me to be a guest on their program, I jump every single time. They ask great questions and lead fantastic conversations on their program.

During this episode, we talk about the troubling language in the final BurnLounge order. Feel free to listen and share your thoughts below.  Already after this interview, I’ve been a part of some great conversations about the future of the space.  It’s a very healthy discussion.  

Listen to internet radio with ACES Radio Live on Blog Talk Radio

California MLM Independent Contractor Bill Amended

California Senate Bill, the specific bill written about on this site earlier regarding independent contractor reporting requirements in California, has been amended! Through the efforts of the DSA, the teeth behind the bill have been removed. In its original form, the bill would have required distributors to provide and maintain burdensome records about each downline participant enrolled for a two year period. Violators could have been prosecuted for a misdemeanor. Clearly, this was a ridiculous requirement.

The bill has been recently amended, eliminating the problematic terms for direct sales companies. Read the DSA’s release about the victory over the California independent contractor battle. Excerpts are included below:
Begin

Thanks to the dedication of DSA member companies and the industry’s government relations Road Warriors, the California Senate, on a 22-13 vote, passed an amended version of Senate Bill 459 last Friday eliminating a burdensome notice requirement for companies relying on independent contractors—including direct sellers—proposed in the original bill.

The original version of California Senate Bill 459, championed by California Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett (D), would have required companies that rely on independent contractors to issue a statement detailing the impact of the individual’s status as an independent contractor on his or her tax obligations and eligibility for labor employment protections. While such notification is already part of the written contract a seller must sign before becoming affiliated with a direct selling company, the additional requirements would have posed a threat to the industry’s ability to recruit and retain salesforce members. Additionally, under the original bill, any independent contractor who failed to file or keep the proposed paperwork could have faced misdemeanor charges.

While all members of the California Assembly received a letter from 28 DSA member companies with a physical presence in the state, more than 1,200 independent California direct sellers wrote to their state representatives expressing their concerns about the legislation. Additionally, DSA member companies and staff met one-on-one with legislators who also received more than 2,400 emails from California distributors about the bill.

End

Cross Recruiting and Ethics: DSA publishes ethical guidelines restricting proselyting – cross recruiting

Nadia Jarosh Shipley, an Executive NVP for Arbonne, recently wrote a concise message on facebook of the practice of “proselyting,” also referred to as cross recruiting reps from other organizations.  I’ve included her message below. Click here to see it yourself. In her message, she referenced the DSA’s specific guideline against proselyting.  She started a great conversation about the practice and I, a fan of a some healthy debate, really appreciate her courage.  Her message is below along with the DSA’s specific guideline.  She also included a letter from Joe Mariano, DSA President, who chimed in on the subject.  In his letter, which is not included below, he basically asserted that when leaders leave a particular company, they should avoid disparaging their former company in an effort to get their other leaders to quit and move.

Ready for a dose of reality?

The DSA’s policy against proselyting, while written with the best of intentions, is not a sufficient deterrent against cross recruiting.  The downside (penalty from the DSA) is not a deterrent given the huge upside (massive revenue spike).  Plus, the policy against proselyting is written as a guideline for COMPANIES.  In this regard, when thousands of reps leave Company A for Company B, proving that Company B participated in the cross recruiting is like nailing jello to a tree.

Being on both sides of this issue representing both companies and distributors, I can assure you of five realities that make this a difficult policy to enforce:

(1)  Plausible deniability.

Leaders will never tell Company B, “Hey, I’m going to smear Company A and drive massive growth to you all.  Get ready!” Company B can always play dumb.

(2) Plausible deniability…again.

Company B, if accused of foul-play by Company A, will never say, “Yes, we are aware of the false rumors about your business AND we actually spread those rumors on our recruitment calls. Want a link to the recording?” Again, Company B can always play dumb.

(3) Economics.

The economics matter.  If a leader can drive 5,000 active people to Company B, with each participant agreeing to a $150 autoship, it translates into $9,000,000 of additional annual revenue for Company B and a big pay check for the leader.  Ethics?  While Company A screams “Bullshit!,” Company B says “Free market, baby!”

(4)  Trade secret.

Who owns the network?  It’s a philosophical and legal debate that’s been waging for years between leaders and their companies.  Leaders say, “I bring the people, I own the network.  I can solicit them for whatever!”  Company A says, “Those leaders would never have been in your business BUT FOR our help.  Stay away from your non-personals!”  Both sides have valid arguments.  In the face of earning big bucks, it’s safe to say the leader will intellectually side with the “it’s my network” angle as opposed to being concerned with ethical limitations.  Company B says, again, “Free market, baby!”

(5)  Natural Consequence.

Unfortunately, the misinformation against Company A is a natural consequence when leaders leave for Company B. When the downline members are gently nudged by the upline to quit Company A and they ask “Why?”, rumors will spread of lunatics in the corporate office, ill-contrived pay plans and junk products. It happens just about every time. When people join a business with a strong emotional story, it takes an equally strong emotional story to get them out. While people in the profession encourage leaders to leave with class, it’s a daunting task for any leader of any organization to control the behavior of each individual in their downline.

Conclusion

Ethical standards will not deter the behavior.  There’s a saying: “God made man.  Samuel Colt made them equal.” The Colt revolver in this debate is litigation.  It’s not ideal, it’s just reality. While it’s important to publish ethical guidelines, until the financial incentives and disincentives are consistent with those guidelines, it’s an uphill battle. What are your thoughts? How do we mitigate this behavior?

ps, if you like this article, be a saint and hit the +1 button above or “Like” it.

Begin post by Nadia Shipley
proselyting
Proselyting is the term of art used in direct selling to describe the attempt to convert one or more salesforce members from one company to another. The ethics and legality of efforts to attract salespeople from one company to another is a subject of frequent and intense discussion by industry members. The Direct Selling Association has adopted guidelines regarding these practices of which salespeople and companies should be aware. The guidelines and open letter set out below attempt to describe what the Association believes is the state of the law regarding such practices as well as acceptable direct selling business practice in this regard.

Proselyting Guidelines of the Direct Selling AssociationIt is considered to be an improper practice when Company A, or its representatives, specifically and consciously targets the salesforce of Company B with the intent of persuading Company B’s salespersons or employees not only to sell or work for Company A, but also to cease selling or working for Company B, thereby interfering with Company B’s business or contractual relations. This is not intended to encompass the occasional incident or two, but it does apply to situations involving more than several persons, where the pattern, approach and timing of Company A would clearly indicate an intention to adversely impact on Company B. If Company B sends correspondence to Company A regarding alleged proselyting activity, Company A is expected to appropriately respond within 30 days after receipt of the correspondence.
End post

IRS Webinar on Taxes

Disclaimer: I hate taxes. I hate talking about taxes and I hate paying taxes. As such, I’m no expert. Nonetheless, as Robert Kiyosaki points out, income tax is the largest expense incurred by EVERY business. Given the large amount of taxes incurred, minimizing tax liability is nonnegotiable. The question then becomes: how much can I write off as business expenses? In the direct selling profession, this is always a challenging question to answer. For distributors in the field, the line is usually blurred between personal expenses and business expenses. Where more deductions lead to lesser taxes, the temptation is to push the envelope and claim EVERYTHING as business expenses.  During this webinar organized by the DSA, the speaker gave some insights on how to determine if an expense is legitimately deductible.  See below for the slides.

In a nutshell, the takeaways are as follows:

  • Business expenses are deductible when they are both “ordinary and necessary”;
  • Keep good records. When the IRS knocks, they’ll want to see substantiation all deductions;
  • Maintain separate bank accounts separating personal from business expenses;
  • When the line is blurred between recreational and business travel, keep all expenses separate and maintain records;
  • Purchases for personal use are not deductible;
  • Not all training expenses are deductible. Be sure there’s a specific purpose for the training;
  • If there’s a long history of loss in the activity, it could weight against you when claiming a deduction;
  • Personal competency matters. The more seasoned you are in the endeavor, the less flexibility.

See the slides below. There’s not much additional information; however, it’s a good summary.

IRS Tax Advice for Direct Sellers(function() { var scribd = document.createElement(“script”); scribd.type = “text/javascript”; scribd.async = true; scribd.src = “http://www.scribd.com/javascripts/embed_code/inject.js”; var s = document.getElementsByTagName(“script”)[0]; s.parentNode.insertBefore(scribd, s); })();

DSA Convention 2011

Small Business Administration Prohibits Lending to MLMs

I was sent this document by a friend and professional in the MLM space yesterday. It’s a portion of a federal regulation that outlines the ineligible businesses for SBA loans. The bill prohibits lending to:

“Businesses Selling Through a Pyramid Plan.”

It further states, “Pyramid or multilevel sales distribution plans are not eligible for SBA assistance.” (see below)

This is another example of an organization, in this case the federal government, that associates legitimate network marketing with pyramid schemes. PayPal and Facebook are other organizations that come to mind. As I’ve written in the past, since there’s an ocean of gray in the networking space separating good companies from bad, it’s led to an increase of illegal exploitation of the model by opportunistic owners. Simply put, it’s difficult to distinguish the good companies from the pyramid schemes, which is leading the government and companies alike to associate all MLMs with pyramid schemes.

I’ve written an article in the past titled “Pyramid Schemes: Saving the network marketing industry by defining the gray.” The article has been viewed over 7,000 times. In an effort to help sanitize the negative perception created by pyramid schemes, the article calls for more clarity in the space. I’ve also attempt to pass an anti-pyramid scheme bill in Tennessee to create guideposts to distinguish good companies from bad ones. The DSA killed the bill. The DSA exists primarily as a lobbying organization committed to preserving the confusion in the space, which makes it easier for pyramid schemes to thrive, in my opinion. They act more like a labor union. They need more leadership, less “strength in numbers.” Given their influence, they can dramatically increase their impact if someone would step up, be honest with the issues and lead. If the DSA’s model legislation would pass, it would literally be legal for a company to sell $1,000 shots of lemonade (assuming there’s a return policy). It would be incredibly harmful for the space. But I digress.

Unfortunately, since it’s difficult to distinguish good companies from bad ones, more people are throwing in the towel and associating pyramid schemes with legitimate MLMs. In a conversation with Facebook’s compliance attorney a few months ago, he explained why they ban the promotion of MLMs in their Terms of Service. He said if they narrowed the provision and simply prohibited the promotion of “pyramid schemes,” they’d be required to prove if a company was a pyramid, which would be close to impossible. It all boiled down to the confusion. Have you ever tried to advertise a site on facebook with the words “MLM” or “network marketing” on the landing page? Did it get banned? Mine did. The gray needs to be clarified, not obfuscated, lest the negative perception grow in size and lead the FTC to step in and clarify it for us, which would be a disaster.

SBA loans and MLM(function() { var scribd = document.createElement(“script”); scribd.type = “text/javascript”; scribd.async = true; scribd.src = “http://www.scribd.com/javascripts/embed_code/inject.js”; var s = document.getElementsByTagName(“script”)[0]; s.parentNode.insertBefore(scribd, s); })();