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

Video Response By BK Boreyko Regarding Criticism

I’ve never endorsed any companies on this site and I’m not endorsing Vemma. I know very little about their model. I know that you likely visit this site for generic content regarding the MLM industry, so this post is a little different. But this video was so good, I had to share. The founder of Vemma, BK Boreyko, lays out honest and sincere arguments explaining the legitimacy of Vemma’s model. If you’re not in Vemma, the video is still worth watching because it’ll give you some bullets to use when you face the same question. He keeps it simple, relying on science, investments in infrastructure, business support, market comparables, etc. Candidly, all CEOs in the industry should provide a similar video, giving their people a link to share when they’re hit with tough questions.

One more point worth mentioning: when he lists his social media links, he lists instagram first. I guess that’s where all the cool kids are hanging out these days. Connect with me there at: www.instagram.com/kevin_thompson.

FTC’s Disclosure Guidelines for Online Marketing: How to get it right (Part 2)

This article was written by +Kevin Thompson in collaboration with our stellar summer associate, Jake Perry.

FTC Disclosure GuidelinesIn the last article, FTC’s Disclosure Guidelines for Online Marketing: How to get it right (Part 1), we walked through the Federal Trade Commission’s recently published .com Disclosure Guidelines (fully included below). In this installment, we’re going to walk through five hypothetical examples of common marketing claims made in the MLM industry. The goal of this post is to provide you with practical, easy-to-understand tips on how to make proper claims.

The format is simple: I’m going to give you common fact patterns of how claims are made in the MLM industry. Then I’ll show you what most distributors would WANT to do as far as making disclosures. Then I’ll show what they SHOULD do, as per the .com Disclosure Guidelines. These guidelines apply whether the company is an MLM startup or a well-established company.

Ready? Go time!

UPDATE: This article has been updated after further research.  The .com Disclosure Guidelines are over 50 pages and it never mentions income claims.  The analysis below is based on my interpretation of their guidelines.  

EXAMPLE 1: CHECK WAVING

check

Fact Pattern:

Kyle is very excited about his involvement in a new cosmetics company, Wrinkles-B-Gone. After six months of hard work, he received his first check in the mail for $4,500. Overcome with excitement, Kyle gets an idea. He decides to post a picture on his Facebook profile showing off his check. Kyle figures it’ll be a great way to “flex his muscles” while demonstrating the power of his new company. It is clearly visible in the picture that the check is for $4,500. In his Facebook post, Kyle says, “Boom, playa! Check me out! Want to learn why this company is throwing money at me? Give me a call.”

Kyle does not include a disclosure of the average earnings for Wrinkles-B-Gone distributors. The average is $345 per month per distributor.

What Kyle wants to do:

Kyle, in no attempt to be deceitful, would want to provide a naked link to the company’s income disclosure in the caption. He figures, “Hey, they can click on the link and see all of the numbers at their leisure.”

What the FTC wants to see:

In the caption of the photograph: Please click this link to see our average earnings: www.wrinkles-b-gone.com/earningsdisclaimer

Lesson Learned:

The FTC allows marketers to provide a link to a disclosure IF the disclosure is not integral to the claim being made. “Integral” as defined by meridian is “essential or fundamental.”  Is an income disclosure integral to an income claim?  Sadly, the FTC does not give us any examples that involve income claims.  But they did specify that issues related to health or higher costs would certainly require disclosure near the claim itself (not via a hyperlink).  In an example in the guidelines, there was a refrigerator that was unable to maintain a cold enough temperature to prevent bacteria growth.  In that example, a disclosure by the ad itself is required.  Is the risk associated with an earnings claim on par with food borne illnesses?  I doubt it (but I’m open for a discussion).

The FTC further states that disclosures made via hyperlinks are permissible when the data is too complex to disclose next to the ad itself.  With income disclosures, the data can be very complex.  Plus, the average earnings changes each month; thus, making it nearly impossible to get the entire field to properly disclose the averages immediately after their claims.  It’s only practical, in my opinion, to get the field to provide a link to a full earnings disclosure.  Keep in mind, providing the link by itself is insufficient.  The link must be clearly labeled to adequately inform consumers.  Inserting “Please click this link to see our average earnings” sends a clear signal.

If you allow your distributors to make income claims, it’s imperative that you educate them on the proper ways to make those claims.  Also, it’s a good idea to display the income disclosure form at some point during the enrollment process.  This will help “clean up” in the event your leader fails to provide a disclosure.

EXAMPLE 2: Weight Loss Claim

Weight Loss Example -  | MLM attorneyGronk has been using “Slim-Me-Cave” for the past 30 days. Miraculously, Gronk lost 30 pounds in this short period of time. Incredibly happy with this weight loss product, Gronk decides to post a blog on the Internet. In the article, he writes, “I lose 30 pounds in 30 days with Slim-Me-Cave! It best weight loss product!!” The average customer of Slim-Me-Cave loses about 1 pound per week, so Gronk’s results are certainly above average.

What Gronk wants to do:

*Results Not Typical.

What the FTC wants to see:

Typical loss is 1 pound per week for Slim-Me-Cave customers. Results will vary depending on diet and exercise.

Lesson Learned:

Your disclosures must give a “reasonable customer” sufficient information to make a decision. “Results Not Typical” does not provide enough information. When making a testimonial about a product that’s “above average,” the average needs to be disclosed (as per the FTC guidelines). Back in the old days, “Results Not Typical” used to work. But now since everyone is a potential marketer, the FTC wants disclosures to be more specific. Does “Results Not Typical” mean a customer will lose only 20 pounds in 30 days? 15 pounds in 30 days? What results can the average customer expect? When possible, provide the averages.

EXAMPLE 3: YouTube Income Claim

youtube_logo_635

Fact Pattern:

Stephanie is giving a video testimonial on YouTube about the benefits of her network-marketing company’s pay plan. She states that “In this business, when I recruited just 20 people, I was making over $2,000 per week!” In that particular program, the average distributor earns $235 per month.

What Stephanie wants to do:

Stephanie would probably not want to provide an income disclosure at all. I’m just being candid. Rarely in videos prepared by distributors do you see any kinds of income disclosures.

What the FTC wants to see:

The FTC states that the manner you communicate your claim should also be the manner you communicate your disclosure. Therefore, a YouTube video should contain a disclaimer in both video and audio formats. Where should the disclaimer be? Sadly, there’s no clear answer. But if we look at the FTC’s definition of “Clear and Conspicuous,” I think the safest bet is a text disclosure displayed simultaneously to the claim in question in addition to a more detailed audio and video formatted disclosure at the end of the testimonial. Or Stephanie could provide a “visual cue” during the video to communicate to the viewer that disclosures can be found at the end of the video.

Without question, it’s now required (in my opinion) that distributors end their videos with a properly formatted video segment. At the end of the testimonial video, a separate video disclosure should be included to illustrate the average incomes. The video file should include an image of the company’s income disclaimer (usually in spreadsheet format). While the image is on the screen, there should be audio narration regarding the average earnings. If a company is going to permit distributors to use YouTube to promote their businesses, the company should provide this kind of file freely on its website AND educate distributors on how to use it.

While it sounds complicated, it’s not difficult for companies to provide this sort of video file. However, if the company is unwilling to properly arm the distributors with sufficient tools to make good claims, they should restrict distributors from using YouTube (which is not realistic AT ALL).

There are several questions this kind of hypo raises:

Should companies require leaders to insert a clear and conspicuous textual disclosure to appear on the screen when the claim is being made?

It depends. In a perfect world, yes, it’s a good idea to provide the disclosure during the claim. But in reality, most reps lack the technical skill to do this right. This is what we know: disclosures should be as close as possible to the claim being made. Is it sufficient to provide a video file containing a full disclosure at the end of the video? In my opinion, the answer is yes. But in the abundance of caution, it would be better if there were a text disclosure provided during the video in addition to a video file being used at the end.

Is it a good idea to even allow reps to make these sorts of claims to begin with?

Are you able to produce a quality disclosure for your distributors to use? Do you trust your distributors to “color within the lines” and end their videos with a video? Do you have a solid compliance department to catch and correct the distributors that do this poorly? If the answer to those questions is “yes,” then you’ve got a shot. If, on the other hand, you answered “no” to any of those questions, it might not be worth the risk.

Lesson Learned:

If you are going to allow reps to make videos that contain income claims, be careful! When it comes to videos, it’s difficult to walk the tight rope. When it comes to income claims in videos, there’s not much margin for error. With this in mind, I would advise companies to require tight compliance. At a minimum, companies should provide distributors with a professionally produced video file that all distributors can include at the conclusion of their videos. If you know leaders are going to make claims in YouTube videos, or any other video platform, it’s wise to properly arm them with adequate disclosures. A video file will give the needed audio disclosure as well as additional visual disclosure to the income claim in question.

EXAMPLE 4: YouTube Product Claim

Product Claim Example | MLM attorneyFact Pattern:

“Sports Minded” is a company that sells organic products that improve mental focus during physical activity. Adam is a distributor for Sports Minded and he decides to do a self published a YouTube video to give a testimonial about how he can now focus for 8 hours straight while playing golf without additional supplements. However, studies performed by Sports Minded indicate users can experience an average of 4 hours of improved focus. Adam is being honest regarding his experience with the product. He’s like Mr. Miyagi for 8 hour straight! Since it’s a true statement about his personal experience, is he required to provide substantiation and disclose the average results?

What Adam wants to do:

Adam would likely try to provide a disclosure via a hyperlink in the video description, in text at the end of the video or in a brief audio message at the end of the video.

What the FTC wants to see:

They want a “clear and conspicuous” disclosure that contains the average results. Just like with the income claim example above, the disclosure needs to be in both audio and visual format.

It would be ideal if the distributor had the skill to inject the disclaimer immediately after making the claim i.e. “I know that the company says the average person experiences 4 hours of increased focus, but that was NOT the case for me!” In order for this to happen consistently in the field, the company needs to take compliance education very seriously.

Lesson Learned:

As you can see with all of these disclosures, it’s a lot more art than science. We previously mentioned that the manner you communicate your claim should also be the manner you communicate your disclosure. Technically, the FTC wants to see the disclaimer in both audio and visual formats (even for videos produced by the field). With that being said, it’s unrealistic to expect sales people to get this right when they’re making product testimonials. And I think the FTC understands this (I’m at least hoping they do). With product testimonials, I think a text disclaimer inserted into the video would be a sufficient disclosure. But this approach would NOT be sufficient for income claims. Because money clouds judgment, the FTC is much more strict in that category (and they should be).

EXAMPLE 5: Tumblr Blog

Tumblr - MLM exampleFact Pattern:

Mary publishes an article on Tumblr about “N-ERGY SAVER,” a utility service MLM where customers can save money on their electric bills throughout the year. Mary, a representative, claims that she saved $50 per month by signing up with the company. While Mary’s claim is 100% true, the company’s data shows that the average homeowner saves $15 per month on their electric bill.

What Mary wants to do:

She wants to tell her story! She wants to say “I saved $50 a month with this service and so can you!” Since it’s a true story, Mary sees nothing wrong with her sharing her personal experience.

What the FTC is looking for:

The FTC wants to see a disclosure in close proximity to her claim. So if she has written text about her savings with N-ERGY, she needs to include a disclaimer in the same font and format as the text that triggered the claim. The disclaimer can say “The average homeowner saves between $10 and $20 per month, depending on their energy consumption patterns.”

BONUS EXAMPLE!

bonus

Fact Pattern:

Same as Example #2, except suppose Gronk wants to make the same claim via Twitter.

What Gronk wants to do:

I saved 30 LBS w/ Slim-Me-Cave in 30 days! bit.ly/f56/productinfo [linking to the product page that includes the average results]

What the FTC wants to see:

Twitter allows for 140 characters per tweet. If there’s sufficient space for a disclosure, it’s ok to use to twitter. Otherwise, it should be avoided. With Gronk, providing a link is insufficient. But the FTC provides a little hope in this category: as long as the average results are provided in the tweet, twitter can be used. The FTC provides an example of a permissible weight loss claim below:

Untitled

Should Twitter be allowed for income claims?

No! There’s just not enough real estate to provide an adequate income disclosure. As I mentioned above, providing a hyperlink by itself is insufficient.

Lesson Learned:

Twitter is tricky. If the distributors are properly trained, they can use twitter for good product testimonials. But with respect to income claims, Twitter should not be allowed AT ALL.

Conclusion

It’s going to be tough for network marketing companies to walk this tight rope. On the one hand, they want to give their distributors the freedom and flexibility to aggressively market the products and pay plan. On the other hand, they need to “pump the brakes” to ensure that the distributors are doing things right. In my opinion, the real challenge is going to be with online video. While it’s very easy for anyone to create a video with a webcam, it’s very difficult for people to insert proper disclaimers during and/or after the video. In the future, proper education in the field is going to be absolutely crucial. Companies that commit to field education are going to be the ones that pass the scrutiny. Companies that take their hands off the wheel and expect leaders to get this stuff right are walking on thin ice. The FTC’s expectations are out there. Ignorance is no longer an excuse.

Herbalife: Why I Made It a 35% Position after the Bill Ackman Bear Raid

This is a guest post prepared by Robert Chapman. Chapman is the founder of Chapman Capital LLC, which is a Los Angeles based investment company specializing in takeovers and turnarounds. In 2000, Chapman Capital was an activist versus Herbalife following the death of Herbalife’s founder Mark Hughes. This is an amazing article. It’s well-researched and easy to understand.  If you’re remotely curious about the future of Herbalife after Ackman’s attack, the mechanics of short selling and the potential value of Herbalife’s stock, this is a MUST read. If you find this article informative, hit the +1 or Like buttons above. Sincerely, +Kevin Thompson

Note: Note: Below is the opinion of Chapman Capital LLC and is not a recommendation or an indication of Chapman Capital’s current or future intent to buy, sell or otherwise transact in Herbalife common shares.

Update: Robert Chapman made some slight revisions to the article. His points are the same; however, he made a few stylistic changes.

As anyone even remotely connected to the world of multi level marketing is surely aware, the perpetually sanctimonious Bill Ackman and his extremely successful investment advisory firm Pershing Square formally launched a massive bear raid on Herbalife (HLF) on 12/20/2012, conducting a 3+ hour, media-packed, web-streamed 300+ PowerPoint slide deck presentation in New York after first selling short 20MM HLF shares for as estimated $1 billion plus in proceeds.   In his presentation and numerous interviews with the business media that day, Ackman declared a target price of zero for HLF’s shares.  In other words, he claims to be so convinced that Herbalife operates an illegal pyramid scheme, he is certain that government authorities and/or HLF’s distributors/salespeople/customers will shortly put the company out of business.

SUMMARY INVESTMENT THESIS: Despite beguiling and specious reasoning, Ackman will fail to influence/cause a material regulatory response or a HLF distributor exodus. Consequently, he will suffer a merciless short squeeze, catalyzed and augmented by a fast and furious combination of HLF share count shrinkage (buyback) and excellent operating performance (beat and raise dynamic).

REGUATORY SUMMARY: FTC has been there, done that.

The Ackman Tell. Many poker games are won and lost upon that infamous turning point when a player properly reads his opponent’s “tell.” To wit, I am confident that during an interview with CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin on “D-Day” (12/20/2012), Bill Ackman slipped his “tell”, confirming my suspicion that he already realized the FTC wasn’t going to make his day by shutting down HLF. I strongly recommend all HLF traders/investors read the transcript of this interview, as Sorkin does a masterful job of fighting the media urge to genuflect before Ackman’s drawn down zipper, otherwise known as “The Whitney Tilson”. Specifically, Sorkin, after hammering Ackman, asked toward the end of this interview, “This is somewhat dependent on the FTC taking action. If they don’t, what happens?” Now, remember that Ackman’s entire thesis rests on his certitude (so he claims) that HLF is an illegal pyramid scheme, which the FTC has a mandate to shut down. If you were 100% certain (with 20% of HLF shorted in your funds alone) of this claim, wouldn’t your answer be, “There is no way the FTC doesn’t take action to shut down the illegal pyramid scheme run by Herbalife.” Instead, Ackman diffidently responds, “I think the FTC is going to take a very hard look. But I think most importantly the new distributor someone is trying to suck into the scheme will be better informed …”

The moment I read this response, after having researched HLF on/off since 2000 (when Chapman Capital had been an activist in HERBA/HERBB shares during Mark Hughes’ LBO efforts), I decided I had to place a monster long bet on HLF. I believe Ackman already had concluded the FTC wasn’t going to assist his crusade. Instead, he realized that he had to focus on existing and prospective HLF distributors, praying the media attention would have a materially deleterious impact on any decision to join or to continue with the HLF team. Indeed, without the FTC taking injunctive actions against HLF, Ackman’s crusade toward “zero” is doomed.

Here are key bullet points on the lack of real regulatory risk to HLF shares:

Internal Consumption Issue Already Clarified/Resolved by FTC in 2004: “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” is a quote from an FTC letter dated 01/14/2004. Essentially, the letter states that if a product is marketable, the FTC is OK with the MLM, making Einhorn’s 05/01/2012 call focusing questions on this internal consumption issue far less relevant than was (mis)understood.

FTC Material Adverse Actions Near Zero Probability:  during my due diligence, I spoke with the country’s top lawyer specializing in MLM/regulatory dynamics. During our conversation, he offered his legal opinion, pointedly stating that there won’t be any FTC injunction, much less any regulatory action to put HLF out of business (“hell freezes over before this happens”). If there is regulatory action of any kind, it simply will be some type of consent order/settlement addressing better disclosure.

Few Consumer Complaints:  the FTC has not received many consumer complaints on HLF products – only 37 in 2010, 36 in 2009, and YTD 05/2012 was only 18 (again around 40 annually).

HLF is Big, Time Tested Veteran:  the FTC can and will shut down companies violating MLM rules, just as it did BurnLounge (online music retailer) in 03/2012 and Equinox in 2000. While such action is rare, the FTC will act aggressively to shut down companies when it sees the need. During the 32 years of HLF’s existence, the FTC has yet to see the need to pursue Herbalife.

Ackman Relied Greatly on Old Cases, Leaving Out Material Facts – Ackman failed point out that the FTC has already commented about the relevance (or lack thereof) of the cases he referenced in his presentation. In fact, most of the post Einhorn reporting has been misleading information;

No Federal Clarity – lots of Grey:  No “bright line” federal statute against pyramid schemes; even the guy with jihad against MLM’s, Pyramid Scheme Alert’s Robert FitzPatrick, conceded that FTC decided too complex to regulate MLM’s in 09/2011 and other anti-MLM consumer protectors have as well; this MLM lawyer thinks DSA should fight for bright line federal standards to eliminate opportunity for short sellers to exploit the grey;

Vast Preponderance of Sales and Growth are International (i.e., Outside Ackman/FTC): 80% of HLF’s business overseas.

The DSA is an Effective Lobby: The DSA serves as a lobbying entity designed to protect the MLM industry from burdensome government regulations. It led a campaign in 2006 where 17,000 comments were submitted to the FTC, all requesting an exemption from the restrictive requirements in the Business Opportunity rule. The DSA was successful. The DSA is more powerful that Ackman’s ally, Pyramid Scheme Alert’s Robert FitzPatrick

DISTRIBUTOR SUMMARY:  “Bill who?”

Chapman Capital’s distributor surveys show no meaningful percentage of distributors had even heard about Ackman’s circus show. Moreover, their evangelical commitment to HLF and confusion as to what 300+ pages of PowerPoint means seem to be causing an acceleration of business growth. Ackman’s payment for Google Ads (pegged to “Herbalife” search) exhibits his desperation to influence distributors, efforts which appear to have negligible effect.

TAILWINDS — FAT TAILS AND BUSINESS BAILS  HLF has two secular tailwinds in its favor: lots of fat people (fat “tails”) and no shortage of structurally un/underemployed humans. In fact, one thought for a short in HLF to consider is the following: net/net, does the U.S. government benefit from fewer overweight Americans (lower insurance costs) and fewer people standing in unemployment lines (ever hear of a fiscal cliff problem with U.S. budget?)? If the U.S. government benefits from HLF’s impact on the country’s physical and fiscal health, while enduring only 40 complaints/year about HLF, why shut down HLF? Ponder that for a moment.

BACKGROUND: Short seller roadkill HLF shares were trading as high as $45/share on 12/14/2012, and had been over $70/share (a high teens P/E multiple) earlier this year before the highly respected investor David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital asked some leading questions on an earnings call that implied he was skeptical that Herbalife was operating within the Amway safe harbor guidelines for multi-level marketers. Fear of Einhorn’s excellent record of identifying overvalued short sale targets sent HLF shares into the $40’s in the spring. In contrast, Ackman has been somewhat vague as to when he built the preponderance of his short position (i.e., did he start before Einhorn’s 05/01/2012 questions or was he an unoriginal shadow to Einhorn’s trailblazing?), but I am guessing $50-55/share is his average short cost basis. There is no evidence Einhorn went short at that time or since, but I would be shocked if Greenlight would maintain HLF short positions anywhere near $30/share based on HLF’s international value alone.

Open interest on HLF puts accelerated and the stock’s relative weakness worsened in the fall of 2012 as, I suspect – No evidence here. I’ve just been around the block a few times – people “around” Ackman shorted HLF or bought HLF puts ahead of 12/20/2012 presentation. In fact, I have a pet theory that Ackman’s interest in going massively public was heightened (if not driven) by the HLF stock’s reasonably strong response (into mid-$50/share) attendant with impressive late July and October 2012 financial results. Essentially, my hypothesis is that Ackman, with overall 2012 performance impaired by JCP’s descent into the teens, came to conclude he needed a big winner before year-end 2012.

As word leaked into the market of Ackman’s intention to present publicly the bear case on Herbalife, the stock began a gradual decline, then fell suddenly from ~$41/share to $36/share in the closing market hours of 12/19/2012, when a CNBC reporter with big hair reported that market rumors were true. The next morning, as the PT Barnum of the hedge fund industry delivered his presentation in a New York hotel ballroom on 12/20/2012, and especially through the early trading hours of 12/21/2012 (a very illiquid trading day), the shares went into free fall, reaching a nadir of $24.40/share. My funds made their last purchases at $25.30/share in a brief but painful period of negative marks. HLF shares have since rebounded to ~$30/share as traders/investors have taken a closer look at whether the emperor is running around New York denuded (figuratively speaking . . . fortunately).

ACKMAN’S TIMING OF “INTEREST” Ackman’s end-of-same-year-that-Einhorn-showed-up timing was masterful – when it comes to the power of influence, only top hypnotists can compete. A classic bear raid involves creating abject panic in the market. Concurrently using the proximity to Christmas, the December option expiration, and the depth of his presentation, the Ackman impact on the shares was maximized. The last ten days of December are as quiet as it gets on Wall Street, with most decision makers leaving for vacation, drying up market depth and liquidity. Also, at the peak of the panic not many institutional investors felt the urge to have HLF show up in their 12/31/2012 Form 13-F filing. December is also the final month of HLF’s fiscal year, which puts them in a “blackout period,” prohibiting the company and insiders from repurchasing shares under the $950mm authorized buyback. Moreover, due to the extensive audit period that attends year-end, it will be several months before year-end 2012 results were reported. This blackout removes HLF’s most effective defense to the bear raid: executing a nearly $1 billion share repurchase authorization. Again, if timing is everything, Ackman is every woman (with a nod to Whitney Houston).

PERSHING SQUARE/ACKMAN RESUME:  Let’s review some history on Bill Ackman and Pershing Square, some color on the mechanics of short selling, and Herbalife’s response to the bear raid to date.

Bill Ackman manages a New York based hedge fund called Pershing Square with exceptionally good long-term results. Ackman is not known as a short seller. His fund is generally a long-biased fund. He achieved some notoriety for predicting that muni-bond insurer MBIA was undercapitalized, which eventually proved true during the financial crisis of 2007-2009. His enormous investment in General Growth Properties (GGP) at less than $1/share remains one of the most impressive brains/balls combinations I have ever seen. All the while, however, his ego seems boundless.

He is somewhat unusual among usually media averse hedge fund managers in that his strategy involves publicly trumpeting the merits (and genius) of his investments, which he generally holds for a long time. He manages a concentrated portfolio comprised of very few, very large investments. He also is considered an activist investor. He frequently badgers the board and management of the companies in which he invests with what start as suggestions and frequently escalate to demands as to how they should conduct their business, what their capital structure should be, and the composition of its board.

Though he will rarely, if ever, publicly concede, Ackman makes mistakes just like the rest of us, even catastrophic financial ones (e.g., call options on Target). Indeed, Ackman closed down a previous hedge fund advisory entity called Gotham Partners after he reportedly marooned his investment funds in an illiquid and devastating combination of a closely held REIT (First Union Real Estate) and a portfolio of golf courses (Gotham Golf) for which no exit was possible. So while Ackman is quite good at what he does for a living, his hubris makes him vulnerable to spectacular failure. He has a high financial IQ, but it may be the delusional and narcissistically 15 surplus IQ points he awards himself that have been, and may again be, his undoing. Think of him as the Reggie Jackson (I’m dating myself here) of Wall Street: he swings for the fences, but can cause a lot of pain and break a lot of hearts – or the bank – when he whiffs.

SHORT SELLING PRIMER: A bit more on short selling for those inexperienced in the sport. Short selling is a vital component of the markets. The ability of investors to sell short shares of overvalued companies keeps market valuations in check, and permits investors to hold hedged portfolios that are not dependent on constantly rising indices to make a positive return. There are risks, however, of going short that do not exist on the long side. For instance, if one purchases the shares of Acme Widget at $10/share, and Acme fails, you know precisely how much you will lose – your $10/share, and no more. If you were to short Acme Widget at $10/share and Acme were to discover a vast plutonium mine under their headquarters, those shares that were shorted at $10/share may have to be repurchased in the market at $100/share, $500/share, or even $1,000/share. The potential loss on a short sale is unlimited. For this reason, most professional long/short investors keep the size of their short positions much smaller than their long positions. For instance, if a core long position is 5% of capital, a core short may be 2%. Last week in Barron’s, famed short seller Jim Chanos discussed his lessons learned from the 1999-2000 internet bubble when he saw his AOL short go up eight times in value in his face. The lesson he drew was to keep individual shorts small relative to capital. Ackman’s $1 billion short in Herbalife is almost 10% of his reported $11 billion fund. If he is wrong, he may very well be putting his firm at risk due to the enormity of his short position relative to both Pershing Square’s and HLF’s size, and the potential difficulty of covering a short position of that magnitude in a “short squeeze”. Google the notorious Volkswagen/Porsche trade to see how dramatically these events can play out at the extremes.

To go short a company’s stock, one must borrow the shares to sell from a broker. Shorting without a proper borrow is called “naked shorting”, and is illegal. Holders of stock give their broker the right to lend out their shares in exchange for the flexibility of keeping margin accounts, and to participate in a portion of the fees short sellers incur for access to those shares. Short selling is conducted by the investor calling his broker, securing a borrow, and then executing the sale. Most companies have ample shares available to borrow, and this process yields little drama. However, in the case of controversial stocks, the demand to borrow shares may exceed the supply in the brokers “box”. If long holders sell shares brokers had out on loan to short sellers, the short seller must replace those borrowed shares he has lost access to with newly sourced shares. Should none be found, he will be forced to cover that portion of his position, and if unwilling to cover, the broker will involuntarily “buy him in”. This dynamic is what leads to short squeezes, where heavily shorted issues rapidly appreciate in the absence of any fundamental reason. Just look back to 2008 when the US government suddenly prohibited the shorting of financial stocks to see how painful that result can be for short sellers.

One effective defense for the short seller would be to have his broker contract on his behalf with a lender of shares to provide a quantity of shares for a specific term, at a negotiated payment. This insulates the short seller from buy-in risk for the duration of the contract. However, these contracts are individually negotiated, and somewhat rare. Also, they frequently permit the long holder to regain access to his shares if the company were to, for instance, conduct a self-tender offer for its shares. It is not known if Ackman has such an arrangement.

Ackman’s self-reported short position of 20 million HLF shares is over 75% of the reported short interest in Herbalife. At this point, the “borrow is tight” – there appears to be a near zero supply of shares available to sell short. The few brokers that will supply a borrow are charging as much as 20% of the value of the short annually for that access. This is a monster number – between the 20% negative-borrow and HLF’s dividend, it would cost nearly 25% each year to stay short HLF, all things remaining constant on those two variables.

HLF’s DEFENSE IS COMING:  Given the holiday timing, the best defense HLF has been able to muster has been to put a video of CEO Mike Johnson on its IR webpage defending the company broadly, and to schedule an investors’ day two weeks later, for 01/10/2013 in New York to address Ackman’s accusations in detail. The company has hired an impressive team of advisors. While most would have expected Bank of America/Merrill Lynch to get the assignment given their execution of last spring’s $400mm share repurchase, the task has been given to Moelis & Company, a well regarded, Los Angeles-based boutique investment banking firm. The firm’s namesake, Ken Moelis, is a disciple of Mike Milken from the height of Drexel Burnham’s power in the mid-1980’s. Moelis went on to a successful career at DLJ and UBS, where he became the premier investment banker to the casino gaming world, before launching his own shop.

Additionally, Herbalife has reportedly hired Boies, Shiller & Flexner the law firm founded by famed litigator David Boies. Consider Boies’ HLF team to be the Navy Seals Team 6 of litigation – you really don’t want them on the other side of your war. Note, I have no evidence that Bill Ackman is related to Osama bin Laden, and thus worthy of being targeted by DEVGRU (figuratively speaking, of course).

HLF promises a detailed rebuttal of the Ackman allegations on 01/10/2013, and I expect it will blow away the skeptics with a point-by-point dissection of Ackman’s claims. I presume Boies was brought on to bring suit against Ackman for some combination of libel, slander, defamation, tortuous interference and other imaginative causes of action. No matter how this turns out, the discovery, depositions and testimony should be highly enlightening and probably quite entertaining.

HLF’s DIRT CHEAP VALUATION:  So now, how might one value the shares of HLF in the bull case where Ackman is convincingly discredited by HLF CEO Johnson (a singular American bad-ass, according to my sources who know him personally here in L.A.) on 01/10/2013, and the market no longer ascribes risk to the feared FTC intervention (if I hear “headline risk” one more time …). EBITDA is a preferred valuation metric for a company like HLF that doesn’t have heavy capital expenditure requirements, and converts much of its reported earnings to cash that can be distributed as dividends or used to repurchase shares. Herbalife will produce over $725mm of earnings before interest, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) this year, a growth-stock worthy increase from $634mm in 2011 and $480mm in 2010. The few analysts that cover the stock project $800mm in 2013. Think of HLF’s gushing cash flow this way – HLF is printing EBITDA of over $2mm/day. That’s a heck of a lotta cheese with which to fight Ackman, who has and will be spending his own and his investors’ money on litigation and other matters (which won’t bother his limited partners until the stock is going up on a daily basis). HLF is lightly leveraged, with $500mm of bank debt, and quite liquid with $700mm of unused borrowing capacity and $300mm of cash. HLF currently pays $1.20/share in dividends annually on its ~108 million shares outstanding.

In the absence of controversy, the market would typically accord a fast growing, capital efficient company such as HLF a premium multiple. Let’s just assume the S&P 500 index current multiple of 8x EBITDA. This would yield a total enterprise value of 8x $725 of EBITDA = $5.8B. Deducting ~$500 million of debt, but giving credit for $150 of the cash (that is excess to the operating needs of the business), would yield a total equity value of $5.45B, which divided by the 108mm shares works out to $50.46/share. The current price of ~$30/share implies an EBITDA multiple of 4.7x. Tupperware, which is a MLM free from controversy, trades at 9.3x EBITDA, and Avon trades slightly higher. At $50/share, the share still would sport a dividend yield of 2.4%. Herbalife should report net income of about $4 per share this year and $4.50 in 2013 (ignoring the massive buyback I see coming). $30/share implies a 2012 P/E multiple of around 7x. The current S&P multiple is about 13x. For a company growing 15%+, you would expect to see a premium multiple, which is why brokerage firm analysts who cover the stock have target prices from $65 to $101. My valuation is lower, but should the Ackman-induced cloud be lifted, I can’t say those targets are absurd.

In fact, between the technical short squeeze that is in the making, the massively accretive impact of a $1B buyback, and the FTC risk fading away, I can’t say that I’d be surprised to see HLF trade back to its old highs of $70/share. If HLF has $500mm of 2013 net income, and buys back 30mm of around 110mm shares, the ultra-low interest rate environment makes the net income impact from interest expense miniscule (the HLF 13% EPS yield is 3-4x borrowing costs). Getting over $6/share in EPS is really not that hard to financially engineer, and between the short squeeze, comparable valuations, a below-market 11-12 P/E multiple would take HLF back into the $70s. Indeed, it could turn out even more financially salubrious than even these scenarios.

Ackman’s essentially fired nuclear missiles at HLF’s business model and its legality. When (and not “if”) HLF’s regulators and distributors essentially blow off Ackman’s claims as either old or no news, HLF will for all intents/purposes become bulletproof and battle tested. This may/should garner it a higher valuation than before Einhorn or Ackman ever showed up. That “what if” scenario gets you a $100/share stock price potential (again, only 15x $6-7/share in EPS gets you there; I’m not talking about a NFLX-level valuation here).

This hypothetical rally toward triple digits is not farfetched. In the event of a self-tender by HLF, or even without one, should the large institutional shareholders proactively remove their shares from the stock loan supply, there is great potential for short sellers being forced to cover as the borrow dries up. A panic to the upside could occur as the shorts are forced to buy in 25 million shares in a market unable to induce that many sellers. I am sure HLF and its capable teams of advisors are looking at the myriad of options to create value out of the chaos caused by this spectacular bear raid. Indeed, it does not take great imagination to see what could make these numbers dance.

In addition, Ackman has no shortage of enemies from my own polling of the audience. The odds favor Herbalife in this aspect of the battle. Ackman truly went all-in telling the world he has shorted ~20% of a relatively unlevered company trading at ~4x EBITDA.

BUT WHAT IF ACKMAN IS RIGHT?  His target price of zero implies the company is shut down globally, not just here in the US, which comprises only 20% of HLF’s global revenue. Is it possible? I guess so, but in my view no more than a very slim probability. More probable, in the unlikely case the FTC responds to Ackman’s presentation and reopens the same issues they have been policing for 32 years in the case of HLF, it is possible that the company could be forced to change some elements of how it conducts business in the US, and maybe elsewhere, leading to lower sales and margins. No doubt this would spook the market with fears that there was even more scrutiny to come, leading the market to value Herbalife at a discounted multiple on reduced earnings.
So let’s take a cut at that. Let’s say the FTC somehow compels business practice changes that reduce sales by 20% and lead to current pre-tax margins contracting by 25%. This would yield EBITDA of approximately $450mm, which at 5x would yield a share price of $17. Personally, I think there is about a 10% chance of this outcome. So weighting a 10% chance of $17/share, and a 90% chance of $50/share, I come up with a fair value of $47/share, which is why I own a boatload of shares purchased into the panic created by the bear raid. In fact, there is far more likelihood of another LBO of HLF (Golden Gate/Whitney stole it the first time around) than any other “headline risk.”

Ackman took his shot; now it is HLF’s turn.

Distributor Spotlight – Bernie Bringhurst

I have the distinct pleasure of introducing my new friend, Bernie Bringhurst. As a top 10 earner for a network marketing company, Bernie and his lovely wife, Brenda, were both invited to an achievers trip in Phuket, Thailand.  Sharon and I really enjoyed the time we got to spend with this great couple.  They’ve been married for over 33 years and they’re obviously still very much in love.     

Bernie is an established networker with demonstrable results.  In the interview, we discuss the following:

  • History about his participation in one of the first weight loss MLMs in the country.  
  • As a married man of 33 years, he discusses ways to keep the relationship solid while building a big business.
  • The importance of focus

Bernie and Brenda are just good people.  I’m glad Bernie agreed to do the interview and I hope you take away some valuable nuggets.  If you have any thoughts or comments, please share them below.  And if you think Bernie did a great job, hit the Like or the +1 button for me please. Thanks.  

Direct Sales Model Discussed on TechCrunch

Jeremy Lieu, managing direct at Lightspeed Venture Partners, wrote a fantastic guest post on TechCrunch about the direct sales model.  The article is titled “Is Direct Selling The Next Driver of Startup Commerce Companies?”  In the article, Jeremy highlights three reasons why direct sales is being “invigorated” in this new economy.  It’s great to see venture firms take notice at the amazing power the industry offers.  In January, I wrote about ViSalus’s amazing success.  When venture firms like Blythe and Lightyear place successful bets on MLM startups, it’s attracts more capital for the space, which raises the bar for everyone.  In Lieu’s article, the three key reasons for the uptick in direct sales are:

First, the sluggish economy.  He writes, “In this slow economy, people are more willing to supplement their income (and seek alternative career paths) than they have been over the last few decades. Direct sales is one of the most attractive and accessible ways for people to supplement their income.”

Second, the rise of social media.  He writes, “When you add Twitter and Facebook, that is a tremendous reach for an average person. Direct selling is all about selling through your network – friends and friends of friends. The social networks make this whole network far more visible, and accessible, than ever before.”

Third, technology.  He writes, “These devices, combined with lightweight SaaS ERP, CRM and SFA software, dramatically improve the productivity of direct sales reps.”

Check out the article here.  This is great visibility for the industry.  At the end of the article, several direct sales companies were referenced.  They all have one thing in common: they were all companies with merchandising cultures i.e. focus on product.  The companies referenced were Stella and Dot, Chloe and Isabel, Gigi Hill, Miche Bags, J Hilburn and Thirty One Gifts.

 

33 Reasons NOT to Start a MLM

Photo by @i am marlon

I was speaking with a prospective client the other day about his MLM Startup and on his first question, he asked, “Are there any reasons why I should NOT start a network marketing business.”  I thought it was a neat exercise.  He was clearly testing me to see if I could be objective.  After all, the MLM model is not a great fit for everyone.  See below for 33 reasons why the model might not be the best for YOU as a means of distributing your product or service.  It’s ok to launch with some of these challenges.  But if the list stacks up high, exercise caution.  And of course, it all depends on the complexity of your business.

Product

1) Your margins are too low.  It’s hard to run a legal compensation plan with anemic margins.

2) Your product is already a commodity. There’s an equivalent in the marketplace with mass distribution and lower price points. If the main driver leading people to buy your product is the financial opportunity, it’ll lead to trouble.

3) You’re solving a problem in the marketplace that you’re not personally experiencing. While you might think it’s a cool product, you don’t really understand your target audience.

4) Your business is a “Meatball Sundae.”  Just because you like meatballs and you like ice cream, it’s not a good idea to put the two together.  While your product is interesting and the MLM component is interesting, it might not be a great idea to combine the two.

5) Your product is dangerous.  The ingredients are so cutting edge, you have no idea of the long term consequences. After taking your pill, customers can’t feel their fingers for three days.

6) Your product story is uninspiring. Unless your product has unique properties with unique benefits, your distributors will choose to stay home instead of building their business.

7) You don’t own any proprietary rights to your product, leaving you vulnerable for rapid value erosion.  If a competitor can knock off your product and sell an equivalent at half the price, it places your distributors in a bad situation to make sales.

8: You’ve got a nifty pay plan with no product to sell. In this scenario, since you’re not really passionate selling a particular product, the focus will clearly be on the pay plan.  It takes more than a token product to make a program legitimate.

9) You’re inventing a new definition for “customer sale.”  Instead of requiring that your distributors purchase inventory they can either use or sell to customers in a month, you’re going to require that they purchase product and give it all away and conveniently count those “gifts” as customer sales.

Management

10) You have not agreed on equity terms with your partners. Your partner thinks he’s getting 50% while you think he’s only worth 1%.  Get on the same page early.

11) You’re an army of one. You need help!  Do you really plan on handling compliance, product development, marketing, customer support, media inquiries, logistics and accounting? There are easier ways to kill yourself.

12) You gave your younger brother an executive role in the company, despite the fact that he’s been unemployed for over five years and lives with mom.

12) You and your partners lack a good understanding of the MLM industry.  While you’re intrigued with the concept, you’ve never worked at an MLM and/or built a sales force with an MLM pay plan.  If you all are not part of the tribe, it’s going to be hard to attract top talent.  The old adage is true: “Dig your well before you’re thirsty.”

13) Your executive team is not “all in.”  They’re still working their day jobs, making it very difficult to do the massive work necessary to build a large company.  This can be cured with adequate funding to account for small salaries.

14) You don’t want to be the “face” of the business.  You want to be the “person behind the curtain,” creating the system and sipping on fruit drinks in Costa Rica while your distributors do the work.  The field needs more than a product to sell, they need a leader to follow. It’s got to be you.

15) You cut a deal with a distributor that promised to deliver 5,000 new enrollees in the first 90 days of the business. He got equity before the launch with no vesting schedule and no restrictions. On day 91, he brought in 3 people, including himself. He still owns a piece of your business…forever.  This can cause problems in future rounds of fundraising.

16) You always wanted to be a world traveler.  Instead of stabilizing your business operations in North America, you’re flipping the switch and opening up shop in all countries before honoring the formalities of doing business in those regions.  This leads to a substantial increase in risk.

Resources

16) You lack adequate funding. You’ve saved just enough to cover legal, software and pay plan consulting services. What happens when the skeleton is built, the money is gone and you’ve got another several months until you’re profitable?

17) You have no capital allocated for compliance.

18) You have no capital allocated for intellectual property protection i.e. trademarks, trade secrets, patents, copyrights, etc.

19) You have no capital allocated for marketing.  While the field is responsible to tell the product story and closing sales, you’ve got to take the time to craft a brand worth sharing.

20) Where’s your logo?  The name of your company in 16 point “Helvetica Bold” font is not considered a logo. If you’re not working with a graphic designer, I like 99 Designs for this.

Operations

21) You’re cutting corners on your software.  Just because you “know a guy” doesn’t mean that you should hire him.  Programmers that are unfamiliar with the industry usually take the money up front, build something reminiscent of the 1994 dial-up days and disappear after the site implodes on day 3.  Understandably, the software can theoretically be built from scratch.  But is it worth the risk?

22) Due to the high-risk nature of your business, you’ve been approved by only one merchant account processor for credit cards.  If it goes down, you’re out of business.

23) Congratulations.  After facing several rejections from reputable banks and merchant account processors, you’ve been approved.  Sadly, the processor wants you to deposit $250,000 into a “reserve” account in their bank in Nigeria.  They sent you the following message: “Pleese snd mony too r addrsses with Western Union.”

24) You’ve setup your merchant account with PayPal because they make it easy and “people trust them.”  Since PayPal has terminated all accounts associated with network marketing companies for violation of PayPal’s Acceptable Use Policy, I strongly disagree that your business will be an exception.

Pay Plan

25) You just copied MonaVie’s plan…and you didn’t even bother changing the words.  I suspect you’ll get a letter in the mail after you highlight your new “Hawaiian Blue Diamond” qualifiers.

26) People are required to join your business as distributors before purchasing product.  There’s no customer option.

27) You’re offering training bonuses.  In order to advance in the pay plan, your people need to be “certified” by paying a substantial fee. While your distributors are strongly insisting for this sort of bonus, it’s not a good idea.

28) You did your own pay plan and you really lack the experience to craft a plan that’s appealing for distributors and easily shareable.  Your plan for a 110% payout is really not a good idea.

29) You’re not allocating enough revenue for operational costs.  While it’s good to offer a generous payout, it’s important to maintain enough cash to run solid operations.

30) Your pay plan is not generous enough. By a combination of weak margins and a flimsy math model, leaders will be more attracted to companies with a better ROE (Return on Effort). While they love your $5 widgets, they’ve got to sell a ton of those items before they can reap a decent return.

31) In order for your distributors to remain eligible for bonuses, they’re required to purchase a requisite amount of product each month…this amount grossly exceeds what a reasonable person can sell and/or use in a given month. It’s clearly a program that relies on inventory loading, which is indicative of a pyramid scheme.

32) Fast Start Bonuses are a big piece of your pay plan. And the money collected from the $300 enrollment fee is being used to fuel those bonuses. If you remove the FSB, the pay plan falls apart. And paying a bonus with enrollment dollars is illegal, which puts you in a tough spot.

Conclusion

I hope you found this article informative and somewhat entertaining.  The goal is to get you thinking through some of the details.  It’s great to have an idea, but it takes more than an idea to build a great company.   You’re definitely encouraged to share your own reasons.  Speaking of reasons…there’s one more reason why you should NOT start a MLM…

33) Passion.  There’s got to be more to your mission than just making money.  Unless you truly care about impacting lives in a positive direction, it’s going to be near impossible to create the emotional connections necessary with the right people.  At the end of the day, it’s about inspiring people to change their habits, thereby changing their lives.  If your PURPOSE is not in line with your BUSINESS objectives, save your money.

 

Distributor Spotlight – Shannon Denniston

I had the distinct honor of interviewing Shannon Denniston as part of a new series.  I’m calling this new series “Distributor Spotlight.”  I’ll be occasionally interviewing MLM distributors, young and old, to obtain their perspectives on the industry and hear about their positive experiences.  As a MLM lawyer, it’s important to share information about the companies experiencing challenges from regulators and class action attorneys.  It’s easy to have tunnel vision and only focus on the train wrecks, such as the FTC vs. BurnLounge case.  But there are plenty of positive stories that deserve attention too; hence, the new Distributor Spotlight segment.

Shannon Denniston has been in network marketing for 15 years.  He has a great testimony about the benefits of the industry.  During the interview, I ask him the following questions.

  • What’s your philosophy on marketing your business on Facebook?
  • What are the benefits of networking with distributors from other companies?
  • What did it take for you to make the uncommon commitment to actually win in network marketing?
  • What are some factors prospects should consider when joining a company today?

During the interview, Shannon shared several factors a prospect should consider before joining a new business.  I’ve listed a few below.

  • Competitively priced products.
  • Great customer support.
  • Policies and Procedures WITHOUT a non-compete.
  • 35% to 50% payout on dollars collected.
  • Leadership in the company with field experience.
  • Privately owned instead of publicly traded.

Stay in touch with Shannon on his facebook fan page and subscribe to his “Marketing Tips” newsletter at http://www.ShannonDenniston.com.