“My family can afford that”: Teresa on multi-level marketing

As I’ve written before, I get curious whenever someone offers a “great opportunity” for shakes, vitamins, candles, or dishware. Usually, it means they’ve joined a direct-selling company (aka MLM, or multi-level marketing)–the kind that recruits buyers and sellers through friendship networks, bringing the economy right into your backyard or living room.

So I’ve watched with interest as a college friend, “Lisa,” moved from filling out surveys and requesting freebies, to joining her mother, Teresa, in multi-level marketing ventures. A few years ago, my facebook feed grew peppered with their posts promoting weight-loss shakes, but recently, both women have been advertising inexpensive jewelry parties and sales.

I’d also like to write about people besides myself, and this seemed like an interesting story. So I caught up with Teresa Everly and her daughter last week at the Union County Fair in rural Ohio, where I found them selling bright $5 jewelry from a booth nestled between the local historical society, water distributor, and government Radon testing.

View of the county fair in the evening.

While chatting with customers and watching for light-fingered children, Teresa agreed to give an interview.  “How’d you get involved with Paparazzi?” I ask. Teresa says she saw it on a website. She’d already been selling for a company that promoted weight-loss shakes, but “something was missing.” As she explained,

“You could see the results, I lost weight, but how could you sell [something costing] $99 every two weeks? … I signed four people up in two years – and I was working full time. And I felt guilty, especially if I knew that person was having a hard time. So we’d give more away [if] it could help people. But I started feeling like [the company] was charging too much – trying to make money more than to help people.”

Her husband wanted her to keep trying to sell this shake mix at $200 per month, but she looked at the rural economy and decided, “I’d pay $5 for this Paparazzi jewelry. Even people on a pension, or poor in this economy, for $5 they can look good.” So she selected Paparazzi Accessories, a two-year-old company based in the MLM capital of Utah (Why Utah? This news feature discusses some pros and cons). Teresa describes it as comparatively small: while Avon has 20,000 consultants in central Ohio alone, Paparazzi doesn’t have more than that across the whole country.

“So you see, it’s just taking off, that’s how I got so many people under me so quick. It’s a new idea, a great deal. I can sell that. My family can afford that.”

One of Teresa’s promotional signs, just outside the building.

But why be selling this kind of thing at all? When I asked Teresa said direct marketing was especially important to her because she’d just had a stroke and needed to pay off medical debt. When she contacted a sponsor (person for whom she’d be indirectly working) to ask whether she could still do this work after a stroke, the woman was encouraging:

“’As long as you have the family support behind you’, she said. So I started that night. That was one year ago, and it’s really took off. I made my first rank within 30 days, and since then made 4 ranks, with 245 girls under me. I’ve been travelling, which I couldn’t afford to do anymore.”

As I understand it, this kind of downline (people beneath her in the multi-level hierarchy) is a really successful rate of growth. I suspect it reflects the newness of the company, as well as Teresa’s wide social networks and determination to invest her own profits and time in motivating the “girls” under her. Her daughter Lisa hasn’t been quite as happy with the product, so I know that not everyone has the same success. High levels of MLM success seem to depend on a mix of your own personality and connections, drive to succeed, and good timing in the market.

When I ask for details, I learn that Teresa takes home about half of each $5 item, plus a percentage of her downline’s sales. For this fair, she’s invested several thousand dollars in inventory and vendor fees, but seems to be recouping costs at a reasonable rate. More than that, she finds the work emotionally rewarding:

Two nights ago I was working, and a young couple came in with a stroller, had two twins between them. She looked at the necklaces, and looked back at him, and looked at the necklaces. And he said, “Go getcherself one,” you know, but she said “we promised not to spend money…” And he just said, “it’s only five dollars, go get ya one.” And she went out of here beaming. That did more for her health than any bag of shake mix.

Customers browse the booth; the largest crowds came through in the early evening.

“So where’s your future in this?” I ask, looking over the rows of bright necklaces, brooches, rings, and earrings, organized on their hooks by color scheme.

“It’s already changed our lives,” she says. “I had a series of five strokes, that left us in medical debt so bad. We had insurance but still, thousands were not covered. In one year, we paid off all our debt – not just the medical debt. So this year we hope to, for the first time, to become homeowners. I’m looking for – I want to stay home and be the class mom on trips.”

And she gives me her sales points: she can work from home, but also get out and be social. She’s been able to travel, but still be present for her daughter’s cheerleading and son’s soccer games. She reminds me that she’s been a single parent before, and adds, “Single parenting stinks! This way, I can start bringing in money to help my family, and be there with the kids.”

Teresa watches her booth as customers browse and finger the items.

Finally, I ask what she’s learned through her MLM experiences.

Teresa says that before signing on, she read up on choosing an MLM company. She knew she wanted to look for a product she wanted to sell, one where, “If I went to a department store and saw it, would I pay that much money for it?”

I nod. This has been my reaction when new friends try to sell me $50 bottles of exotic fruit juice or $20 face powder: can’t I just get fruit juice and makeup at Walgreens?

But I can’t be too roused to righteous indignation by $5 jewelry, even if it is based on selling through friendship. This price is competitive with most low-end retailers, or making jewelry yourself. At this point, Teresa is proud of her trade, and sums up what she’s learned:

“You have to find that one item that you can get excited about. If you don’t have passion, you can’t sell. If you sell at a [price] point that’s really too high, it’s not doing you any good or your customers.”

To learn more, see https://www.facebook.com/PaparazziAccessoriesByTeresa, or more pictures of the fair here

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