We asked the BuzzFeed Community to share secrets and stories from their time working for multilevel marketing (MLM) companies*. Here are some of the most illuminating responses:
*For those who don't know, an MLM is a company that emphasizes both direct sales and recruiting others to work under you, so you can receive a percentage of profit from the products they sell as well. The people above you are considered your "upline," and the people below you are considered your "downline." MLMs have been around for decades, and there's been plenty of controversy (like the infamous Lularoe lawsuits) over the years surrounding their business practices.
1. "I drank the MLM Kool-Aid and was a jewelry consultant for one year. When I voluntarily cancelled, I had over 5,700 pieces of jewelry that cost $2.75 each, for a total of $15,675. I was told to buy, buy, buy, and recruit, recruit, recruit. I was getting sick of not making any money while everyone above me made money every time I bought jewelry. Thankfully, I was able to sell off most of my stuff. I will never ever sign on to another MLM company again."
2. "My husband and I were involved in a very prominent MLM about 15 years ago. My husband would go out for hours on end every night to meet contacts, who he would then call at their once-weekly, men-only call night. They would make people feel like it was a job interview, but really, they were just trying to get people to show up to a hotel meeting on Wednesday. As women, we were told to serve our men and let them be the leaders. We had to attend all business meetings weekly to support our husbands. We were told to only wear skirts, that we always needed pantyhose, and if we didn’t wear makeup we were considered ugly. We were sold the dream of being able to stay home with our kids and retire early. To pay for products and trainings, we were told to give up cable, eating out, etc."
3. "I almost got sucked into an MLM in college because my professor was also a representative for the company. At the time, I was desperate for money because my job paid less than minimum wage, and I had an upcoming surgery. It sounded interesting because it involved selling fair trade coffee. I had my parents nearby on the Zoom call to get their perspective, and they immediately knew it was an MLM. I wasted over three hours trying to be polite, while also trying to make the right decision. Class for the rest of the semester was rather awkward, especially when he told me, 'There won't be any other opportunities like this.'"
4. "I worked for a jewelry MLM for about a year and a half. In the beginning, I loved it. I thought the Facebook Lives were a lot of fun, and enjoyed the 'social' part of it. However, behind the scenes was a different story. I witnessed a LOT of toxic positivity. Some of the uplines' livelihoods depended on their downlines buying product, so they would want us to buy, buy, buy all the time. Didn't matter if we couldn't sell it, just buy it! I witnessed the uplines tell women they weren’t doing enough, or trying hard enough, if they couldn’t sell their inventory. It was always their fault."
"If we ever tried to vent about issues within the company, we were told to hush and that we needed to think positively. I also realized that the company's consultants were the main customers. I felt so stupid. Getting out was the best decision I ever made, and I will always warn others to stay away."
5. "I was with a cosmetics MLM for a few years. I was recruited by a woman who drove the infamous pink Cadillac who swore that anyone could attain that rank. I was encouraged to make a list of 20 people I knew, and invite them to have a party. We were encouraged to 'create opportunities to sell,' like applying makeup in the gym, on the bus, complimenting women on literally anything and offering them a sample, leaving samples as tips, offering makeup advice, doing makeup for weddings even though we weren’t makeup artists, etc."
"There was a huge emphasis on recruiting at least one person a month, and there was a minimum purchase required each month to remain active. I remember getting the call that I needed another $200 in orders to keep our team active and to push another party. When I left, I didn’t lose a lot, but I learned a lot about being paid for what you're worth."
6. "Back in 2014, my mom got roped into and MLM and put in $3,000 to sign up. I don’t remember exactly what they were selling, but it involved affiliate programs. Six months later, the president of the 'company' got arrested, and thousands of people, including my mom, never got their money back."
7. "I got sucked into a health and wellness MLM, and THAT was a huge mistake. I have a condition called PCOS, which causes weight gain that's really hard to lose. I started looking into the MLM because I had low self-esteem and was desperate to lose weight. I lost weight but ultimately made my condition worse due to the extreme caloric deficit I was under. I have a history of anorexia from my teen years pre-PCOS, and the MLM's mentality triggered it. The accountability groups were full of body-checking and weight-checking. If you didn’t lose weight or do your program 100%, you were either ignored or looked down on."
"The praise was heavily given to the people who never took a day off and lost lots of weight. The stupid, tasteless shakes cost me $124 a month that I didn’t have, in the hopes that I would become a top coach. I never reached that level because none of my friends could afford the $124 shakes required to reach that level. Success was 100% dependent on recruitment. The more weight you lost, the easier it was to recruit, because people wanted to be like you. It took me almost four years to recover from the weird food rules and fears I gained from their super-restricted diet. I’m no longer connected to or friends with anyone I met through the MLM because as soon as you questioned it or showed doubt, you were labeled as someone who just didn't try hard enough, and were quickly written off and forgotten about."
8. "I work for the corporate side of an MLM, and you’d probably be surprised how normal most of us are. We hate the tricks of the trade so many distributors use, and it makes us sick to see people lose their money. We also routinely lie or obfuscate about where we work because of the stigma. The company I work for doesn’t allow people to stockpile inventory — you literally get no benefit from it — so at least we don’t see people lose their life savings. But, still, most of us don’t actually like the MLM model. The corporate side just offers good jobs that pay well, and we pretend we’re not part of an evil empire, even though deep down, it sucks. Also, if you’re in an MLM 'for the product,' you’re getting a subpar product at a high price because we literally have to pay your upline. So enjoy paying for that volleyball court they just built in their house, while you eat vitamins that you’re probably peeing out anyway."
9. "I was lured in by two fully grown women when I was 16 years old. They hounded me every day to recruit and throw parties."
10. "I joined a 'sexual wellness' MLM. I thought I was a pretty funny and smart person, so it’d be fun to make some money while crackin' jokes, showing people products that actually worked. The problem was the inventory they’d rope you into carrying. Gotta have things on hand if you expect to make money, right? I could justify for awhile. With each order to replace what I sold, I added a little bit more and built up my inventory. I stayed afloat without losing any money. It wasn't until I was deeper in the MLM when I realized the energy you spend is constant."
"You’re always on social media, having to think how/what/when to post. You need to maintain engagement with your customer base, and keep in contact with your upcoming parties. Consultants may claim they made [hundreds of dollars] for a two-hour party, when in reality, it was practically full-time hours of unpaid labor weeks in advance to keep the parties going, and on rotation, like spinning tons of plates at once. When you attend trainings — both in town or away — which you pay for — event ticket, hotel, travel, meals — they try to break you down mentally, so you build trust by crying to other women, and then harp on you about recruiting. You end up being told you’re never doing enough, your friendships are 1,000% conditional, and it just gets overwhelming. Plus, for being a female-only company, it had a male CEO (the founder’s son) AND some misogynistic products."
11. "My father has been working in the MLM business for as long as I remember. I see all these videos and articles about how people lose a lot of money because of this business model, and I guess my dad is just part of the lucky few who actually became successful because of it. We live really comfortably and barely have any financial problems. I'm not saying we're ultra-rich, but we get by as an above-average, middle-class family. I'm really grateful for that, but I feel a little guilty when I enjoy the perks of his labor when I know there are people he recruited out there who are going into debt or struggling."
12. "I sold for a certain $5 jewelry company, mostly because I love earrings and wanted the discount, but I did sell some to friends and family. My breaking point was when people were daring to question some shady things coming from the top, and my upline posted a livestream literally sobbing over how mean people were being to the owners, and threatening anyone on the team she caught questioning them. Crying over people questioning literal millionaires, over things that should've been questioned. I’m sure they were crying right into their money."
13. "I was in an MLM for a few years. I definitely went into debt and was pressured to do so by the 1% (those who actually made money). I alienated all my friends and family, and it took years to get that trust back. The worst part? The MLM is just a facade to turn you into an evangelical Christian. Oh, they didn’t tell you about the altar calls at their big events?"
14. "I joined a weight loss MLM and lost hundreds of pounds, but I was also persuaded to sell products to people who medically couldn’t use them (due to diabetes, etc.), and I was also manipulated into selling certain products that weren’t even approved in my country."
15. "I joined a children's book MLM when I was a first-year teacher. I thought it would be a good way to build my class library, but I was just thrown into it. My upline said I could work how I wanted, but required me to do four Facebook parties a week, and never taught me how. I was with them for three months, never got paid, and didn't receive my starter kit until AFTER I quit. This was the starter kit: a cutout of their logo, a reusable bag that broke, and my consultant 'website.'"
16. "I joined an infamous clothing MLM, and it destroyed me financially. They constantly pushed you to buy, and they'd send out the worst stuff to lower-level consultants without a team. I never wanted a team because I figured the business itself should be enough, but I was very wrong. They also kept onboarding at a breakneck pace, making it impossible for most people to get the new launches that came out. People who were top consultants were buying everything out. I couldn't even get the inventory my customers wanted because it was never available. Then, they'd go Facebook Live and blame us for doing poorly. It was sick."