A lot of people avoid Multi-level Marketing (MLM) like the plague, and for good reason — for every legit and good MLM company, hundreds of illegal or bad ones abound. But can there be success lessons from MLM applicable to your career, business and life in general? Well, I can tell you that a lot of what I learned from MLM were instrumental in forming, pivoting, expanding and eventually selling my own tech company several years after.
Before you read on, I’d like to clarify that I’m currently not part of any MLM organization. Neither am I endorsing any MLM company out there. My last involvement with the industry occurred over two years ago when my tech company — the same one I co-founded and sold — built a system for a hotel chain and an organization selling health products.
Below are some of the most important lessons I learned from being a network marketing associate.
1. You don’t have to live from paycheck to paycheck.
I was on my second job and fifth year of employment when Robert, a friend of a friend, invited me to join an MLM company.
In my first job, I had to do a number of things on the side to augment my meager income. It was clear to me from day one that getting overtime pay was not something I should expect. So, I learned how to write for print and TV. I also forced myself to sell odd things like laundry soap and strawberry jams. I managed to do all these while performing adequately well at work, going way beyond the normal office hours and above the call of duty.
When I transitioned to my second job, I decided to focus on it entirely. I spent nearly all my extra hours on unpaid overtime work. I traded instant compensation for delayed gratification. I think the strategy paid off because I continued getting a series of promotions.
So, it was perfect timing when Robert gave me his pitch. Things were already pretty stable in the office. I also felt I had earned the liberty to spend hours outside the office however I pleased. Only one obstacle remained: I had to pay the PHP8,888 (US$217) starter pack required to become an MLM reseller.
In that span of five years as an employee I had managed to raise my monthly salary from about PHP8,000 (US$195) to about PHP45,000 (US$978). But even with the fivefold increase I was yet to be in good financial shape. I still could not afford the starter pack which was to be my ticket to a new adventure. Thankfully, Robert agreed to loan me the money and allowed me to pay him back from my MLM earnings.
Robert enticed me with the huge earning potential and the ability to get paid more than twice a month, among other things. But he clarified that it was up to me how much I wanted to make, contingent on the amount of effort I was willing to invest. I found the idea appealing, having accumulated tons of unpaid overtime hours at work and previously having spent significant time on my sidelines.
It was alluring to be shown proof that I didn’t have to wait for the 15th and 30th of each month to get paid. After all, I come from a family of employees where certain things revolved around paydays. It’s definitely not a bad habit to schedule expenses around salary dates. But as an employee with limited resources I had a hard time surviving until the next payday.
During the course of my MLM escapade, I proved what Robert said to be true and got what I deserved based on my efforts. You can probably imagine how refreshing and liberating it felt to receive money on a weekly basis. Some amounts were even bigger than my monthly salary. The additional income was not only useful for unplanned expenses but also instrumental in paying debts and getting rid of the bad but sometimes necessary habit of borrowing money.
As an employee, you can’t expect your company to pay you additional compensation for staying more than the required number of hours in the office. Thanks to my MLM experience, I learned that it wasn’t my employer’s job to make me rich. What you need is an eye-opener similar to mine to see the limitless possibilities that exists out there to get compensated equal to or far greater than the effort you exert. This realization can lead you to be bolder in pursuing similar opportunities in the future such as your own traditional or Internet business whether you do them full time or while being an employee.
Struggling to make ends meet doesn’t have to be permanent. The people I know who’ve come out of their MLM experience making even just a bit of money primarily of their own efforts have become more resilient and creative when it comes to generating additional income. My friend Robert (another one), for example, opened a restaurant after his first stab at MLM. As a testament to his continued success, he established a second branch about 10 years after. One great thing about such an experience is that it makes you see you’re ultimately responsible for your financial situation and that there’s always something you can do to improve it. It’s your job to make a better life for yourself, nobody else’s.
2. Your success depends on your ability to acquire and build leaders.
I was actually a rookie manager in my day job when I signed up for my first of only two MLMs. I was intent on doing well in this new role as well as in my MLM stint. But I was worried. I was not only venturing into unknown territory, I was also chasing two rabbits. I knew I had to develop certain talents and skills if I had any chance of succeeding.
I quickly realized there was a single key to victory for these two different goals: helping the people under me flourish. In turn, if those people helped the ones under them thrive, the results would flow all the way to the top back to me. In my simplistic point of view, I was in the business of people helping people. Recruiting and building leaders then was imperative for both undertakings. My MLM venture provided a good avenue for practice and experimentation in this regard.
You’ve probably heard of the saying the bigger the dream, the more important the team. Whether you’re a proprietor or an employee, the quality of people you have under you is tantamount to your success. Acquiring or building leaders, people who can make things happen for you, is crucial in helping you meet your goals in many endeavors. You need to be deliberate in your approach and take time to be hands-on in both selecting and training people.
3. Some form of selling is necessary for success.
I used to hate sales. Family members would discourage one another from buying something because “they were just being sales talked”. Either that or they would make someone guilty after a purchase because he or she was “just sales talked”. The terms sales and sales talk left a negative impression in my head for a long time because of this. Things quickly changed when I first became part of the work force and saw how highly regarded our sales team was. I had a newfound respect for sales after that.
My first real encounter with selling is a funny accident, a story I would save for a future article. But I joined my first MLM company with little faith in my ability to convince others to purchase my products or join my team. In the beginning, Robert gave all the presentations to my prospects. My job was simply to invite them and make sure they came.
After repeatedly seeing him do the presentations and answer mostly the same questions, I became certain I could do it myself. Furthermore, by the time I received my first few checks, I felt I had gained some credibility and confidence to present. I had become very much acquainted with the products we offered by then too. So, I copied most of his contents and techniques, incorporated my own style, practiced first with chairs, then people and got to work. Voilà! It worked like a charm. But only to a certain extent. I never received more rejections in my life.
Little did I realize then that things I had to do such as keeping a list of people I wanted to woo, enticing them to come, doing the actual presentations, handling objections, following up, and finally getting people signed up or receiving a definite no were all part of the sales process. How little did I know as well that all those practice and learning would come in handy in my next few jobs and businesses, and also in eventually selling my own tech company less than a decade later.
Sales could be something loathsome or mysterious for you. But in one form or another, it’s actually part of your daily life. Sales, distilled to its basic essence, is about influencing others to buy into your idea or product. You’re selling yourself when you go for a job interview or try to get someone to like you. You’re selling an idea when you’re trying to convince others to do something. There is no escaping sales too when you build your own business. You want to be successful? Learn how to sell.
4. The quality of your communication determines the quality of your success.
As an introvert, I rarely strike up a conversation with someone. It takes some effort for me to talk with other people and I feel sapped doing it for a long time. I envy friends who can start talking to strangers so effortlessly. I’m amused by people who seem more energized the longer they talk with others.
I somehow managed to excel in my first job while trying to avoid oral communication as much as possible. I relied a lot on e-mail instead. But every time I didn’t open my mouth to bring up an idea or to offer a solution during a meeting and a teammate beat me to it, I died a little inside. I would cringe, a feeling of fremdschämen overtaking me, when a colleague unknowingly makes an embarrassing mistake during a lecture or presentation. I knew I had better confront my irrational fear, lest I risked getting stuck or accepting mediocrity.
Fortunately, that first MLM experience allowed me to polish my skills in oral communication. I got the chance to talk to a whole lot of people, folks from all walks of life. I learned to establish rapport, read body language, argue logically, connect emotionally and apply the right tonality. I picked up things only steady practice and proper feedback could provide. I’m certainly a work in progress. But talking to hundreds of people during my MLM days helped me get to where I am now in terms of my communication.
The fear of public speaking is real. But with lots of practice, you can improve. Learning the difference in dynamics when you’re just talking with one other person, subordinate, colleague or superior, or with 10, 100 or 1,000 people in the room makes a big difference. Improving my communication has been the single most important factor in allowing me to multiply my income several times over the years. You want better relationships, better results? Work on your communication skills.
5. You need a coach or a mentor.
I’ve always been fortunate to have bosses who likewise served as good mentors. I appreciated them even more when I found myself in a dead-end job that had me questioning my future.
I consider my MLM experience a mild success. Had I not had good mentors (the Roberts were just two of them), that wouldn’t have been the case. They showed me the ropes and gave me tons of encouragement. More important, they held me accountable for results. Surely, I’ll be a better mentee if I could go back in time. I would pay more attention, ask more questions and request more feedback. I would copy more of what they did to pass on to my team. I would be even more successful and save more time, blood, sweat and tears.
Why reinvent the wheel when it’s possible to benefit from people who’ve done it before? Get expert advice and the kind of accountability that keeps you pushing forward. Still in debt for years despite a ten-fold increase in your salary? Recognize that you’re not a good financial adviser to yourself and get a professional. Constantly in the gym but not seeing results? Hire a personal trainer. Always on a diet but not making much progress? Get a nutritionist. Starting up a business? Find someone who’s done it before and get advice.
6. You can’t please everyone and you shouldn’t.
I should have learned this earlier and now it’s something I have to remind myself once in a while.
I mentioned that never did I get more rejections in my life prior to my MLM journey. But it wasn’t just all about the noes I’ve received from prospects that taught me this lesson. I failed to recognize it then, yet it was in every part of the process from beginning to end. It seemed that no matter what I did, I couldn’t make everyone happy. How unwise of me then to even think I should try.
People believe what they want to believe. Others care for only what’s convenient for them. Some aren’t willing to help themselves even when you so earnestly desire their success and go out of your way to help. Trying to please everyone around you can be costly and can do more harm than good. It is a path to futility.
In Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, she talks about her first performance review with Mark Zuckerberg: “One of the things he told me was that my desire to be liked by everyone would hold me back. He said that when you want to change things, you can’t please everyone. If you do please everyone, you aren’t making enough progress.”
Sometimes, the only way you can move forward is by getting some people upset. As long as you know what you’re doing is right and is aligned to your values, press on.
Perhaps Rick Warren put it best when he said, “Even God can’t please everybody. Only a fool would try to do what even God can’t do.”
All good things
All good things must come to an end to make way for the better as the best is yet to come.
Robert, the one who opened up a restaurant, was one of my leaders during my initial attempt at MLM. A couple of years after, he invited me to join him on another MLM ride and I acquiesced. He was a better leader to me than I ever was to him. But in the end, I didn’t do as well as I did in my first try. It was my fault entirely — my heart wasn’t in it.
Fast-forward many years later, the other Robert invited me to sign up with him in yet another MLM company. This time, I respectfully declined.
It was fun while it lasted. I learned a lot and gained a few friends along the way. But ultimately I realized that becoming a serial network marketer wasn’t for me. I wanted to make my mark some other way but I made sure to carry all the lessons I’ve learned from those days.