Maybe you initially signed on to help a friend smash the goals of her fledgling makeup business. Or watched a well-meaning loved one fall prey to promises of passive income.
When you’re ready to cut ties, put that time and tenacity your upline preached toward leaving the multilevel marketing pressure behind.
How to leave an MLM
Popular MLMs work within an atmosphere of familial exclusivity. They use self-empowerment jargon, make pseudoscientific claims and play by rules designed to draw you in. And keep outsiders at bay.
Dubious MLMs rely on steadily increasing conditioning and coercion techniques that keep you recruiting, marketing and believing success is just around the corner. If you aren’t successful, you’re told it’s because you haven’t faithfully followed the company’s foolproof system.
This isn’t proof that you’re a fool. Rather, you’re a victim of successful, deceptive business practices constructed to part you with your money and keep commissions flowing upward.
When you’ve had enough, move forward on all fronts:
Cut ties to your upline. Remove yourself from group chats, shut down your social accounts and ignore texts to avoid the guilt, blame or pressure from those who directly benefit if you stay.
Unload your products. Take advantage of buyback or return policies. Put out the word that you’re selling remaining stock at a discount. And cancel any automatic shipments you signed up for.
Reach out to loved ones. You may have pushed away friends and family as you drew deeper into your MLM. But you’re going to need support as you pull back. Reconnect, explain your situation and apologize, if it’s necessary.
Be honest with your downline. You can decide how much to reveal about your decision. A simple apology with the promise to explain later is a good start.
Breathe and let go. You’re not at fault for failing to reach the six figures your upline claims they make. The majority of MLM businesses are set up for failure.
It will be hard to convince your loved one to walk away from a project they’ve put so much time and energy into. Especially with an upline insisting that one more recruit, one more order or one more month is all that separates them from financial success.
You may be able to help without pushing them away. But it takes starting and keeping a conversation going without cuing the defense mechanisms we depend on in uncomfortable situations.
Resist confrontation. MLMs play heavily on emotions. Rather than criticize, approach with kindness, listen openly — and leave your research at home.
Focus on support. Start by talking about their family. Reminisce about life before their MLM. Work up to gentle questions about their financial goals and progress.
Delicately educate. Propose a simple cashflow statement that highlights how much they’ve put in. Ask how they’ll handle sales taxes this year. Simple questions can be eye-opening.
Don’t expect it to work. At least not right away. You’ll need to invest more than one chat to break the spell of the network-marketing mind games.
Avoid their tactics. Resist buying the products they’re shilling or don’t join their downlines, no matter how much you love them.
What does it cost to leave?
MLMs build up their distributors to feel like they’re an irreplaceable member of the company. But the people who sell MLM products are like any other customer.
Typically, your costs end with your last order, though your MLM could charge a one-time inactivity fee.
After you stop selling and promoting the product or services, wait out the probationary period. Ignore any upline pressure to meet your sales quota or keep your downline and rewards. When you fail to reactivate, you’re eventually terminated as a distributor.
What is an MLM?
Short for multilevel marketing, MLM is a type of business strategy built around independent distributors who sell a product or service.
MLM brands range from the seemingly innocuous Mary Kay and Pampered Chef to dubious health companies like Young Living and DoTerra and the contentious Amway and Market America.
When you join an MLM, you become the “downline” to the person or team that recruited you, helping your “upline” to earn a percentage of your profits each time you make a sale. With most MLMs, you’re aggressively encouraged to meet sales quotas or sign on your own recruits to keep money flowing up the chain.
How much you earn for your upline depends on your MLM’s compensation plan that’s often tiered by a distributor’s status. These plans can be difficult to understand, but most concentrate commissions, bonuses and profits among top-tier distributors — the people who got in early. The only way to move up the ranks is to recruit other distributors under you.
MLM companies tend to change up their terminology to avoid the reputation of “multilevel marketing.” Look for variations of terms like:
Consumer direct marketing
How to identify an MLM
MLMs generally market themselves as small businesses looking for enterprising entrepreneurs. Newcomers to the market have gotten so good, you may not even be aware you’ve joined one.
Many of the top multilevel marketing companies embrace one or more common elements:
A cryptic “opportunity.” If you’re contacted by a recruiter who’s unwilling to tell you more without a phone call or in-person meetup, it could be an MLM.
Multiple fees. Every nonrefundable joining, startup, distributor, marketing, website and status fee keeps money coursing up the line. So does the threat of losing your status with inadequate sales.
Ongoing purchases for commissions. Be wary of companies requiring sales quotas, workshop attendance and costly tools to advance your revenue or move up the ranks.
Pricey products. MLMs legally differ from pyramid schemes because they’re built around selling a product. Typically, quality doesn’t make up for the expensive price tag that supports distributing commissions up the line.
Dangled incentives. Star-studded conventions, annual galas and periodic trinkets are designed to dazzle you away from unrealistic promises of wealth — and draw you deeper into the hype.
Five or more distributor levels. The more levels, the more commission to your upline on each sale.
What is a “hun”?
The Internet’s noticed that distributors of MLM products tend to start their online sales pitches with “Hey, hun!” And so it’s used when poking fun at — or poking holes in — multilevel marketing schemes and the people who promote them.
Many MLM companies provide pitch scripts to their distributors designed to disarm and distract prospective recruits, no matter how tenuous the relationship. These impersonal pitches can include a word salad of “residual income,” “financial freedom” and “limited spots” on a team, depending on the MLM.
Is multilevel marketing legal?
Yes, but it must involve moving a product or service. This distinction is what separates MLMs from the illegal pyramid or Ponzi schemes.
Both MLMs and pyramid schemes are business models built on tiered recruits. But an MLM must focus on selling something — essential oils, weight-loss patches or makeup, for instance. It must also allow distributors to sell these items directly to customers without requiring them to sign up as a distributor too.
Many unethical MLMs tread a fine line by appearing to emphasize recruitment over sales, manipulating and putting pressure on distributors to recruit friends, family and coworkers. The rise of the Internet and social media has only expanded those pyramids.
What are the risks of multilevel marketing?
The primary risk of an MLM is the inability to recover your initial investment or sustain a real income — the very promises that prompt people to sign up in the first place.
Most MLMs employ tactics that all but guarantee you’ll sink more and more money into a limping business:
The lower your tier, the weaker your potential. No matter when you sign on, you’re the downline to people who got in earlier — and earn stronger commissions and benefits.
Sales quotas. You’re under a constant threat of losing commissions and rewards if you fail to sell enough product. Monthly or quarterly quotas can tempt distributors to buy the “stock” required to stay active.
Market saturation. The key to MLMs is recruitment. But by signing on your friends and family, you’re no longer the only game in town. No matter how much you earn from a new recruit, you’ll work harder to meet your own revenue goals.
Pressure to #bossbabe. The relentless strain of aggressive pressure on you to sell and recruit can wear you down. Especially when you’ve got an upline insisting you’re just not working hard enough.
Outright manipulation. Independent studies focused on MLMs reveal that nearly all depend on deceptive recruitment backed by misrepresenting how much a participant is likely to earn.
False or misleading claims. Think twice if an MLM hypes its “natural” products as alternative medicine. Recent lawsuits suggest these exaggerations can harm the friends and family you sell to. And your contract may render you responsible for liability.
Affinity marketing. MLMs rely on network marketing beyond the Internet. They can financially and emotionally exploit the needs of military wives, churchgoers, stay-at-home moms and vulnerable low-income populations lured in by the promise of money and independence.
Is multilevel marketing ever worth it?
It’s tempting to label all MLMs a scam. But if you’re not looking to make a full-time income and are content with getting a discount on the makeup, diet shakes or home scents you already use, becoming a distributor may be worth it to you.
Still, these products aren’t often known for their quality, despite company claims to the contrary. You can find similar, less expensive alternatives free of the convoluted commission schemes, continuous pressures to perform and little chance of sustainable income that’s typical of many MLMs.
Unless you’re at the top of the chain, you’re likely better off at your local retailer.
Getting out of a multilevel marketing company can be more difficult than getting in. But MLM distributors aren’t much different from the average customer.
Cut your MLM ties completely, reach out for support and don’t look back as you shake off the dust.
Frequently asked questions
No — at least, not legally. Those who claim they’re successful MLM distributors admit that it takes hard work, constant recruiting and even their own money to see a profit over their investment.
We advise caution with any company calling itself multilevel marketing, consumer direct marketing or a referral-based income scheme. These types of companies tout financial freedom but rely on you selling items to your social network and recruiting distributors to continue building the pyramid. If you’re looking to bring in extra money, turn instead to trusted side-gig alternatives.
Only if you think the discount is worth the business model you’re contributing to. Some MLMs are like low-pressure buying clubs that allow you to purchase what you’re already using at a savings. The majority, however, embrace tactics that you might want to research before choosing to look past them.
Ask five main questions to determine whether an MLM is right for you:
Can I see your income disclosure statement? Make sure it’s the company’s formal statement and not your rep’s version. And read the fine print.
How many distributors stay on for at least a year? Look for no more than a 20% churn rate. Anything higher could be a sign that it’s hard to make money.
How much do I have to sell to stay active? Weigh the fees and quotas against your potential to turn a profit.
How many distributors are already in my city? MLMs rarely work to prevent market saturation. But you don’t want to end up competing for business among your neighbors and friends hawking the exact same items.
How long did it take for you to find success? You may not hear an honest answer. But listen for devotional jargon, self-empowerment claims and other tactics devised to avoid cold, hard facts.
The popular r/antiMLM subreddit publishes a master thread of income disclosure statements for Plexus, Rodan and Fields, Isagenix and more than 20 other MLMs.
Kelly Waggoner is the US editor-in-chief at Finder. She's worked with publishers, magazines and nonprofits throughout New York City, including ghostwriting a how-to on copyediting for the Dummies series. Between projects, she toys with words, flips through style guides and fantasizes about the serial comma's world domination.
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