Of these second-wave MLMs masquerading as women’s empowerment, LuLaRoe is queen. More than 80,000 women have paid around $5,000 for several boxes of low-cost clothing and worked as much as 80-hour weeks to outfit hundreds of thousands of suburban women in multicolored polyester. But according to a report that studied the business models of 350 MLMs, published on the Federal Trade Commission’s website, 99% of people who join multilevel-marketing companies lose money. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either a brilliant business model or a predatory practice—or a little bit of both.
MLMs only sell through a network of consultants, not in online stores or in brick-and-mortar shops. Sellers buy inventory from a parent company and sell it to their friends and family, keeping the profit for themselves like a franchise would. But the real potential to earn money generally isn’t in peddling wares: It’s in building up a team of sellers below you and getting a cut of their commissions. Once a seller has recruited new consultants, she has to push them to buy more inventory each month or to hit consumer-sales targets in order to earn her bonus check and keep the money flowing upstream. This means the further down the recruitment ladder you are, the less opportunity there is to make real money.
Even when consultants wake up to the fact they’ve been hoodwinked, many don’t warn their friends to stay away. That’s because if you speak out against any of LuLaRoe’s rules or mishaps, the community could publicly shame and harass you for being negative. “I can’t believe you call yourself a Christian,” one retailer wrote to someone trying to sound the alarm. “Where is the Jesus in you? I have to block you due to your constant-gross-delusional-uneducated opinions of LLR.” If you reveal you are struggling to make sales, you might be told to stop playing the victim, that you’re not putting in enough effort, to be more enthusiastic, and, of course, to buy more inventory.
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