Why I Finally Gave Up My MLM Side Hustle

Like many moms, becoming a stay-at-home parent left me feeling somewhat isolated and professionally unfulfilled. I traded in my business attire and, you know, actual adult conversations for leggings and having books thrown at me. Repeatedly. Don’t get me wrong, I love being at home with my kids, but it was a difficult transition.

I had a recipe blog at the time and was active in the blogging community. I started to notice more and more of my virtual friends sharing about essential oils and how they could cure almost any ailment under the sun (and for the perfectly healthy, you could cook with them or use them to clean your house). It was hard to believe something as natural as essential oils could be so powerful, but as a generally trusting person, I was eager to try them for myself.

Essential oil
Image: marilyna/iStock/Getty Images Plus. Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows.

I reached out to a few essential oil consultants and learned that I could get a discount on my oils, make some cash on the side, and provide others with natural health solutions by becoming a consultant myself. This sounded like just the thing to fill the hole that had formed when I left the working world to spend my days at home with my new baby.

I researched a few of the essential oil companies and ultimately signed up with doTERRA. And when I say “signed up” I mean I went all in. I spent a few hundred dollars on a starter kit of essential oils, instructional booklets, sample bottles, and handouts to give away to potential customers to entice them to buy-in. Sure, I was starting out in the hole, but you have to spend money to make money, right?

Unfortunately, the spending didn’t end there. I had to continue to spend a certain amount of money each month to be eligible to earn commissions from any oils I sold. And most months you could receive a “free” gift if you hit a minimum purchase so obviously I was going to need that dill cooking oil that never tasted quite like the real thing.

Most MLMs have a similar structure, so this wasn’t a total surprise. Before signing up, however, I didn’t realize how strong the pull would be to “earn” these incentives. And, the more I sold, the more money I made so it was in my best interest to convince my friends and family that they needed to spend more, too, and my upline made sure I knew that. Most of the women in our team’s private Facebook group were very nice, but I was always a little uncomfortable with the suggestion that we should encourage people to buy more than they needed just so we could make more money for ourselves.

I got into this to help people and hopefully bring home a tiny paycheck, but it didn’t take me long to realize that the only people who really benefited from me selling more oils were doTERRA and the people in my upline. Those of us at the bottom weren’t just consultants, we were their most loyal customers.

The real money didn’t come from selling oils, though. The women (and a few men) bringing in the big bucks had huge teams — hundreds of people who had signed up under them and they got a piece of everything we sold.

Even with my reservations, I coveted what they had (no debt! free trips! six-figure, at-home businesses!). I just had no idea how to get it. We were given lots of tips on how to sign up other consultants, but I was still spending more than I was making. How could I feel good about getting someone else into that same situation? 

Ultimately, I felt more like a sleazy salesperson than anything else and I was never convincing enough to sign anyone up under me. I also became increasingly wary of the unsubstantiated health claims being made by people who had no formal training in herbal medicine. Like me, they were just spouting off information from the training materials.

My meager commission checks continued to roll in and I stuck it out for almost a year. More than anything, I didn’t want to feel like a failure. I had spent so much time and money on this venture and I didn’t want to let myself or my sponsor (the person who I enrolled under) down. 

The more time went by, the more the veil was lifted and finally signing the paperwork to close my consultant account was the biggest weight off my shoulders. I felt like I could finally breathe again once I let go of the constant pressure to sell, sell, sell.

While I do think that MLM companies know exactly what they are doing when they formulate their convoluted payout structures, I think most of the people who get involved are decent people like me who just want to make a difference and make a little money at the same time. And some MLM consultants do have genuine success, not the “fake it ‘till you make it” success that most people on social media are selling.

My tale is a cautionary one, but it’s not the only one. If you are contemplating signing up for an MLM business, these are the things you need to know about multi-level marketing before you join:

  • How much do you have to pay to sign up?
  • Is there a minimum monthly sales quota that you must meet to be paid?
  • How much stock do you need to have on hand for demos, samples, etc?
  • How long did it take your sponsor before they were making a profit?
  • How much time per week can you expect to spend on your business?
  • Are they making unsubstantiated or questionable claims about their products? If the results seem too good to be true, they probably are.

Asking these questions can be tough, but an at-home business is still a business and you have to treat it as such. If I had asked these same questions instead of daydreaming about helping people find natural solutions with my new gang of best girlfriends, I could have saved myself a great deal of time and money, not to mention the cabinet full of obscure essential oils that I’ve still barely touched.

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