The magic prism of opportunity.

Years ago, when I had been in the workforce long enough to become disenchanted with my prospects for advancement, I serendipitously encountered opportunity within the crowded lobby of a chain restaurant. My wife and I had been given tickets to a touring musical, and we decided to enhance our good fortune by splurging on a meal before the show. Dressed in my best uncomfortable business attire for the occasion, I waited nervously for our table to be called, hoping that we had enough time to eat before we had to leave for the theater.

Another couple, perhaps a decade older than ourselves, struck up a conversation with us as more aspiring diners arrived and crowded the foyer. I’ve never been compelled to chitchat with strangers, but seeing as how our personal space had already shrunk to a per capita square foot, I obliged our new friends with amiable politeness. Friends or not, we would probably be close neighbors for the next thirty minutes. Might as well pass the time as pleasantly as possible.

Somehow the conversation came around to our work lives, and I must have given some indication that I was less than satisfied with my job and its limited potential. The gentleman, whom I’ll call Eric (because I have absolutely no memory of his identity), sized me up and revealed that he was the President and CEO of the company he had founded. Not only that, but he had been looking for young and promising prospects such as myself, and would I like to meet sometime to discuss my future employment?

I was on a high for half a week from this divine encounter that arrived just at the right time. When Eric called and suggested we meet at a nearby Bob Evans, I silently mused about how quirky successful  business founders can be, wealthy yet habitually modest. Still, if we weren’t going to meet in his office, it was nice of the guy to buy me dinner.

Eric was already seated and brimming with enthusiasm when I arrived. After we ordered drinks, he leaned forward, hands meeting at the fingertips, and stared at me with intense sincerity. “Bob,” he began, “have you ever heard of residual income?”

“Um…no…”

“What if I told you that within ten years, you could retire? See, thanks to my downline revenue – don’t worry, I’ll explain that in a second – I’m almost there. I was once just like you, a smart young guy with a lot of potential, frustrated at not being able to get ahead. Now I have people working for me, and it won’t be long before I can spend my days golfing, traveling…you name it.”

Young and naive as I was, I nevertheless sensed that this was not the career opportunity for which I had hoped. Eric continued to prattle away about his success and how attainable it was. When he waved off the server as she asked for our dinner orders, I felt obliged to do the same. I was pretty sure I was going to come out of this meeting with nothing but a Coke for my time.

“Eric, what’s the name of your company?”

“Johnson Distribution.”

“Where are your offices?”

“I work from home, from my car…wherever I like, Bob!”

“What about all those people who work for you?”

“They do the same thing! We’re a network of independent distributors. You don’t need offices.”

“Oh. Well…what do you distribute?”

“What don’t we distribute! My supplier has a diverse product line.”

“Who’s your supplier?”

“A supplier is where I buy my inventory so I can-”

“No, I mean, what’s the name of your supplier?”

Eric cleared his throat and lowered his tone. “It’s called Amway.” He must have instantly registered my disappointment, because he immediately began backpedaling. “Now, I don’t know what you may have heard about Amway, but…” And on he went for a couple minutes until the air became so full of despair that we limply shook hands at my promise to think about it.

It was my first multi-level marketing proposition, and I resolved that it would be the last. If my financial security were dependent upon meetings at various Bob Evanses to recruit desperate schlubs whom I would need to rope in their own dupes so I could start to make some downline revenue, then I would be in the hole in no time. No, MLM was not for me.

I’m surprised that it’s for anybody, really, except for the original founders and their first recruits. In our age of extremely easy information access, it’s not hard to find stories of people who are disillusioned MLM apostates among the numerous positive testimonials. Naturally, there is a preponderance of optimism, because potential recruits are unlikely to jump on the bandwagon unless they perceive the runaway success of those who joined before them.

Once in a while, mainstream media will present an investigative report exposing the reality behind MLM hype, as The New Yorker did recently with its take on the “essential oils” industry. The article certainly casts a negative light on Gary Young, who founded Young Living, one of the two leading distributors of essential oils (the other being doTerra, which was founded by former Young Living employees). According to New Yorker journalist Rachel Monroe, the guy has a disreputable past and dubious credentials. But before anyone accuses Monroe of an ad hominem attack, there is this stupefying revelation:

According to a public income statement, more than ninety-four percent of Young Living’s two million active members made less than a dollar in 2016, while less than one-tenth of one percent – that is, about a thousand…- earned more than a million dollars.

Good gravy. Let’s put some numbers behind that first statistic, which I believe makes for a more meaningful comparison than >94% versus <0.001%. Ninety-four percent of two million is one million, eight hundred eighty thousand. Ergo:

2,000,000 people sold a company’s products for one year.

 More than 1,880,000 people earned < $1

Fewer than 2,000 people earned > $1,000,000

About 118,000 people earned something in between.

If this information were part of a mathematics word problem, it might ask: What percentage of the millionaires would you expect to be slaughtered by the angry mob? (Answer: 100%).

Of course, I’m not comparing the essential oils MLM industry to Amway (at least Amway sells products that have practical value undisputed by the scientific community). The whole idea of MLM is unpalatable to me, even if it is run as above-board as possible. Those enterprises that run amok with the concept to maximize founders’ profits at the expense of employees are blatantly fraudulent.

As for Young Living, it’s easy to assume that the company cannot survive such a damning exposé. You might think this sort of easily accessible information will go viral and dry up the pool of willing recruits.

But I doubt it. As James Randi points out in the biographical documentary An Honest Liar, “the public really doesn’t listen when they are being told straightforward facts. They would rather accept what some charismatic character tells them than really think about what the truth might be. They’d rather have the romance and the lies.”

Or as fellow magician Jamy Ian Swiss puts it in the same film, “People think they believe what they choose to believe. We don’t. We mostly believe what we need to believe.”

And if I were sitting on a backlog of inventory hoping to turn a profit, I just might need to believe that multi-level marketing really works.