I Got Rich Working For An MLM — And It Cost Me Everything That Truly Mattered

"I badgered people with my constant messages and posts. I began to see friends and acquaintances as dollar signs instead of human beings."
"A photo op after a '$1,000 shopping spree' awarded by the company," the author writes. "I ended up spending well over the allotted $1,000, including getting a babysitter for the day. But it looked good on social media!"
Photo Courtesy Of Emily Lynn Paulson
"A photo op after a '$1,000 shopping spree' awarded by the company," the author writes. "I ended up spending well over the allotted $1,000, including getting a babysitter for the day. But it looked good on social media!"

Everyone has one of “those” friends: the neighbourhood mom who sells leggings, or maybe it’s cookware, or makeup. Their aspirational (and, frankly, annoying) social media posts suggest that other women can also “build their best lives” and “earn money in their spare time.” They cast their “businesses” alternately as empowerment projects, community-building ventures, or money-making enterprises depending on the filtered, Photoshopped post.

I know all of this because I was that friend.

In the early 2010s, multilevel marketing companies took off through social media; promises of financial freedom, friendships, and fabulous trips and gifts flooded my timeline, and my inbox was full of “hey, girl” messages from acquaintances sharing their “life-changing” opportunities. I was intrigued.

After all, I hadn’t held a “real” job since before my kids were born, and I craved something more than the mundane yet overwhelming day-to-day mom duties. When an old high school friend reached out and paired this “business opportunity” with a night out that included wine, I jumped at the chance, and ended up signing on the dotted line by the end of the night.

What she sold me sounded easy: “Wash your face and talk about it.” Sharing skin care with friends and family wasn’t too much of a stretch, and she provided scripts to send over social media to introduce the products and the “opportunity.” This seemed to be the perfect solution to what I felt was missing in my life: friends, purpose and income.

I now know that multilevel marketing, as opposed to a direct sale from a producer to an end user, is essentially a pyramid selling system. Initiates (like me) were required to sell products and recruit other people to do the same, while our upline (the person who recruited us) got a cut of the profits.

The MLM structure is financially lucrative for corporations, because they then have hundreds of thousands of unpaid contractors shilling products and recruiting other sellers to do the same, with zero advertising.

However, what I didn’t know at the time is that they are not lucrative for the sellers. In fact, MLM reps have a 99.7% loss rate; most people who join never turn a profit. I also didn’t know that the Federal Trade Commission warns people about the dangers of joining an MLM.

All I knew was I didn’t have many other options as a stay-at-home mom who’d been out of the workforce for a long time. Over 75% of the MLM workforce are women, many of them moms without full-time employment who are recruited by promises of flexible part-time work — something that is largely lacking in the U.S. labour market.

For the first time in a long time, I had something moms often lose sight of when it comes to their own ambition: hope.

I was told from Day 1 to “be coachable” and do everything my upline told me to do. So I did. I made lists. I copied and pasted scripts. I sent cold messages and called friends pitching my “new business.” I posted about my “opportunity” on social media multiple times a day.

“Instead of questioning how on Earth 97% of people made less money than I did, I considered it an honour.”

The system worked for me, partly out of dumb luck, but also because I got in early and happened to live in an area where that particular company had not infiltrated. I also had a large network of well-heeled friends who had money to spend. I somehow bucked the horrendous odds that I wasn’t yet aware of, and within a year, I reached what I was told was the “top 3% of the company.”

Instead of questioning how on earth 97% of people made less money than I did, I considered it an honour. Over several years, I continued to be a success story. I earned bonuses, gifts, trips and jewellery. I walked stages dressed in ball gowns and accepted awards. I was a keynote speaker at numerous events, and traveled all over the world singing the praises of my company. I became the poster child for multilevel marketing.

Yet, along with all of those milestones of “success” came many personal failures. I pushed away friends and family by consistently pestering them about my “business” and trying to recruit them. I badgered people with my constant messages and posts. I began to see friends and acquaintances as dollar signs instead of human beings.

I spent more quality time with my “colleagues” on the phone or on social media than I did with my own family. I spent ungodly amounts of my commissions on retreats, training, products, trips and gifts, funnelling my earnings back into the MLM system. Worst of all, I recruited hundreds of women into a system that seemingly worked for me, but didn’t for them.

The stress and constant pressure of keeping my pyramid intact, along with the endless travel, parties and events, escalated my anxiety and my drinking habit. I eventually sank into a deep substance use disorder, and nearly lost my life to it, all while keeping my MLM “dream” afloat.

As I continued to rise in the ranks, the things I experienced and saw eventually showed me clearly that this “dream” wasn’t manifesting for anyone but me. In fact, I was making money because so many people were losing money.

Back when I joined my MLM in a wine bar, my intentions were good, like most people who join an MLM. However, the impact didn’t match those intentions, and once I realised that, it was important for me to leave that harmful system.

Almost seven years in, I quit. Despite being a “success story” in MLM terms, I realised that my success meant making money at the expense of others, ignoring my own intuition and chipping away at my integrity. MLM’s aren’t about women succeeding; they are about using the appearance of female success to help the company — not the women in it — make money.

When I quit, I wondered, “Why aren’t more people talking about this?” Often they are embarrassed of becoming involved in the first place, and feel ashamed for falling for a scam, and in turn selling it to others.

I began asking women who quit my former MLM before I did why they quit. Their reasons echoed mine. I went on to personally interview hundreds of former MLM members who described their experiences as traumatic, depressing, stressful and cult-like. Just like me, they all joined believing they could help people, help themselves, have a community, a purpose, and earn money. And when those dreams didn’t come true, they believed the system, and the people at the top holding it together (including me), when we told them it was their fault for not working hard enough.

Like me, they all burned bridges with friends and family. They strained their finances, their marriages and their life balance. The source of “extra income” they sought turned into a financial drain. The “time freedom” they desired was actually a timesuck. And the community they felt drawn into was actually a closed system that discouraged critical thinking.

Unsurprisingly, there’s no easy button for achieving the work-life balance most moms aspire toward. Certainly not one with six-plus-figure salaries and no strings attached. The #girlboss dream we were sold is not a reality.

I regret perpetuating this false image of success and possibility. However, one thing I learned when I got sober in 2017 is that the best apology is changed behaviour. Talking and writing about my experience is part of my living amends for all the harm I did over those years.

Now, I’m no longer one of “those friends.” I don’t have an ulterior motive when I invite someone for coffee. My instagram posts no longer allude to a “life-changing opportunity.” I found freedom from a system that is structurally designed to keep a few people afloat, and the majority of people down.

I hope to help others find their way out, by paving the way for them to think more critically about the systems they are participating in, or at the very least, helping them feel less alone in their experiences.