MLM restructures the traditional business model — manufacturer to retail shop to customer — such that sales agents working for the manufacturer sell directly to customers, bypassing the retail shop altogether. MLM companies can then convert customers into advocates for their products and possibly even sales agents. Because there is no retail store for the products they sell, MLM agents typically work from their homes, interacting with customers in the community or, more often, over the internet.
People who wonder why network marketing doesn’t work have likely also never joined the best MLM for them at the time or had great upline support and a team around them to get through the often frustrating first few months. Opportunities abound – even publicly traded multi-level marketing companies, who you would think are these huge businesses that give you no attention, have small teams and wonderful leaders to join. It’s just a matter of finding the top teams in the company you’re looking at.
A program with no or a low-quality product, or with a focus on getting paid per recruit, could be an illegal pyramid scheme. However, don't let the term pyramid throw you off. It's not the shape of the organization that makes it illegal. In fact, most companies have a pyramid structure with a CEO at the top, VPs next, mid-level managers etc. What makes an illegal pyramid scheme is the lack of a quality product, or that income is earned on recruiting, not commissions from sales.
Pyramid schemes are not a simply exchange of money… MLMs with products can be illegal pyramid schemes. One example of an MLM – pyramid scheme with products that got shut down by FTC is JewelWay: http://www.ftc.gov/opa/1997/11/jewel-2.shtm. The FTC says nothing about product being reasonably priced. That’s a slippery slope when people will pay thousands for a fashionable handbag.
However, as aforementioned, you may know people that sell products from Mary Kay, Avon, Advocare, Tupperware and the like (see more companies in our Featured Home Businesses section). You know people who sell these types of products because they believe in the products and the companies that stand behind them. These companies empower those who sell their products to actually establish their own businesses, selling the products. This is very attractive to many entrepreneurial-minded people who do not want to have a boss watching over them but also want some pre-established structure and support. Most MLM organizations provide a very robust infrastructure and great training as well as impeccable rewards (hello free cars and trips!).
Walter J. Carl stated in a 2004 Western Journal of Communication article that "MLM organizations have been described by some as cults (Butterfield, 1985), pyramid schemes (Fitzpatrick & Reynolds, 1997), or organizations rife with misleading, deceptive, and unethical behavior (Carter, 1999), such as the questionable use of evangelical discourse to promote the business (Höpfl & Maddrell, 1996), and the exploitation of personal relationships for financial gain (Fitzpatrick & Reynolds, 1997)". In China, volunteers working to rescue people from the schemes have been physically attacked.