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Moms Fuel A New Era Of Direct Selling

Anne Schneider loves being a nurse. But she’s also really digging her new office. It’s wherever she wants it to be. Right now that means her dining room, with her 2-year-old, Emma.

“I’m going to tickle you!” Schneider said, as her little girl collapsed into giggles in front her work computer.

Schneider is one of more than 20 million Americans working for direct-sales companies – sometimes called multi-level marketing or MLMs.

There is a brand new one called Maskcara, which offers all kinds of beauty products. The 41-year-old mom of three never thought she’d do something like this, but now she has to actively keep herself from talking about it all the time.

“When you fall into something you love, you want everybody to know how happy you are,” Schneider said.

That passion can be both a blessing and a curse of this business model. Schneider has seen friends get so into direct selling that their fervor can be a turn-off.

“I don’t want to be like, ‘Buy this book! Buy this wine! You have to buy this makeup!’” she said. “It just should be more natural.”

Bombarding your Facebook friends is such a common mistake in the direct sales world that Nina Simmons has made a business out of combating it.

“None of us want to be sold to,” Simmons said.

Her company, NB&NS, creates webinars teaching women – and it’s almost always women – how to get people jazzed about products, without getting on their potential customer’s nerves. Simmons has seen it go wrong so many times, like that one time a friend of hers really hit it off with another woman at the park.

“And she was like, ‘Yay, I made a new mom friend,’” Simmon said. “And so they friended each other on Facebook, and then the first interaction from this new friend was, ‘Hey, did you hear about this weight-loss product? I think it would be really great for you.’

And that’s just one of the many ways direct sales can go south.

Women talk about feeling guilted into buying stuff or feeling held hostage by their Facebook feed. And one woman described a friend using what she called “almost intimidation tactics” to try to get her to sell, as well.

Many women worried their buddies would lose money on their ventures. But not one of them wanted to be named in this story. They don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings – especially not when this kind of work seems to give some people so much joy.

Those are people like Julie Kiefer, who had to get baby Griffin all situated and nursing before she could talk.  

“Hi!” she said, all upbeat, after her 3-month-old was squared away in her arms. “I can focus on what you’re saying now.”

Kiefer’s a former school psychologist, who’s now a full-time mom to her three kids – and a purveyor of Young Living Essential Oils. Yes, she gets a check every month, she said, but she doesn’t really do this for the money. Kiefer likes having something to do, especially when she’s at home with the kids all day.

“It’s nice to be able to reach out to people and follow up and answer questions or just chit-chat,” she said, “and have an excuse to have a little bit of extra grown-up thinking time.”

Sure, Kiefer has heard criticisms of direct selling – and even of her kind of product in particular, which is meant to treat a variety of ailments.

“And I can totally understand people’s feelings about, like, what are these snake oils you’re peddling,” she said. “You know, I get it.”

But the thing is, these oils have worked for Kiefer – just like the direct sales model has. She really believes in what she does.

“It’s nice to be able to help people,” she said. “And also be a stay-at-home mom.”

One day, when all her kids are school age, she plans to go back to work. But even then, she can’t imagine she’ll stop selling oils.

Stina Sieg was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2013 to 2018.