What is an MLM? Understanding Multilevel Marketing

Have you ever been approached by a friend or family member about an exciting business opportunity where you could potentially earn a lot of money from the comfort of your own home? Chances are, you were being introduced to a Multilevel Marketing (MLM) company, and you might have wondered, “What is an MLM?” MLMs have been around for decades, and while some have experienced success, many others have faced controversies and legal challenges.

In this blog post, we will dive deep into the world of MLMs, explore their business models, and discuss the legality, ethics, and alternatives to this controversial marketing strategy.

Short Summary

  • Multilevel Marketing (MLM) is a marketing strategy where independent distributors sell products and recruit others to join their sales network.
  • MLMs have been criticized for their lack of sustainability and ethics, with many claiming they are nothing more than disguised pyramid schemes.
  • When joining an MLM, individuals should evaluate the company’s reputation, product quality, compensation plan, and risks/challenges to ensure it is not a pyramid scheme.

Defining MLM: Multilevel Marketing Explained

MLM, also known as Multilevel Marketing, is a marketing strategy where independent distributors sell a company’s products and recruit others to join their sales network. In this way, they earn commissions not only from their own sales but also from the sales made by their recruits.

MLMs are often geared toward women, young mothers, or individuals looking for alternative employment. Some of the terms commonly associated with MLMs include independent distributors, sales networks, commissions, and recruits.

When considering investing in an MLM, it is important to be aware of potential start-up fees, minimum inventory levels, and the necessary training and sales leads.

The MLM industry has been a subject of controversy, with critics arguing that many companies operate as illegal pyramid schemes and that a significant number of participants end up losing money. Despite these concerns, there are legitimate MLM businesses that focus on selling quality products or services and providing a fair compensation plan to their participants.

Network Marketing and MLM: The Connection

Network marketing is a broader term that encompasses MLM, focusing on building a network of distributors to sell products and services. The primary distinction between network marketing and multilevel marketing lies in the compensation plan. Network marketing is based on a direct sales model, where individuals distribute products to the public, typically through word of mouth.

Multilevel marketing, also known as multi-level marketing, involves individuals selling products directly to customers and also constructing a network of distributors who gain commissions from their sales. It is estimated that a staggering 99% of individuals who engage in MLMs end up losing money.

This alarming statistic raises concerns about the sustainability and ethics of MLMs as a business model. Critics argue that many MLMs are nothing more than disguised pyramid schemes that primarily benefit those at the top of the organization, leaving the majority of participants with financial losses and broken dreams.

MLM Business Model: How It Works

The MLM business model comprises independent distributors selling products and recruiting new members, with a hierarchical structure that incentivizes those at higher levels. This structure typically features a flat hierarchy, with few levels between the executive and newest members, and includes roles such as CEO, distributor, sales representative, and sponsor or recruiter.

MLMs generally offer a commission for product sales and another commission for those recruited into the organization.

Commissions and Compensation Plans

MLM compensation plans outline the upline and downline relationships as well as the commissions for recruitment and sales. These plans may vary between multilevel marketing companies, but generally speaking, they offer a commission for direct product or service sales and another commission for the wholesale purchases made by sellers recruited by the participant.

The compensation plans typically pay out to participants from two revenue streams: the first is based on a sales commission from direct product or service sales, and the second is based on commissions from wholesale purchases made by sellers recruited by the participant. To be eligible for compensation, a member usually needs to meet certain requirements expressed as minimum sales goals and the number of new recruits.

Downlines and Uplines

Downlines are the individuals recruited by a distributor, while uplines are the distributors positioned above them in the organizational structure. MLMs typically have a hierarchical structure that incentivizes those at higher levels, with distributors having downlines, referring to the network of recruits under them and uplines being the distributors positioned above them in the hierarchy.

The most financially rewarding aspect of a multilevel marketing company’s compensation structure is the commission from a distributor’s downline. This means that the more people a distributor recruits, the more commissions they can earn from their downline sales.

However, this aspect of the MLM business model has also been criticized for encouraging aggressive recruitment tactics, which can lead to market saturation and a lack of viable earning opportunities for new recruits.

Legality and Ethics of MLM Companies

While MLM is legally accepted in the United States and most countries, it is essential to distinguish between legal MLMs and illegal pyramid schemes. Legal MLM companies prioritize sales to retail customers, while pyramid schemes rely on the perpetual recruitment of dues-paying members to remain operational.

MLMs have gained notoriety for their contentious business practices, which have been identified as unlawful pyramid schemes in some cases.

Federal Trade Commission’s Role

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is responsible for regulating MLMs and investigating potential pyramid schemes, ensuring that companies adhere to legal requirements. The FTC aims to protect consumers from deceptive business practices and ensure that MLMs are operating within the bounds of the law.

To assess whether an MLM is a pyramid scheme, the FTC considers several signs, such as:

  • The company’s emphasis on recruitment over product sales
  • The absence of a legitimate product or service
  • The promotion of unrealistic income claims with the use of high-pressure tactics.

It is crucial to be well-informed about the laws and regulations pertaining to MLMs and to understand the distinction between legal MLMs and illegal pyramid schemes when considering joining an MLM.

Identifying Illegal Pyramid Schemes

Illegal pyramid schemes are fraudulent business models where participants generate income primarily through the recruitment of new members rather than selling a product or service. These illegal pyramid scheme practices are prohibited by both state and federal law and can lead to criminal prosecution, monetary penalties, and even incarceration.

To identify illegal pyramid schemes, look for certain characteristics, such as an emphasis on recruitment, the absence of a viable product or service, and the use of unrealistic income claims and high-pressure tactics. Being aware of these signs can help you avoid becoming involved in an unlawful business venture that could have severe legal and financial consequences.

Independent Business Owners in MLMs

Independent Business Owners (IBOs) in MLMs are accountable for their own sales, marketing, and recruitment endeavors, typically without a fixed salary or benefits. Becoming an IBO offers:

  • The possibility of increased earnings
  • The autonomy of being one’s own boss
  • The prospect of creating a business that can be passed on to future generations.

However, becoming an IBO carries potential risks, such as financial losses, legal issues, and reputational damage. It is important to be aware of the laws and regulations that pertain to MLMs, the FTC’s role in regulating MLMs, and the distinction between legal MLMs and illegal pyramid schemes when considering becoming an IBO.

Top MLM Companies: Success Stories and Controversies

Top MLM companies, such as Amway and Herbalife, have achieved remarkable success in their respective industries. As one of the leading multilevel marketing companies, Amway, the world’s largest multilevel marketing company, reported $8.9 billion in sales conducted by its independent business owners in 2021, specializing in health, beauty, and home care products.

However, these companies have also faced controversies and legal challenges due to their business practices. Herbalife Nutrition, for instance, has been subject to several lawsuits alleging misrepresentation of their sales practices, with a settlement reached with the FTC in 2016.

Despite these challenges, these MLM companies continue to operate and maintain that the majority of their revenue is derived from the company’s product sales rather than recruitment.

Joining an MLM: Factors to Consider

Before joining an MLM, it is crucial to evaluate the following factors:

  • The company’s reputation
  • Product Quality
  • Compensation plan
  • Potential for success
  • Associated risks and challenges

Rusin, a former distributor for two different MLMs, suggests considering why you find MLMs exciting and exploring alternative options to satisfy those values.

Individuals best suited for MLM businesses are those who:

  • Have an enterprising nature
  • Are capable of establishing their own objectives and timetables
  • Are proficient in sales
  • Are able to network with others to sell products and enlist new marketers

However, participation in an MLM may involve a significant financial commitment, and it is important to exercise caution to ensure that it is not a pyramid scheme in violation of the law.

Referral Marketing: An Alternative to MLM

Referral marketing, which involves recommending products or services to contacts with the potential to earn a commission, may provide a less risky and more sustainable option than MLM for those seeking additional income. Referral marketing presents fewer risks than MLM, as there is no requirement to invest in a business or assume the risk associated with MLM. Moreover, referral marketing is more enduring, as it does not depend on recruiting new members to generate revenue.

When starting a referral marketing business, it is important to consider your strengths and how you can offer valuable service to your customers. Additionally, it is crucial to conduct research on the industry and the products or services you are promoting to guarantee that you are providing a quality product or service.


To sum up, MLMs can offer individuals the opportunity to earn income and build a business by selling products and recruiting new members. However, it is essential to be well-informed about the legality, ethics, and potential risks associated with MLMs, as well as to consider alternative options such as referral marketing. By understanding the difference between legal MLMs and illegal pyramid schemes, conducting research on the company and its products, and carefully weighing the potential risks and rewards, you can make an informed decision on whether to join an MLM or explore alternative income-generating opportunities.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is MLM in simple words?

Multilevel marketing (MLM) is a business strategy that involves individual agents selling products directly to people, usually from their homes. It encourages members to recruit new members and provides each salesperson with a cut of the recruiter’s sales, as well as profits from their own sales.

MLM is a popular way to make money, as it allows people to work from home and set their own hours. It also provides an opportunity to build a network of contacts and customers. However, it can be difficult.

Is MLM the same as Pyramid selling?

MLM is a legitimate network marketing company, while pyramid selling is an illegal scheme aimed at stealing money. MLMs involve the sale of real products, whereas pyramid schemes only rely on recruiting new participants to make money.

Is MLM good or bad?

MLM companies are often advertised with promises of wealth and independence, but the reality is that most people make little or no money and, in some cases, even lose money.

In addition, some MLMs have been exposed as illegal pyramid schemes, making them risky and unreliable investments.

What is the difference between MLM and network marketing?

Network marketing is a broader term that encompasses MLM, with the focus being on building a network of distributors to sell products and services. At the same time, MLM involves individuals selling products directly to customers as well as constructing a network of distributors who earn commissions from their sales.

What are the main components of an MLM business model?

The MLM business model consists of independent distributors selling products and recruiting new members, with a hierarchical structure that incentivizes higher levels.

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