Today I saw an interesting pair of articles. First, it seems that many of our unemployed and underemployed neighbors are starting their own businesses. That really is good news, because some small percentage of those businesses will eventually be employers. It’s really hard to run a business even in good times, and these people are to be commended for their ability to take a lemon of a situation and try to make some lemonade.
But there’s bad news. Banks have collectively pulled a thousand million dollars of funding from small businesses last November alone. Here’s a great quote, emphasis mine:
The 22 banks that got the most help from the Treasury’s bailout programs have cut their small business loan balances $12.5 billion since April, when the Treasury began requiring them to file monthly reports on the tally. The banks’ total lending has fallen 4.6% in that seven-month period, to $256.8 billion.
As Wall Street megabanks return to health — and celebrate with lavish bonuses — President Obama and his administration have been pushing financiers to help spur a Main Street recovery. Small business owners are still reporting difficulty finding banks willing to extend the credit they need to launch, run and grow their ventures.
So to review: more small businesses and less money being lent to them. That is a recipe for failure. These are not the sorts of businesses that can generally get venture capital, and these business owners certainly can’t get home equity loans right now. And frankly, all too few of us have anything in the way of savings.
But wait, there is one kind of business opportunity that doesn’t require lots of capital outlay. Start-up fees are generally small and ongoing costs modest. Some of these opportunities don’t even require the small business owner to carry inventory. I am talking about multi-level marketing, or MLM for short. I’ve been offered multiple “opportunities” in the last 6 weeks, including cold calls, so it’s heavy on my mind.
Disclaimer: my parents used to be Amway distrubutors, and I am an Independent Beachbody Coach. I will be sitting for the ACE Certified Personal Trainer exam next week, and to be honest Beachbody makes a number of complete in-box programs that are good fits for roughly 90% of people. If you’ve considered getting into P90X or another workout program (I can help you pick one if you want guidance), I sure would appreciate if you would order through me instead of the phone number in the infomercial.
Here’s how it works. Jane Businesswoman signs up and probably gets a starter package of whatever it is that the company sells. She is encouraged to sell this product to people she knows — the bigger your sphere of influence, the better your chances. Depending on the company/product, she may place orders as she sells merchandise, she may stock popular items, she might be able to give out samples (in fact she may be encouraged to buy sample packs and give them out as a marketing tool). But the real money is in getting other people to sign up to be her “downline”. Once she has Susie and Laura Businesswoman working in the system, she gets a cut of what they sell too. Jane will even get a cut of the people Susie and Laura someday sign up. And hey, if one of those people only orders stuff for personal use, Jane still gets a piece of the action.
The only thing that keeps this from being a pyramid scheme is that there is an actual product, and to make money somebody has to be buying it. Often the product is something that gets used up — soap, vitamins supplements, etc — so theoretically Jane, Laura, and Susie should all have repeat customers who come back to buy more on a regular basis. And because they all make money on the product, they are extremely enthusiastic about it.
Most of these plans have a couple of fatal flaws in my mind, which I can encapsulate in two questions: If this product is so great, why isn’t the company trying to get it into stores? and If your business is so great, why do you want to sell it to me instead of keeping the profits for yourself?
What it boils down to is that most of these companies are offloading their marketing costs onto their family of Businessmen and Businesswomen. When is the last time you saw a TV ad for most of the companies on this list? [Notice something? At least Beachbody does marketing for me!] If you know who most of these companies are, it’s only because somebody you know tried to sell it to you. Marketing campaigns are expensive. Hiring professional salespeople and sending them to retailers to get placed in stores is expensive. Putting Jane and her friends to work hawking product isn’t just cheap, it turns an expense into income! Sure, it costs the parent company a bit of theoretical profit to run this way. But they make up for it by turning their independent contractor sales staff into zealots who will buy anything the company makes.
I won’t bore you further, but if you want to know more about how such companies work, there’s these guys.
In closing: lines for peasants but services for the rich; weird scholarships; Japan Airlines files for bankruptcy; more on job creation; is anybody really surprised that the FBI broke the law to get some phone data?; already up to 4 bank failures this year; bankers don’t get it; most of them will turn out to be insolvent; and talking to children about disasters.