Natalie Lewis’s cluttered apartment doesn’t have the typical items you would expect to find laying around a college student’s dormitory. There are no half eaten pizzas sitting on the counters, clothes strewn across the couch or even empty, crunched beer cans splayed across the floor. In fact, her clutter is potentially money in her pocket.
Her stainless steel kitchen sink is filled to the brim with facial scrubs and moisturizes that promise silky smooth skin and blemish fighting power on their labels. The off-white kitchen counters are lined with small plastic squares with various shades and textures of make-up for one-time use applications. On the floor are scatters of Passion Pink Lipstick samples that haven’t been picked up since Lewis received her inventory.
Lewis is a 21-year-old junior majoring in accounting at the University of South Florida. She is a full-time student and part-time Mary Kay associate, just one of the countless students on campus who are making extra money through a direct selling company.
Mary Kay is one of the most popular and socially accepted Direct Selling companies in the industry. Cutco, Tupperware, Amway, Monavie and Avon are among other direct selling companies that are taking over college campuses. The companies boast financial freedom without restricting their distributors to a rigid 9-to-5 work schedule. This appeals to college-age students whose schedules conflict with typical office hours.
Lewis began selling Mary Kay six months ago when she decided she needed a source of income that wouldn’t interfere with her school schedule that contained classes anywhere from 8:00 a.m. to 6:20 p.m. five days a week.
“My school schedule is so random,” said Lewis. “No one would be able to hire me because I couldn’t work for more than three hours at a time. I was so stressed.”
She was approached about selling the Mary Kay products and opportunity by a associate named Jessica when her mother hosted a Mary Kay party in April 2011. Lewis found herself purchasing the inventory she would start to sell two days later after listening to a telephone recording explaining the perks of becoming a Mary Kay associate.
“There is a lot to learn about the history of the company and how to conduct parties and present the opportunity to young women,” said Lewis. “It was a bit overwhelming at first. I wasn’t sure what I had gotten myself into.”
Jennifer Cainas, a business professor at USF, witnesses many of her students venture into direct selling. She strongly advises her students against relationship marketing. When students approach her about this business model, she warns them that the products are costly and the return may not be exactly as promised.
“It could take them a long time to earn that money back, and if they are not good at sales or don’t have a quality product, they will not make money,” said Cainas.
The direct selling industry, otherwise known as Multi-Level Marketing or Relationship Marketing, is viewed by some as a scam. The industry says it frees people to be their own boss, make their own schedules and earn income doing it.While some businesses in direct selling are known as get-rich-quick schemes, the Wall Street journal wrote an article recognizing the industry as a legitimate business model.
In the article, the World Federation of Direct Selling Association reported that Direct Selling companies brought in an estimated revenue of $28.3 billion in 2009 sales in the United States alone. Mad Money’s own Jim Cramer declared to CNBC viewers that “direct selling has never gotten its due from Wall Street. It’s time we recognize that the direct sales model works, and it works well.”
A Brandon-based video email company called Talk Fusion is one of the many companies that give their associates income in a horrible economy. Founder and CEO Bob Reina knows all too well that the industry is the business world’s best kept secret, and he is determined to share the secret with everyone through his company.
“How many companies do you know that you can work for in your pajamas and get paid,” Reina asked.
Reina is a Tampa native and attended USF. He played soccer for the university and graduated with honors. Shortly afterward, Reina was recruited into a MLM company that sold nutritious snacks and drinks, and he became a millionaire in a matter of a year. He was an associate in several other companies before using his money to create a MLM giant known as Talk Fusion.
“I wish I had known about Direct Selling when I was in college,” said Reina. “It would have changed my life dramatically. That’s what I’m trying to give other people.”
Reina believes that the industry provides a way for people to achieve financial freedom. He explains that most network marketers are between the ages of 40 and 50, but that Direct Selling’s popularity and success is spreading to envelop all demographics around the world. Associates earn what is known as leveraged income. This means they make money off of the efforts of their team.
Lewis is grateful for the opportunity that her direct selling company gives her. She explains that the money earned from her company has enabled her to pay for her own books and food this semester. She is happy to say she is never worried about her grades or class schedule with her job, and she earns income that helps get her through college.
“It depends on how much you work and how dedicated you are to making money. If you work a lot, you earn a lot,” Lewis says.
As a college student, Lewis has built a downline of Mary Kay associates through prospecting on campus.
“The best thing about network marketing is that you get to make friends and help them earn money too,” Lewis said.
Lewis begins scooping her samples into a black Mary Kay purse and stuffs the products she hopes to sell in a pink duffle bag with wheels. Mary Kay is stitched to the fabric. Lewis is preparing to do makeovers at a Mary Kay party for a sorority house.
“The good thing about doing this on campus is every college student could use some extra cash,” said Lewis. “The hard part is weeding out the ones who will be able to help you make money.”