October 01, 2015
The Future of Direct Selling in the U.S.
by Andrea Tortora
Direct selling in the United States is undergoing a transformation fueled by innovative approaches rooted in classic business practices. The power generators leading the way for direct selling as a channel of distribution can be found in what Direct Selling News has identified as the upper middle market: those companies with annual sales roughly between $300 million and $1 billion.
Because most direct selling companies are privately held and many decline to disclose their financial results, it is difficult to create a definitive list. Our research honed in on a group of more than 30 U.S.-based companies, most of which are experiencing significant growth. Some of them are on the cusp of reaching $300 million, and some likely have recently passed the $1 billion mark. But together they are critical to direct selling’s competitiveness and future. They tend to be among the fastest growing when it comes to revenue, and they account for a large slice of the job creation pie.
An in-depth analysis of this group reveals a high level of consistency when it comes to executing on key common strengths. The ability of these companies to focus in on products, customers, serving their salesforce and creating a culture that reinforces a sense of family put them on track to shape the future of direct selling in the U.S.
Companies emphasize each area in different ways, but in general these leaders:
- Harness data. The upper middle market knows how to mine the data it has to gain insights that lead to more and better sales. Executives train leaders and consultants to use data to open doors that might otherwise remain closed.
- Stay true to classic business practices. Technology and social media do not replace person-to-person interactions, they complement them. Upper mid-market firms build relationships with customers that maintain the consultant-client affiliation but also allow the customer to have a connection with the company itself.
- Use compensation plans that span all levels of engagement. To cultivate trust and long-term relationships, comp plans are created to appeal to new customers, product enthusiasts, fierce advocates and influencers—all the way up to the entrepreneur who is all in. Payments also follow a more modern schedule.
- Foster an entrepreneurial spirit. Consultants are allowed and encouraged to go far with personal marketing (think YouTube videos) while maintaining brand identity. Companies deliver superior and frequent training and messaging to make this happen.
- Maintain a laser-focus on selling. The sale of a product, a group experience or an opportunity all lead to more sales, which generate positive results.
No matter the specific approach, one thing all upper middle market companies excel at is delivering a common positive message, says Laurie Girardi, CEO of The Girardi Group consultancy, a firm focusing on strategic development for clients. “They have figured out how to say, ‘We are growing, we are successful and there is plenty of room for you to build your own opportunity with us,’ ” Girardi says.
Builders and Boomers
Among the group of companies in the DSN analysis, more than two-thirds are younger than 30 years old, and several are less than 5 years old. The youngest companies include:
These younger companies tend to be led by executives with years of experience in direct selling who decide to launch a business that lets them put lessons learned into play. That is the case at Le-Vel, founded just three years ago by Jason Camper and Paul Gravette, who are co-owners and co-CEOs.
“Our goal was to be different,” says Camper. “We built the company we wanted to have, and that is a firm that really relates to customers. We are focused on a customer acquisition game plan.”
Others, like Jamberry Nails and Younique, found ways to bring customers together in settings that fit today’s lifestyles and the demands of customers. The three sisters who founded Jamberry wanted a more economical way to keep nails looking fun and pretty, without enduring time-consuming and expensive salon manicures and pedicures.
Jamberry started as an e-commerce company before it transitioned into a social selling company, and those e-commerce roots continue to be a core competency and business focus that contributes to growth, says Jared Richards, Chief Performance Officer. The company also teaches and encourages independent sales representatives to work with traditional in-home party sales and to build their businesses online using e-commerce and social media best practices.
“Today, social shopping norms and expectations of professional behavior are critically important to building a social media and e-commerce presence,” Richards says. “The relationship-based selling that has been at the backbone of direct selling for decades should be adopted for the online forum. Personal messages and real connections should be encouraged over mere broadcast advertising.”
Younique pioneered social selling on Facebook with its virtual party model. Thanks to CEO Derek Maxfield’s previous experience at his company NetSteps LLC, which built e-commerce business applications for direct sellers, Younique was equipped with advanced knowledge from day one. It grew more than 5,000 percent between 2013 and 2014 and topped $300 million in sales in less than five years. Today, the booming business remains nimble in its ability to respond to how customers interact online. Younique is preparing to launch new ways to leverage virtual parties by harnessing the full power of smartphones and other devices.
These companies also recognize the value of investing in the technology that powers their businesses. For example, not wanting to outgrow its platform in the middle of explosive growth, Nerium slowed things down and spent nearly $20 million on technology upgrades. CEO Jeff Olson says it was worth every penny spent to craft a seamless global operation system because Nerium can now operate in any country and with any currency. (Turn to page 38 to read more about Nerium’s growth.)
About a third of the companies in the DSN analysis are tracking to break the $1 billion barrier, or have already.
- Team Beachbody
- It Works!
- Young Living
At Team Beachbody, varied product offerings that meet customer needs, plus a compensation plan turned on its head, are the keys to the skyrocketing success of this wellness-based business. When current product packages were too much for some customers, the company started offering smaller units and sales followed, says Jeff Hill, Executive Vice President of Global Sales. He previously told Direct Selling News how “challenge packs”—which bundle a fitness and nutrition program—and “challenge groups”—which are a virtual way for customers and coaches to share successes and gain support on social media—combine to serve customers and those who want to join the Team Beachbody business.
For others, building a strong technology backbone is central to supporting growing revenue numbers. Health and wellness company Isagenix, with annual sales of more than $725 million, focused on creating its own in-house technology to manage back-office and front-office operations. It beefed up its IT staff to more than 100 people in preparation for hitting the $1 billion mark. Co-Founder Kathy Coover often says that success for Isagenix is about changing lives for customers and consultants. As people reach weight-loss goals or achieve selling milestones, sales boom.
Culture and Products
As upper mid-market companies mature and grow, they are reshaping the future of direct selling in ways that will forever change the industry. An emphasis on building a strong culture is now an essential piece of any growing direct selling entity.
Unity in vision and leadership, says WorldVentures President Eddie Head, is their key to a strong culture. “We have the unique ability to change how people view the potential of their lives. Our members and Representatives alike see our mission as helping people Experience Joy as a personal responsibility. When you have that kind of unified alignment between the corporate staff and the sales field, anything is within reach.”
Direct Selling’s TrendSetters
Companies with annual sales roughly between $300 million and $1 billion are shaping the future of the U.S. channel. DSN research has identified more than 30 companies believed to be approaching, within or recently exceeding that range. 4Life Research PartyLite ACN Plexus Worldwide AdvoCare Rodan + Fields Arbonne Scentsy doTERRA Shaklee Isagenix Stella & Dot It Works! Stream JAFRA Cosmetics Team Beachbody Jamberry Team National Jeunesse Thirty-One Gifts Juice Plus USANA Health Sciences LegalShield Viridian Energy Le-Vel World Financial Group Market America WorldVentures Nature’s Sunshine Younique Nerium Young Living The Pampered Chef
Rodan + Fields
Stella & Dot
USANA Health Sciences
World Financial Group
The Pampered Chef
Today’s growing companies are tightly focused on hero products or ingredients. Firms with compelling product and service lines that are mission-driven do well because they are meeting consumer needs while also connecting with people on a deeper level. That emotional benefit could help people reach their weight-loss or other lifestyle goals, or allow customers to help others by supporting a direct seller’s philanthropic efforts in the community.
“We’ve taken a customer-focused approach,” Le-Vel’s Camper says. “We lead with the product and find ways to relate to the customers. We knew if we had happy customers the business side would follow, and we really struck a chord among our salesforce with that.”
Today’s upper mid-market companies are telling a fresh story about the business opportunity of direct selling, which relies heavily on selling through powerful social tools including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.
Social media allows direct sellers and their independent consultants to broaden their audiences rather than narrow them. Companies that find the sweet spot with social media—where technology does not come at the expense of more meaningful face-to-face connections—are winning.
Mark Rawlins, Founder and CEO of InfoTrax, a software solutions company, says, “Social media is absolutely a key growth driver for many distributors because it can be used as a platform on which to build a business that preserves the in-person interactions.”
One way that social media allows consultants to be more entrepreneurial is through the use of videos that show how to use a product or display successful results. Such videos let consultants have fun and show their personality through the softer side of selling.
Companies that embrace this multimedia approach work hard to deliver training and messaging that empower consultants to be smart social sellers while maintaining brand integrity. “That is the secret sauce,” consultant Girardi says. “With social media we can pique someone’s curiosity and give them glimpses of products or outcomes.”
Videos and other social tools allow key influencers to change perceptions of a product or service and uncover needs people may not know they have. Companies today are using social media to share testimonials, celebrations and snippets of education and science.
The next big leap will be in finding new and interesting ways of combining social media and technology tools while making relationship-based commerce easier. Though software vendors have been slow to respond to this growing need, Rawlins says Infotrax and other firms are feverishly working to develop ways to tie business functions and support tools into social media platforms.
Innovation of All Kinds
Direct selling companies in this analysis appear to possess an unrelenting commitment to innovation by harnessing technology, developing new products or using new sales methods.
At Le-Vel, a virtual, cloud-based infrastructure enabled the firm to more easily manage the past three years of hyper growth, says Camper. Not many companies can boom from $9 million to $400 million in annual revenue without hitting some operational speed bumps. But for Le-Vel, which allows its executive team to work virtually, the cloud was key.
Having control of one’s own technology backbone is critical for middle market companies making a play for the billion dollar club. According to Head, WorldVentures is currently developing an “ecosystem and social platform” that will “attract vacationers and digital socialites alike to our brand, experiences and community. This platform will be engagement-driven, requires no purchase and leverages great content for sharing stories rather than selling.”
Jeunesse also purposely uses technology to its advantage. As Direct Selling News reported in its September 2015 issue, Jeunesse executives studied the middle market to better understand what caused companies to hit a plateau. The goal was to find ways to prevent a slowdown and just keep growing. For Jeunesse, the solution was to go global early as a way to push progress forward. Cloud technology integrates the salesforce and corporate systems across all markets. One example: the innovative mobile marketing software platform that provides videos and tools to give distributors education opportunities on-the-go.
Commonly, top-notch companies in the upper mid-market use various tech applications to supplement in-person trainings and recognitions. For example, live streaming can bring together people who are located on different parts of the planet to share moments or offer bite-sized trainings that fit adult learners. All of this is designed to help distributors learn and grow.
The companies at the core of the DSN analysis remain focused on developing loyal customers outside the distributor force. In other words, these are customers who only buy product and do not participate in compensation plan rewards. Whether it is electric power service for their home, a monthly supply of nutritional supplements or a subscription service for other products, millions of customers are utilizing the convenience of an autoship program with a direct selling company each month.
Loyalty and rewards programs are often the gateway for converting customers into distributors, and they offer passive, sustainable sales for the business while allowing a company to build and maintain an ongoing relationship with buyers. These customer-facing programs also demonstrate the company’s customer service abilities, which often increase the company’s appeal as customers may consider joining the business as sellers.
Le-Vel knows this very well. It developed a free affiliate network and provides free tools to those who want to build a business. Customers also can get free products when they refer two friends who sign up for the customer autoship. “That has nothing to do with the opportunity,” Camper says. “It’s about relating to customers.”
Reorders can help sustain a healthy business. The higher the repeat orders, the larger the number of happy customers, Camper says. Le-Vel now counts over 1.7 million customer accounts and 370,000 promoter accounts.
While some autoship customers do convert to promoters over time, “we see migration all over the board,” Camper says. “We try to keep it a very friendly, one-size-fits-all mentality and let customers choose what they want to do.”
Jamberry offers a monthly subscription program called StyleBox. Each month, customers choose one of three fashion styles and receive exclusive products reflecting that style. The items cannot be purchased anywhere else, which helps build rapport between the customer and the company. The boxes include a link to a video guide that demonstrates to customers how they can use the contents of their box to achieve a certain head-to-toe look.
“StyleBox ends up being more than just a product purchase,” Richards says. “It creates a customer experience.”
Loyalty programs often give customers points they can use on the products they normally buy. Autoship also can encourage customers to try more items or branch out into using an entire suite of products and services, says InfoTrax’s Rawlins.
“So many of the programs now reward customers and members for continued loyalty rather than requiring it to get compensation, and I think that is a beneficial change,” Rawlins says.
For companies like WorldVentures that provide a membership instead of a tangible product, brand loyalty can be even more difficult to generate. Head says, “We live in a highly ‘tuned in’ digitally aware world where everyone expects to be wowed. We have to maintain superiority in our value and in the quality of the curation of our experiences just to start the process of creating brand loyalty.”
How to Hit the $1 Billion Mark
So what does it take for an upper middle market firm to make the leap and become an established billion-dollar brand? Mining the data at hand and working with vendors who are partners is essential.
Consistently growing mid-market firms routinely develop powerful back-end technology that gathers all kinds of useful data. Very often all of the data is there, but companies are missing the intuitive piece. The businesses that jump ahead are the ones who know how to use the information to their advantage.
“They are not making decisions based on what they feel, they are basing it on what they know,” Girardi says. “Data empowers down-to-the-minute, metric-driven decision making.”
Distributors out in the field also must be skilled at leveraging data. They can analyze team metrics and figure out how to better lead and manage. Companies that want to keep growing must fill the data and technology gap among all consultants.
Working with vendor partners definitely can help a company reach toward the $1 billion mark, especially when building an internal team to handle every aspect of a business can sometimes be inefficient and more costly than necessary. Vendor partners can bring expertise and cost savings to the table as long as companies complete due diligence and check references. The vendor-client relationship should be a two-way street.
Entering the Upper Middle Market
For direct selling companies close to the $300 million benchmark, the future is limitless. Upper middle market CEOs and executives offer this advice to those aspiring to join the pack: Focus on customers and value, and build your company to be scalable.
Leading firms are smart. And they maintain a focus on in-person human interaction, even while embracing all the benefits of digital technology. Additionally, strong growth companies possess a genuine culture and continuously reinforce it. More advice includes:
- Have the management talent to support your growth.
- Make sure your product development and supply chain can keep pace with you.
One big challenge that up-and-coming direct selling companies face is maintaining a pool of executive and management talent to lead and run the business as they grow. Companies that are looking down the line for the next group of management and sales leaders are often able to avoid plateaus and keep growing.
“Those who push through into that $300 million mark and then the $500 million mark are the people who are diving into their data and looking at who out of their second-tier sales leaders can be moved up a tier,” Rawlins says.
Once those distributors are identified, leading companies provide training, encouragement and lots of tools and support to transform consultants into top sales leaders, which in turn starts carving out the pathway for the company to eventually become a billion dollar brand.
The path to upper mid-market success and beyond has been well-traveled by these companies and more. Their common experiences in focusing on high-quality products, developing a loyal customer base and providing excellent customer service, as well as creating strong cultures, are instructive for those seeking to break into this group. With nearly a third of these companies ready to charge the $1 billion threshold, or already there, the outlook is surely positive.