Ben Fields: Some pearls of wisdom on MLMs (Opinion)

Ben Fields

Ben Fields

It was at least a year ago. Maybe two. My wife called me into the living room. I had to see what she was watching on her phone.

A woman was doing a Facebook live stream holding a rather large knife and surrounded by oysters. She’d read a name, take the knife and KACLUNK. The oyster was open. There was a pearl inside. The woman seemed very impressed by its color and quality.

“What the hell did I just watch?” I asked, rather reasonably.

“I know, right?” my wife replied, enthralled by the absurdity of it all.

What we had witnessed was called an “oyster party.” People would order jewelry beforehand from a sales representative. The salesperson would then go on Facebook live and crack open the oyster to see what kind of pearl the customer was getting for their jewelry. I suppose this was intended to add a sort of blind-bag, slot-machine thrill to the whole thing.

I don’t know if oyster parties still happen. Some cursory internet sleuthing has uncovered multiple blogs and message boards claiming the pearls themselves aren’t all that valuable, and maybe didn’t even come from the oyster customers would see cracked live. The exotic colors of the pearls, detractors claim, were actually achieved through a dyeing process.

Maybe none of that is true. I honestly haven’t done the research to tell you that, if you love oyster parties, you’re actually being scammed. Here’s what I will say: I’ve been doing what I do for a long time, and I know what a scam looks like. And what oyster parties looked like, to me, were the weirdest version yet of a multi-level marketing business (MLM).

MLMs usually cater to women, with the allure of doing something to make money that is actually fun, and will allow some sort of freedom. You can sell as much as you want, when you want. There’s no time clock to punch, and the only limit is your ambition. If you’re a woman in the United States, odds are, if you don’t know someone who is selling something through an MLM on Facebook, you at least know someone who knows someone who does.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Man or woman, if you enjoy the live streams and the products offered, cool. Unfortunately, what a lot of the sellers don’t realize is that they are committing themselves to much more than a side hustle if they’re looking to make any real money.

MLMs typically require a huge investment to get in, whether that be a licensing fee up front or sinking thousands of dollars into inventory they then have to move. In a lot of cases, the sellers don’t get to choose their inventory, so they have to sell what they’ve been saddled with, along with what’s popular among their customers.

There are countless news articles out there showing women in rooms where boxes of Lularoe leggings are stacked to the ceiling. They’ve taken on crippling debt and are stuck with inventory nobody wants. In fact, there’s a federal lawsuit pending in Huntington in which a woman claims the MLM she was contracted with violated the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Another big problem is that, once an MLM catches fire, the market gets saturated with sellers competing to capture the attention and dollars from a limited customer base.

There are those who can be successful with MLMs, but it’s not a side hustle, it’s a required, full-on hustle. That can not only be daunting, but the grind can wear people down. My wife became friends with two women who sold a clothing line through an MLM agency. They went all-in, full-time. After a few months, the two, who were essentially best friends, were no longer a partnership or even on speaking terms.

I don’t know if there are still a lot of MLMs out there. I’m not their target audience. As a white male between 18 and 45, I’m bombarded with mono-level marketing every time I look at something other than my own feet. So, I’m no expert on the concept, really. But, just from what I’ve seen and read, I’d advise anyone thinking of getting into selling clothes or cracking a pinata with a baseball bat, to see what kind of Fabergé egg falls out, to do so with your eyes open and your head on a swivel.

Ben Fields is the Gazette-Mail

opinion editor. Reach him at,

304-348-5129 or follow

@BenFieldsWV on Twitter.

Funerals for Saturday, December 14, 2019

Akers, Trela - 1 p.m., Tyree Funeral Home, Mount Hope.

Cochran, Jacob - 3 p.m., Gatens-Harding Funeral Home, Poca.

Cosby-Matthews, Hattie - Noon, First Baptist Church of Charleston, Charleston.

DeMarino, Jane - 1 p.m., John H. Taylor Funeral Home, Spencer.

Gunther, Jewell - 1 p.m., Calvary Baptist Church, Chapmanville.

Hall, Betty - 1 p.m., St. Andrew United Methodist Church, St. Albans.

Holbrook, Linda - 1 p.m., St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, Pinch.

Johnson Jr., Delbert - 11 a.m., Allen Funeral Home, Hurricane.

King, Edna - Noon, St. Christopher Episcopal Church, Charleston.

Kiser, Kenneth - 6 p.m., Cunningham-Parker-Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Lawrence, Mamie - 2 p.m., O’Dell Funeral Home, Montgomery.

McCutcheon, Alice - 1 p.m., Old Greenbrier Baptist Church, Alderson.

Mills, Melinda - 5 p.m., New Baptist Church, Huntington.

Rannenberg III, Thomas - 2 p.m., Keller Funeral Home, Dunbar.

Ray, Sandra - 1 p.m., Crooked Creek Church of Christ.

Roach, James - 1 p.m., First Baptist Church, Ravenswood.

Tyler, Gloria - Noon, Grace Bible Church, Charleston.

Ulbrich, Sandra - 11 a.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.

Williams, Laura - 2 p.m., Stockert-Paletti Funeral Home, Flatwoods.

Wood, Ruby - 11 a.m., Good Shepherd Mortuary, South Charleston.