Maybe you're not familiar with the term "direct sales," but chances are, you know someone who does it: the friend who hosts parties where she gives makeovers -- and sells Mary Kay cosmetics. The mom at the playground who pushes Discovery Toys. The neighbor who drops The Pampered Chef catalog in your mailbox.
Actually, if you're like a lot of mothers of young kids, you might have even considered working in direct sales yourself. After all, it seems like a great way to earn money but to still have the flexibility to spend time with your children. (That's probably why more than 70 percent of direct salespeople are women.) And it's a growing field: There are currently 264 businesses in the Washington, D.C.-based Direct Selling Association (DSA), up from 204 in 2001. So there's a good chance you could easily find a company whose products you'd want to hawk.
But before you decide to launch a new career, it's important to think long and hard about this line of work. Experts warn that it's not as easy as it looks: Becoming a successful salesperson takes lots of time and skill -- and there are plenty of pitfalls along the way. There's no guarantee of big bucks, either. "The median income of a salesperson is only between $2,400 and $2,500 a year," says Amy Robinson, a DSA spokesperson. That's because most sellers work only a handful of hours a week to supplement the household income, not to earn a full-time salary. Still, salespeople who put in between 30 and 40 hours a week can earn about $25,000 annually, Robinson says. And it's possible to pull in even more than that over time. "If you're really willing to work at it, you can build up to a great business," says Nicki Keohohou, cofounder of the Direct Selling Women's Alliance, an online education and support group. How do you get started? We've come up with a simple plan to get your direct-sales career off the ground.
Step 1: Pick the right business. With hundreds of companies selling everything from cosmetics and clothing to laundry soap and kitchen knives, it's hard to know what product would be best to sell. Do some research by logging on to the Website of the Direct Selling Association at dsa.org. All member companies adhere to a strict code of ethics, so you'll find only businesses that are on the up-and-up. Experts say it's safer to stick with a well -- established company that has a long history of success than it is to sign up with a brand -- new one. Another good tip: Focus on companies that sell a product you're passionate about and that you would use yourself.
Step 2: Figure out how much money you can earn -- and how you'll be compensated. Once you've narrowed your search to a handful of potentials, go to that company's Website or call them up to investigate exactly how you'll be making your money. "Some firms have single -- level compensation systems, which means you only earn commissions on products you sell," Keohohou explains. But the vast majority of direct-sales companies work on a multilevel system, meaning that you also earn commissions on the sales generated by other sellers whom you recruit (and even on their recruits!). When it's done right, you can earn a bundle.
What's the downside? For some people, it's hard enough to sell products; recruiting other salespeople can be a real drain. Supervising those people takes time and effort too. So try to calculate, as best you can, how much you'd need to sell yourself -- and whether you'd need to sign up other sellers -- to make the amount of money you're aiming for. (Many direct salespeople are content to only earn commissions on what they sell, but if you want to maximize earnings, it's likely you'll need to recruit. But beware of companies that focus more on recruiting than on selling.)
Step 3: Talk to other salespeople. Ask the companies you're considering for names and phone numbers of salespeople in your town, including one or two former sellers. Find out what they think about the business and its products, and whether they'd let you tag along on a sales call. Ask if you can look at their weekly sales record from the past month or so, and ask what percent of their sales are repeat business. "That should tell you a lot about the quality of the merchandise," says Jerry Heffel, president of Southwestern Company, a Nashville-based business that sells reference books and software. Ask for an honest assessment of how much you can expect to make.
Step 4: Investigate the sales approach. Some companies sell one-on-one, while others work with groups of potential customers -- the "party plan" made famous by Tupperware and Mary Kay. Decide which type best suits you. Do you think you'd be able to persuade family, friends, and even strangers to host a gathering where you can pitch your goods? Do you enjoy speaking in front of large groups? Or would it be easier for you to sell to people individually? Whichever approach you choose, it's key that you have a natural "sales" personality -- you need to be outgoing, positive, and persistent.
Step 5: Check out the start-up costs. Some companies require only that you buy a starter kit with products and informational material, which can cost anywhere from $10 to $500. Others, however, expect you to order a certain amount of their products in advance and keep them on hand when you're meeting customers. The advantage is that you may sell more that way because you can give the customer the product right then and there. The drawback is that you also face the risk of getting stuck with merchandise you aren't able to sell. While most companies promise to buy back merchandise within a year as long as it's in sellable condition, not every firm follows that guideline. So read the fine print to make sure the company does, or you could end up losing, not earning, money.
Step 6: Find out about training. Most companies provide some training to new sellers. But you need to make sure it's done well, especially if you don't have much sales experience, advises Barton Weitz, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Florida's college of business, in Gainesville. Look for a company that uses a mixture of manuals, in-person sessions, videos, and Web materials in its training program. In multilevel companies, the training is often done by the person who recruited you, so it's important to ask her exactly what she'll do for you. "The quality of the person who trains you is just as important as the reputation of the company itself," Dr. Weitz says.
Meet the Sales Moms
Marleana Cross Woodstock, Illinois Mother of five children, ages 2 to 11
- What she's selling: Specialty teas, scone mixes, teapots, china, and tea accessories for Tealightful Treasures. She runs parties where guests sip tea, socialize, and later buy products.
- When she started: 2004
- Earnings: About $400 a month, working about ten hours a week
- Start-up costs: An initial investment of $200 to buy china for tea parties and assorted other sales materials
- Why she chose the business: "I've always viewed teatime as a great way for moms to slow down and relax, so I knew this was a business that I could pour my heart into. I love the products I sell, and I think my enthusiasm for them comes through to my customers."
- Challenges: "Setting aside the time I need to devote to training sessions."
- Rewards: "I've been able to earn money to pay for the extras that never quite seemed to fit into our regular budget, like piano lessons, horseback riding, soccer, and Girl Scouts. And I've really enjoyed the opportunity to get out of the house on a regular basis and meet new people."
Terri Budke Lancaster, California Mother of two children, ages 5 and 10
- What she's selling: Housewares and kitchen supplies from The Pampered Chef. She runs cooking parties, demonstrates culinary techniques, then sells products to guests.
- When she started: 2000
- Earnings: About $4,000 a month, working about 25 to 30 hours a week
- Start-up costs: Less than $100
- Business-building strategy: At first, she coordinated one cooking party a week. But after doing more than 700 parties, she now also recruits and trains other salespeople.
- Challenges: "I was working full-time as an elementary-school teacher when I started in sales, so I had to juggle two jobs at first. But after I built up my business, I was able to make enough money to quit my day job."
- Rewards: "I now net more than I did as a teacher, but I work fewer hours and don't need child care."
Ellen Castelli Dublin, Ohio Mother of four children, ages 4 to 17
- What she's selling: Women's clothing from Weekenders USA. She makes one-on-one sales calls and leads parties where she showcases the company's fashions.
- When she started: 1996
- Earnings: $2,000 to $5,000 per month, working about 20 hours a week
- Start-up costs: About $1,000 on merchandise, but she could have bought as little as $150 worth
- Secret to her success: "I truly believe in the products I'm selling. I always wear Weekender clothing, and I'm a walking advertisement for the company. People ask, "Where'd you get that cute outfit? and it's a perfect opening to tell them all about my business."
- Challenges: "Because I'm based at home, it can be hard to turn work off. I have to make it clear to my family -- and even to myself -- when it's work time and when it's personal time."
- Rewards: "After doing this for so long, I'm able to make full-time wages for part-time work. I earn money from sales, and I also earn commissions based on other women on my team."
Sandra Lallemand New York City, New York Mother of four children, ages 2 months to 4 years
- What's she selling: Mary Kay cosmetics.
- When she started: 2005
- Earnings: $2,000 to $2,500 a month, working about 15 hours a week
- Start-up costs: A starter kit for $100, plus about $1,200 worth of inventory, which she quickly sold
- Why she chose the business: "I really like the glamour aspect. A friend introduced me to the products, and I fell in love with them right away."
- Secret of selling success: "I have a big group of friends and neighbors who are my regular customers, but I also approach women everywhere and offer them my card. At the supermarket, in the bank, anywhere I go, I'm always working."
- Challenges: "Since I have such young children, it's sometimes tricky scheduling work appointments at a time when their father or another family member is available to babysit."
- Rewards: "I love being compensated for a job well done; I earned the use of a company car in just eight months! It's also a field where you can set your own hours and be your own boss -- and where you don't need a college degree to be a success.