The opportunities (and challenges) of direct sales

I’ve learned, in my overall career and specifically as a business coach, that there are many ways to build a career and a business. There is no one path to success. Most people follow the traditional path; get a job, work hard, show value, and move up in the company with more responsibility and better compensation. Some take the big gamble on themselves, starting their own businesses or purchasing a business in order to build and make it better. And a surprisingly large number of people in America find success and happiness somewhere in the middle, in the world of direct sales.

In December, I interviewed Leah Huxtable, a local direct sales/retail ninja (who just happens to be my sister) for an episode of the Phase 2 Podcast. I’ve been impressed for years by Leah's success in direct sales and wanted to talk about it with her. I had no idea before the interview, however, about the size and scale of the industry. According to a survey by the Direct Selling Association, the direct sales industry accounted for $35B in revenue in 2018. Over 18 million people are involved in direct sales in the U.S., and while it is a part-time job for most, almost 1 million people count direct sales as their full-time job. They are building a career— and a business— through direct sales.

Direct sales roles are intriguing for many people because the role can be literally whatever they want it to be. Success can be achieved through events, selling online via social media, selling one-to-one, or by building a team. There are very few barriers to entry, at least financially. Most companies require some samples to be purchased but this is a fraction of the initial cash outlay compared to purchasing or starting a traditional business (no SBA loans required). If it is the right organization, support— marketing, resources, even the playbook on how to achieve success— is provided. Much of that support comes from the community of other sellers; one’s peers, team members, and the person who brought them into the business in the first place. Finally, and possibly most importantly, those in the industry rarely start off with a full-time career in mind. As Leah put it, "I was spending my days with tiny humans who didn’t speak English, and this was a chance to actually interact with adults!” For her, like many who make careers in direct sales, the business started as a side-hustle and grew, because of the work she put in, into a career. . . . and then into a business.

Make no mistake; achieving success in the industry is hard (there is a reason that nearly 90% of those involved are part-time). Direct sales is a sales job, after all, and selling is hard! Building something from a hobby in your jammies to an actual business takes initiative, an entrepreneurial spirit, grit. There is a “pyramid scheme” stigma (thanks to a few well-known bad actors in the industry) that is irrelevant to the vast majority of direct sales companies but must be overcome nonetheless. Success takes planning, as it does in any other business, and understanding what you do best, and focusing your time and energy on that area of excellence.

Direct sales is not for everyone (of course, nothing is!), but it can be anything from a satisfying side-gig to a successful career for those involved. As with any other business, success comes from effort, planning, and a willingness to put in the work. . . starting with a willingness to take a chance and put yourself out there. Do your research, talk to people you know, find a brand and company that matches your values, and start selling!

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