Millions of women are weathering the still-tough economy by earning extra cash through direct sales: supplementing a salary that just doesn't cover everything or replacing one that vanished. Innovative options include power tools, home decor items, even professionally fitted bras. These moms are all making a home-party business work for them.
Ginny Fiscella, 47
Mom of two, ages 15 and 12
Lives in Overland Park, Kansas
Product: Silpada jewelry (silpada.com)
Works: 4 days and 2 nights a week
Earns: Over $200,000 per year
It's a typical workday in the Fiscella home: Ginny, leader of Silpada jewelry company's top sales force, makes phone calls in her home office, while husband Doug handles her administrative tasks from his laptop in the kitchen. The arrangement gives him time with daughters Caroline and Molly and frees Ginny to focus on what she does best—selling, recruiting, and motivating her team.
Backstory: In 1999 Ginny left her full-time job in hospice management when the family moved from Arizona to Kansas so that Doug could take a new job. Bored one afternoon, she browsed through a Silpada catalog that belonged to her sister-in-law. "Halfway through, I already had a $350 wish list," she says. So Ginny decided to become a rep to earn some free bling and hopefully make friends. She took $1,000 from savings to purchase display jewelry, conservatively calculating that she'd need 12 parties to replenish the account. Her first party yielded $1,500 in sales, $450 each in commission and free jewelry, and six more bookings. Doug said, "Something tells me we've got a good thing going here."
Then what? Within a year and a half, Ginny was earning $3,000 to $4,000 a month, doing two to three parties a week. However, not wanting to seem pushy, she wasn't recruiting her hostesses to sell. After her best friend signed up as a rep, and found she could finally afford to cover all her kids' sports activities, she told Ginny, "Shame on you for keeping this to yourself." That's when Ginny started recruiting anywhere and everywhere: at the supermarket, on vacation, even in restaurants. (When a fellow diner complimented her bracelets, Ginny gave them to her, along with an info kit. The woman became a rep a few weeks later.) By 2005, Ginny was making six figures annually from three parties a week and commissions on her team's sales. Meanwhile, Doug had changed jobs and was miserable. He decided to quit so Ginny could expand her business even more. His handling of car pools and homework has enabled her to achieve $1 million in cumulative retail sales and become the family's main breadwinner. Ginny admits initially feeling guilty about delegating "mom" tasks to Doug. "But I feel much more fulfilled now," says Ginny, "which is better for all of us."
Nakia Evans, 35
Mom of three, ages 18 and 16 (twins)
Lives in Baltimore, Maryland
Product: Soul Purpose body care (soulpurpose.com)
Started: April 2009
Works: Around 35 hours per week
Earns: Around $40,000 per year
All it took was a few minutes of soaking her feet at a cousin's spa party for Nakia to fall in love with Soul Purpose all-natural scrubs. She started selling on nights and weekends to supplement what she earned as a full-time commercial property manager and subsidize her children's school trips, extracurriculars and proms. As she grew her team (which includes her mom and husband Robert, 39), she realized this was a great opportunity for teens too. "They always need money but have limited time to work," she says. Her son, James, 18, had already made some sales to friends and teachers. But Nakia envisioned a formal entrepreneurship program, with training and mentoring from seasoned sellers, teaching teens how to grow businesses that fit around schoolwork and activities.
Backstory: Nakia drafted a proposal for her Essential Soul Purpose Youth (ESPY) mentoring program, for ages 14 to 17, and pitched it to company CEO Nadine Thompson, who loved the idea. Nakia found 15 interested teens through her kids and sales force. They kicked off with a fashion show fundraiser in February 2011, with aspiring entrepreneurs modeling Soul Purpose makeup and clothes from local boutiques, to build buzz and recruit community mentors.
Then what? After training, teens consult with their mentors for a year, corresponding twice a month. "It's not just about business," says Nakia. "They cultivate life skills like goalsetting, decision-making and money management." The objectives mesh perfectly with the company's mission to empower women of color, and Soul Purpose is rolling out the ESPY mentoring program nationwide. "This prepares teens for the future," Nakia says. "I was a teen mom who struggled at times to make ends meet. I believe in teaching kids how to become financially independent."
Carrie Steuer, 39
Mom of two, ages 10 and 7
Lives in Chicago, Illinois
Product: Essential Bodywear (myessentialbodywear.com/breastfriend)
Started: March 2005
Works: 25 to 35 hours a week
Earns: $69,000 per year
Five years after leaving corporate America to be a full-time mom, Carrie started selling specialty foods to try to earn money to buy a new car. Her exhibit at a women's expo had basically zero foot traffic, but she noticed a booth with bras was packed. "The rep offered to fit me, and when I came out of the dressing room and checked the mirror, I looked like I had lost 10 pounds," says Carrie. "Who doesn't love that?"
Backstory: To earn a free bra, she volunteered to host a party. But before it rolled around, she'd researched the company and signed on as a consultant. "I couldn't stop talking about that bra," she says. "Being passionate about the product is key to success in direct sales." Fourteen friends attended her first event, learning about common problems like too much cleavage and nipple show-through. Then each got measured, privately, for a bra to suit her body type. "The transformations were amazing," says Carrie. "They stood taller and more confidently." She sold a lot that night, and asked those friends to have parties. "Try to book as many as you can in the first month to build momentum," she recommends.
Then what? Carrie recruits new hostesses and consultants at every event and saves customers' sizes for easy reordering. She now works three nights a week, typically two at parties and one on coaching calls, encouraging her team to set tangible personal earning goals. Her own income goes toward her mortgage, saving for her kids' college tuitions and charitable donations. "It helps to sell something that every woman needs," Carrie says. "Bra measurement is a dying art." One customer was so thankful to find a good-fitting bra that she bought six. "I never really thought of myself as a salesperson, but magic happens when you find a product you completely believe in."
Leah Adams, 30
Mom of three, ages 10, 6 and 4
Lives in Denver, Colorado
Product: Celebrating Home tableware and decor (celebratinghome.com)
Started: January 2010
Works: About 15 hours a week
Earns: About $15,000 per year
Moving is a way of life when your spouse is in the Air Force—and makes it tough to hold down a regular job. "Who knows where the military will send us next," says Leah. "Now I can work wherever we go."
Backstory: Leah discovered Celebrating Home at a school PTO event, while living on Grand Forks Air Force base in North Dakota. Having just finished chemo for cervical cancer (she's in remission now), she hosted a party for fun. While it was winding down, her husband, David, 32, came in from his second job and said, "You could sell that stuff." Leah laughed it off, but David encouraged her to try. "He felt I needed something positive after being so sick," she says. When offered a start-up kit for half price as part of a special promotion, Leah bought in and lined up events with friends on the base, showing how to cook quick meals and set beautiful tables with the stoneware.
Then what? Within three months she'd earned enough so David could quit his second job. After the military relocated them to Denver, Lisa was fortunate to meet more potential reps while selling at a local crafts show and learn marketing tricks at the company's training conference. But a few months later, David was deployed to Afghanistan. While he was gone, Leah and the boys lived in Pennsylvania with his parents. Her mother-in-law connected her with possible hosts, and her eldest son, Luke, loaded the car before events. Even David pitched in, posting specials to his Facebook page. "This business provided a needed distraction," says Leah. "It helped me and the kids forget, even if for a few hours, how much we missed Dad." When David's tour of duty ended safely in June, the family celebrated with a beach vacation in Sea Isle City, New Jersey, thanks to Leah's earnings. Now back in Denver, Leah has sales reps in three states and a growing team.
Kate Julian, 40
Mom of three, ages 12, 6 and 4
Lives in Providence Village, Texas
Product: Tomboy Tools (tomboytools.com)
Started: February 2009
Works: 25 hours per week
Earns: $32,000 per year
Backstory: Do-it-yourselfer Kate just wanted to buy a Tomboy Tools pink hammer, after seeing one in a magazine and reading about how sales benefited breast cancer research. But the closest rep was 250 miles away. Her husband suggested she become a sales consultant, since she'd have an untapped market.
Kate launched with Tool School 101, teaching how to use Tomboy's specially-sized-for-women equipment to fix leaks and unclog drains on mock toilets and sinks. The recession worked to her advantage too. I'd say, "Why pay a plumber, when you can do it yourself?"
Then what? To cultivate repeat business, Kate does specialty workshops on topics like Caulking, Energy Efficiency, and Drywall Repair. She strives for four events a month, targeting high-exposure home shows when possible. ("But I won't spend more than $500 on a booth.") Each tool party is an "empowerment session," she says. "I've met women who've never even held a hammer, yet they leave feeling capable of doing basic repairs." Kate has learned a lot too. She recently installed a ceiling fan all on her own. "When I switched it on and it didn't wobble, I felt incredibly accomplished," she says.
Darlene Moe, 47
Mom of three, ages 18, 21 and 25
Lives in Everett, Washington
Sells: Avon (avon.com)
Started: October 2007
Works: 2 to 5 hours a week
Earns: $4,000 per year
Backstory: This fourth-grade teacher at Hillcrest School in Lake Stevens, Washington, was sad to see enrichment activities eliminated by budget cuts. So she decided to subsidize them through her side job as an Avon lady.
Her first class fundraiser was in 2009. With the principal's permission, Darlene sent catalogs and letters to parents, explaining the goal: Sell what you can in two weeks (without kids going door to door, for safety's sake) and all profits will fund field trips and special events. Since she's in Avon's President's Club—a rank achieved when you sell over $10,100 in a year—the class would get at least 40% commission on sales. Her students' parents sold $1,100 worth of products, earning about $475. It enabled them to hear from a bat scientist while studying the book Stella Luna, and visit a nursing home to read to the elderly.
Then what? Since then, all fourth-grade teachers (and third, too) have joined in, gathering at Darlene's home with selected students to sort and pack orders. Last year's fundraiser covered a trip to the Adopt a Stream Foundation. This year, 125 students toured a local museum, and visited Fort Casey on the Puget Sound. "My kids feel a sense of accomplishment, knowing they make these things happen," she says. As student body advisor Darlene also spearheaded a fundraiser to benefit an 80-year-old school volunteer who'd retired. The money bought bulbs, mulch and a garden bench for the woman's yard, and the kids helped plant it all. "For me, Avon provides the means to give back," she says.
How to Start a Career in Direct Sales
The Internet is an awesome resource for info and advice from experienced sellers. Check out directselling411.com, directsaleshelpers.com and directsalestalk.com. When you've chosen a company, you'll need to buy a start-up kit so you have supplies for your first wave of get-togethers. Plan your first party in your home, then ask friends to host in theirs. They snag freebies while you work the crowd and reap commission, usually around 25% on whatever is purchased, plus extra rewards for meeting sales quotas. Once you're really moving and grooving, recruit new consultants, known as your downline. You earn anywhere from 2% to 5% on what they sell. As sales grow, you rise in rank and earnings.
Yeah, these companies have been around awhile—because they have top-quality products that keep customers coming back. Check them out if you haven't lately to see their updated 2011 style.
Makeup: Mary Kay, marykay.com
Kitchen storage: Tupperware, tupperware.com
Women's clothing: Carlisle, carlislecollection.com
New and Different
Make a name (and a career!) for yourself with one of the more unusual new companies.
The Happy Gardener (thehappygardener.info) Eco-friendly growing aids.
Dove Chocolate Discoveries (dove-chocolate-discoveries.com) Tastings with mudslide martinis, 5-minute mousse and other treats made from mixes.
Vault Denim (vaultdenim.com) Designer jeans at discount prices to take home on the spot.
Mark (meetmark.com) Avon's cool little sister, a favorite with style-conscious college students.
Originally published in the October 17, 2011, issue of Family Circle magazine.