Separating Fact from Fiction

Jan 25, 2021
By DSJ Staff

Defining the Conditions for Distributor Harm in Direct Selling Opportunities

Direct selling is a popular option for millions of Americans because of the work–life flexibility, high-quality products, and supplemental earning potential such companies offer.

In addition to these attractions, some of those new to the direct selling channel also seek short- or longterm earning potential—even though by definition, these entrepreneurial financial rewards are uncertain. That uncertainty has been the springboard for litigation against some direct selling companies on “distributor harm” grounds—lawsuits filed that have argued that companies have misled independent contractors about the business.

Harm to direct selling distributors is sometimes alleged to occur when few distributors earn commissions from the firm or when analysts argue distributors “make a loss” from participation. Harm is similarly inferred when some distributors argue that the outcomes from their distributorships are less than they expected when enrolling. Or, harm may be alleged when observing strong levels of personal consumption of the firm’s products by distributors.

Dr. Anne Coughlan, Emerita Professor of Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, has observed several such claims during her more than twenty-five years spent studying direct selling as a distribution channel.

Dr. Coughlan comments, “Even when accurate, these observations don’t imply or prove that the company misleads distributors, acts fraudulently, or runs an illegitimate scheme, because they fail to capture the variety of motivations and values in a direct selling distributor force, as well as the difference between entrepreneurial uncertainty and fraudulent misrepresentation.” She adds that these observations are sometimes combined with an “attack on direct selling as a suspicious scheme, rather than as yet another perfectly reasonable distribution channel structure and strategy.”

Dr. Coughlan’s research paper “Consumer Harm from Voluntary Business Arrangements: What Conditions Are Necessary?” addresses the nature of harm in entrepreneurial opportunities like direct selling distributorships, showing that the uncertainty and risk inherent in these opportunities are not sufficient to argue true harm to their participants.

Voluntary Business Arrangements

The gig economy is characterized by flexible parttime jobs or temporary positions filled by independent contractors. These jobs and positions, or “gigs,” are what Dr. Coughlan refers to as “voluntary business arrangements,” or VBAs. Examples of VBA participants include Uber or Lyft drivers, Etsy craft artisans, and direct selling distributors.

Dr. Coughlan notes the importance of the voluntary nature of VBA participation. A VBA participant chooses to engage in the business arrangement—or, in the case of direct selling, the distributor’s business opportunity. VBA participants are independent contractors, not employees. Therefore, they are entrepreneurs: they get paid when they create their own results. They choose their work hours, they choose what they are going to sell, and they choose how much to invest in improving themselves.

They also choose to sign a voluntary contract, which defines the responsibilities, rights, and possible investments of both the provider or platform—eBay, Uber, the direct selling company—and the participant—the eBay reseller, the Uber driver, the direct selling distributor.

“When you attach your signature on an agreement to become a direct selling distributor, you have signed a business contract,” said Dr. Coughlan. “It is incumbent upon you to read that contract.”

Inherent Uncertainty

As Dr. Coughlan notes, a VBA participant’s financial outcome is inherently uncertain. She stresses the importance of the word inherently because a voluntary business arrangement makes no guarantees about its outcome for any one participant, and because outcomes naturally vary across participants.

Interestingly, the VBA provider also faces uncertainty about the financial benefits it can expect from any given participant. In the case of direct selling, for instance, the company likely does not know the participant’s selling skills or personal network or even if the participant has ever held a sales position. Unlike corporations that hire and employ salespeople, the direct selling company does not know how productive any particular participant will be.

The company is also uncertain about the efforts VBA participants will voluntarily put into their businesses. As independent contractors, participants can choose how many hours a week to work, what proportion of the product line to sell, and how much training to engage in. The participant may not know how much effort they will choose to exert on all those dimensions, and the direct selling company certainly does not either. Therefore, the company really cannot make any guarantee of returns or profit. It is not that they choose not to; it is that they cannot because it is factually impossible.

The benefits of enrolling in a VBA naturally vary across participants in multiple ways that affect any effort to measure distributor “harm.” Direct selling returns can be pecuniary (monetary) or non-pecuniary (non-monetary, e.g., social). Participants can also vary in the economic value each attaches to these various benefits. And, while some benefits (bonuses, commissions, overrides) are awarded directly by the company, others are accrued entirely personally by the distributor herself (flexibility value, social interaction).

“VBA participants may enjoy social interaction, but also value the pecuniary benefit of wholesale discounts on personally consumed products,” said Dr. Coughlan. “People commonly join direct selling companies because they are enthusiastic personal consumers. The savings from personal consumption at wholesale, not retail, prices offers a clear personal pecuniary benefit.”

Beyond personal-consumption savings, participants who buy at wholesale prices and sell at retail prices also earn a markup equal to the difference between wholesale and retail prices. This real economic benefit is not typically tracked by the direct selling company or observed by regulatory groups, which can spur unfounded distributor harm claims. By not tracking retail markup income, one may erroneously conclude that a participant making small or no commissions from the firm has “lost money,” when in fact her retail sales and the economic value of personal consumption at wholesale prices combine to create a net positive return.

Even if a VBA participant diligently investigates a direct selling opportunity, collecting all available information, they will still not resolve all the uncertainty inherent in a VBA. Direct selling is an entrepreneurial venture. However, it is one of the lowest risk entrepreneurial ventures available and start-up costs are far less than those of starting an Etsy business or owning a franchise.

From observing such attacks on companies—that they are running pyramid schemes and fraudulently taking away people’s money—I think it is important to remind people that costs are at the discretion of the distributor."

—Dr. Anne Coughlan, Emerita Professor of Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University

Concern About Harm to Participants

The issue of protecting VBA participants against harm—a consumer protection issue—is of business and policy importance. However, harm has not always been precisely defined.

  • Some might claim harm from an incorrect ex ante belief about their skill and productivity, compared to the ex post reality after enrolling.
  • Some might claim harm due to the incursion of unrecoverable “sunk” costs.
  • Some might argue harm from being misled by the provider about the facts of the business opportunity.

“Harm is likely to be identified after the participant has joined the VBA and some outcomes—earnings, bonuses—have been observed,” said Dr. Coughlan. “However, ex post disappointing outcomes are not necessarily a sign of true harm inflicted by the VBA company, both because of the uncertainty about how predictive ex ante expectations are of ex post results, and because the participant chooses how hard to train for and work at the VBA and, therefore, influences the outcome.”

Observing ex post outcomes is interesting, Dr. Coughlan explains, but it does not fully reveal whether a participant lost money or, if so, due to what causes.

One general concern related to the protection of participants is about the quality of the business opportunity. Policymakers voice concern when they think that a prospective distributor’s pre-enrollment belief is not borne out in the VBA experience, reflected in statements like, “It isn’t what I thought it would be. I’m not making any money. I’m not selling anything. I lost money.” These policymakers are worried about the pre- and post-expectation revelation problem, and the possibility of large unrecoverable costs, which complainants will say are “sunk.” They are also worried about the possibility of a participant being actively misled either by the company, the provider, or by an upline recruiter.

Such concerns suggest there is value in defining returns and costs or losses as fully as possible so it can be truly determined when, or if, true harm has occurred. There is, after all, a difference between a bad outcome happening and someone being at fault.

Net Economic Return (NER)

The first part of defining the nature of harm is to define the returns from being a distributor. Dr. Coughlan points out that there are two certainties in doing this: (1) that there cannot be a resolution of all uncertainty, and (2) that if a participant chooses to enroll, she recognizes that the economic value of the opportunity could be either great or small. In short, a voluntary business opportunity offers an expectation, not a certainty.

To define returns, Dr. Coughlan defines a term— net economic return (NER) —that is the sum of the expected benefits, minus the expected costs, of being a distributor:


  • Consumption utility from voluntary personal consumption of the direct selling company’s products bought at wholesale prices
  • Wholesale-to-retail markup income earned on units sold to non-distributor end-users
  • Income earned from and paid by the direct selling company (typically commissions or bonuses)


  • Registration fee (typically charged annually)
  • Wholesale prices paid for units bought from the direct selling company (COGS)
  • Cost of selling effort

“From observing such attacks on companies—that they are running pyramid schemes and fraudulently taking away people’s money—I think it is important to remind people that costs are at the discretion of the distributor,” said Dr. Coughlan. “They sign an agreement verifying that they understand that.”

Avoidable Economic Loss (AEL)

In considering distributor harm from income or earnings claims, the question is whether a participant has been led to misunderstand the distributorship opportunity in a way that could create harm for them. To answer that question, Dr. Coughlan defines harm as an “avoidable economic loss” (AEL) which arises when four conditions all hold together, namely:

a) Before registering, the prospect is uninformed about some information that would be useful in estimating her ex ante NER; and

b) The relevant information is known by some other member of the channel responsible for communicating to the prospect about the business opportunity (e.g., the direct selling company or the distributor’s upline sponsor); and

c) Had she had access to, and had used, this information, her revised ex ante NER would be less than the cost of time from participating, and she would not have enrolled as a distributor; and

d) If she does not have access to the relevant information and therefore enrolls as a distributor, she accrues an ex post NER less than the cost of time from participating.

The reasons for a prospect’s lack of relevant information about the direct selling business opportunity— not just the imperfect information itself—are core to the characterization of a company as a legitimate direct selling company versus as a fraudulent one, or a pyramid scheme.

Economic Model and Results

NER is the expected benefits net of the cost of participating. The opportunity cost of participating is defined as the economic value of the next best thing a participant could have done with her time. For example, if a participant gives up a managerial job or a position as a doctor in a medical practice, the expected earnings from that are the opportunity cost to participating in the VBA instead. If the participant is a stay-at-home mom not otherwise gainfully employed, her opportunity cost of time is lower.

In short, a VBA participant must consider whether the opportunity is worth her time. Some questions this suggests include, “Am I under-informed? And, if so, does somebody else know the information?” If nobody else does, then it is not possible to resolve the uncertainty. It is part of the underlying entrepreneurial uncertainty.

But suppose the participant is informed of some negative aspect of the company, yet does not change her mind about joining. For instance, maybe she finds out that only 10 percent of distributors ever earn a check from the company. If it does not change her initial assessment, which is made in a world of entrepreneurial uncertainty, then there cannot be AEL because her enrollment decision would not have been avoided by sharing the information.

An AEL occurs if all four of the above conditions jointly hold. More importantly, however, simply documenting that some people do not earn commissions or bonuses from the company is insufficient to argue that there is harm. People lose money for reasons that have nothing to do with having had harm inflicted upon them. If harm could be argued to exist simply when a participant does not receive commissions from the company, then we would have to consider guaranteeing compensation to everyone who opens a restaurant, starts an Etsy business, or chooses to be an Uber driver.

Dr. Coughlan comments that the economic model shows “that participants who make money and voluntary personal consumers clearly don’t suffer an AEL. Nor do those who voluntarily take the entrepreneurial risk of a distributorship after receiving available information—even if their net economic return is ultimately negative. Only if some uncertainty could have been resolved, that would deter a participant from a negative NER, is there an avoidable economic loss.”

Misrepresentation v. Misapprehension

Misrepresentation, in general, involves the purposeful omission of known valuable information or giving purposefully misleading statements. Either of these must affect the assessment of the opportunity the person makes before joining.

Misapprehension, on the other hand, is on the part of the participant. Consider this scenario: A prospect wants to join a direct selling company. She is shown the compensation plan and watches a webinar explaining how it works. She is shown the company’s policies and procedures. She is also shown the company’s income disclosure statement, but she does not pay any attention to it. She is excited to join and just signs the form. Dr. Coughlan notes that “These sorts of behaviors could lead to misapprehension—even when there is no misrepresentation.”

“This behavior is not the fault of the company. That is the individual choosing to sign on the dotted line without reading the contract first,” Dr. Coughlan said. “This is not, by the way, only true of people signing up for direct selling distributorships.”

Misapprehension may be enabled by uncertainty, for example, in those who say, “I don’t know how good I am, and I don’t look at the information, but I make the decision anyway.” Then there is the misapprehension that occurs not because the company did not tell a prospect, but because it could not possibly be knowable. For instance, a prospect who enrolls as a distributor in December 2019 cannot have known that a global COVID-19 pandemic would occur in 2020.

To clarify, misapprehension is not the same as misrepresentation. When there is misrepresentation— omission or commission—then an AEL is possible (though not inevitable). There may be complaints, however, when a bad outcome occurs because a participant does not like taking risk, does not put in the time and effort, and ends up with a negative net economic return. Such misapprehension, accompanied by a negative return, does not imply an AEL, because the participant could have looked at the information but chose not to do so.

Implications for Policy

In conclusion, there must be a purposeful misrepresentation of the business opportunity for there to be the possibility of avoidable economic harm.

Standard protections offered by direct selling firms— voluntary purchases, registration fees not credited to the upline, refund of initial fees, reasonable period return policy, discouragement of inventory loading, and clawback of upline commissions when returns occur—provide legitimacy to a direct selling company and help to safeguard it against litigation.

“When these protections are in place, and compensation is not awarded for recruitment unrelated to sales, one cannot argue that this company has inflicted distributor harm, or is a pyramid scheme,” said Dr. Coughlan. “Any observed frequency of personal consumption is irrelevant in the presence of protections, because that consumption is voluntary. Non-commission-earning distributors are not indications of a pyramid scheme or of fraudulent misrepresentations by the company.”

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