This story begins nearly a century ago. Two friends with a resume of hit and miss business ventures enter the direct selling arena. They sell a nutritional supplement called DOUBLE X, build a successful distributorship, and with some trepidation, launch a new company. Corporate headquarters is split between two basements in Ada, Michigan. The product is soap, not a particularly glamorous item. But they understand the power that lies in the dreams and ambitions of people searching for an opportunity.
Undoubtedly, many of our readers already know the outcome.
The two young friends are industry legends Rich DeVos and Jay Van Andel. The company they found is Amway, which has become the largest and most successful direct selling company in the world. For entrepreneurs, whether starting as an Amway Business Owner (ABO) or launching a new venture, there is much to learn from the Amway story.
That’s why we asked Doug DeVos, former President of Amway, current Co-Chairman of the Amway Board, and member of DSA’s Hall of Fame, to share his insights and perspective.
We’ve seen so many people from so many walks of life who chose direct selling and were able to move forward. What they all share is the ability to deal with failure. Because every entrepreneur fails. You need a high level of determination to keep going. That’s what I’ve seen with Amway and across the industry. People fail, but they turn it into a learning opportunity and keep going. It’s not the first seven times you fall and get up; it’s the 700 times that you get up. That level of persistence is common to every successful entrepreneur.
But it’s not easy. It’s hard to fail and keep going. Partnership is critical. You need people to come along for the journey, people you trust, so you can encourage each other and learn together. I saw that with Dad and Jay. They had a bond and a depth to their relationship that was vitally important. They decided, while still in high school, to start a business together. That was during World War II. They graduated and went into the service. But they would send letters back and forth, telling each other, “Someday we’re going to make this happen.” And they kept that promise.
They started with a flight school, even though neither of them knew how to fly. Then they opened a restaurant and, after sinking a boat while sailing to South America, tried an import business and then a toy company. Dad and Jay always said, “Why not? Try or cry.” And they believed in trying. They started looking for a business that was repeatable, like the nutritional supplement from Nutrilite or the soap that launched Amway. People use these products every day, and Dad and Jay knew success depends on your initiative to find customers and build a loyal community. That led them to direct selling.
A member of Jay’s family offered them the opportunity with Nutrilite. Dad and Jay read the materials, checked out the product, and went to a meeting in Chicago where they met people who were succeeding with Nutrilite. And for just a moment, I’ll put myself in their place: It’s December 1949. There’s no highway system yet. It’s just backroads. While driving home to Grand Rapids, they’re talking it over. They’re saying to themselves, “Maybe it’s time to focus on one business. The product is great. Not a lot of capital is needed. We can finance it without the banks. And with our own sweat equity, we can build something substantial.” That’s when they said, “This is it. If those people can do it, then we can do it too.” And that became their mantra. That’s what my dad spent the rest of his life saying: “If we could do it, you could do it.”
Why did they succeed?
They didn’t give up. People quit on them all the time. They staged a rally in Lansing, Michigan, spent a lot of money on marketing, and only six people came. But they kept going. It wasn’t sexy, it was just hard work. They showed the Nutrilite film. Jay read from a book about the product, and Dad added commentary. But it was a great product. They took good care of their customers. Each new customer group produced the next ABO group, whom they sponsored and supported. That’s how they did it—persistence, product, the partnership they had with one another, and the people who joined them. When they started Amway and bought Nutrilite, they stayed true to these principles.
Let’s start with the Compensation Plan. They reconstructed it so compensation aligned with the best interests of everyone. It was called the Pass-Through System. And it was an important enhancement because it ensured that ABO income was equitable and proportionate to their sales volume and the volume of downline ABO groups. It guaranteed that the people who did the work were the people who got rewarded.
Amway also brought a unique product into the marketplace. Frisk (now named L.O.C.) was the first multipurpose, biodegradable cleaner. In 1959, that was innovative, and the environmental story allowed for creative product positioning. But sometimes, it was shipped in boxes labeled as dog food. Bottle caps might be blue or purple. The viscosity was inconsistent. It could be thick or thin. So, in the early days, they had to make some apologies because there were so many things they couldn’t control and so many things they couldn’t do themselves. But they kept going and learning while they figured it out. They found resources to handle manufacturing, quality control, R&D, and all the things that are so important to building trust with customers and within the organization. They also attracted good people who were talented, people with different skill sets, personality types, and leadership styles. You can’t do everything yourself. As Jay said so often, “Delegate or stagnate.” So, once again, success came from persistence, partnership, and the people who came along for the journey.
Why did so many exceptional people choose Amway?
It’s the culture. That’s the secret sauce. It’s where we get that can do spirit. There’s never a problem at Amway. When things go wrong, nobody panics. It’s just a challenge. We’ve been there. We’re going to persist, move forward, and figure it out. But we’re also going to learn so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. That’s where the Founders were so critical. You can’t build a culture by what you say. It’s what you do.
Remember, they were children of the Great Depression. As young men, they served in World War II. How do you get through that experience? It takes faith. It’s because of your family, a belief that things will get better, and the hope for a better future.
Things may be bad, but we’ll move through it together and be rewarded. Dad and Jay lived these values. They lived with integrity. They lived the idea of partnership. And they lived the Amway Vision, which is to help people live better, healthier lives.
These principles are built into our operating model. We believe in the entrepreneurial spirit, that everybody should have the opportunity to own a business, and that all businesses come together in Amway. But we’re not controlling the entrepreneurs who choose Amway. Our role is to lead, support, and operate in a spirit of partnership. We’re all in this together. Amway is about our customers, our ABOs, our employees, and the communities in which we serve and do business.
So, how do we move forward?
In a time of great uncertainty, coupled with market volatility, that’s an important question, not only for established businesses like Amway but for every business and every entrepreneur. It will undoubtedly be a challenge. But the principles are the same. The marketplace is always dynamic and highly competitive, so you’ve got to bring value that is new or special.
At Nutrilite, Dad and Jay had a unique product. With Amway, the product was innovative, but they also invested in the business model and the opportunity to make it revolutionary. If there’s not a differentiating quality about the product, service, or support, it is going to be very difficult to get established or achieve a competitive advantage. That was true in 1959, and it will be true in 2029. It’s hard to do, but it happens every day; some entrepreneurs take it to scale and are very successful. That hasn’t changed. What I think is different today are the tactics.
Technology is an amazing liberator. It dramatically improves everything we do—management, communication, sales support, and data collection. But we need to use it effectively. Platforms should be easy to use. Operations must be aligned with how people want to receive products. Because the market is so competitive, it’s critical to evaluate the sustainability of products by measuring how they perform, how they compete with alternatives, and how customers respond. If we’re not creating enough value with a product offering, then we need to get better or eliminate it and focus on something else that creates more value for the customer. Coming out of the COVID restrictions, there’s a tremendous desire for human interactions that will add value to our lives. The experience of getting recommendations and receiving products from people we know and trust is powerful. It’s important to focus on building the community inside our organizations because people want to get together and learn from each other.
What does that look like for Amway?
We’ll keep figuring it out and keep bringing value to the market. We want to be more aware, more responsive, crisper in our evaluations, and better prepared to pivot and find products that are truly differentiated. Our targets, which we set as a normal course of business, must be the right targets for the company and Amway Business Owners. Incentives, rewards, and recognition should lead to stronger, more sustainable businesses that can meet current goals . . . and then be taken to the next goal and the next goal. If the field is doing well, then the company will be just fine.
The lesson I’d share with entrepreneurs is that the Amway story and Dad and Jay’s founding principles are still relevant today. They were bold. They were persistent. They connected as friends and partners. They connected with ideas that are timeless, and by living these ideas, they connected with people all over the world. I’m proud that so many people have found success through their engagement with Amway. I’ve also met many people who moved on and believed their Amway experience had a positive impact on their lives. That’s the legacy of Dad and Jay. I’m honored to be part of it, to build on it, and make it better so that Amway continues to welcome people from around the globe to this opportunity.