The Zen of MLM

Legacy, Leadership and the Network Marketing Experience

In 2007 I collected a stack of articles and editorials I’d written over the years (starting with 1991, 17 years earlier) as editor in chief at Upline, Network Marketing Lifestyles, and Networking Times, and other writings, and put them between two covers of a book.

In 2013, after a continuous 24-year stretch of writing on deadline for network marketing journals, I hung up my spurs in order to write books full-time. It seemed like a good time to gather up some of the pieces I’d penned in the interim and issue a new edition. So here it is, The Zen of MLM, Second Edition: the original 73 essays along with another 28 from the years since — in all, 101 of my best writings on these topics over the past quarter-century.

If you work in the world of network marketing, you’ll want to read this book.

And if you’re not connected to network marketing in any way?

Well … you still might want to give it a browse. A good number of the pieces here are about leadership, success, struggle, growth, self-discovery, and all those sorts of things that are not exclusively networking-related but simply part of the human experience. (And a minimum of “inside baseball” talk.)

The Zen of MLM Reviews

“Mann is a master of truth-telling; his wisdom, wit and clarity of thought on the art of MLM is unparalleled. Required reading.”
— Richard B. Brooke, Mach II with Your Hair on Fire

“John’s insights are always spot on — he knows exactly what it takes to build a solid network. Every network marketer needs to know what John knows.”
— Amy Posner, CEO, LeadsLab

“Nobody paints the big picture in our business quite like John David Mann. The Zen of MLM is one of those books you’ll learn from, not just once or twice, but over and over for years to come.”
— Tom Big Al Schreiter, Big Al Tells All

“John David Mann is the real deal. Seeking to create success in network marketing without applying the experiences his Zen of MLM would be like trying to cross the Pacific Ocean in an inflatable raft: maybe it can be done, but why try?”
— Art Jonak, founder of

“In a business historically promoted by hype and defended by dubious doctrine, there has been one voice for authentic, intelligent, sensible and credible network marketing wisdom and truth. That voice belongs to John David Mann.”
— John Milton Fogg, The Greatest Networker in the World

“Straight talk from a seminal thinker: provocative content that will engage your mind, inspire your imagination and most of all, help you build your business.”
— Randy Gage, Risky Is the New Safe

Excerpt from The Zen of MLM

In the winter of 1986, after devoting years to a career as a concert musician and teacher, I came to this sobering realization: I wasn’t making it financially—and it was time to do something about it. Do what, exactly? I had no idea. But something. A few weeks later, a friend and fellow teacher called me on the phone to tell me about something he was doing called network marketing, or multilevel marketing. “MLM,” he called it. I was intrigued . . .

It’s twenty-one years later, and after more than two decades of witnessing first-hand the growth and maturation of this emerging economic powerhouse, I’m more intrigued than ever.

What is this thing called network marketing, anyway?

In the more than sixty years it has been around, it has grown to become a $100 billion worldwide enterprise, making it an economic bloc roughly the size of New Zealand, Pakistan or the Philippines. Yet for much of that sixty-year history, mainstream culture has tended to regard network marketing, when regarding it at all, as the butt of jokes.

In the film Edward Scissorhands, the tragically weird figure of Edward is orphaned by the demise of Vincent Price, left alone in a castle and isolated from the world until he is discovered by . . . ding dong: the Avon lady. During the Soviet coup attempt in 1991, David Letterman observed on his show one night that the military had the Kremlin completely sealed off and neither journalists nor soldiers could penetrate the lockdown—“Although,” he added, “one Amway salesman did get through.”

Network marketing has for decades been the Rodney Dangerfield of business models: it don’t get no respect. (Little known fact: Dangerfield actually spent time in his youth supporting his family as an aluminum siding salesman. Life imitates art.)

Funny thing, though: despite the easy punch lines, people’s actual experience of the business is not necessarily what they think their experience of the business is.

In 1976, Lou Harris conducted a poll to measure American attitudes about the direct selling industry. (In those days, network marketing represented but a minority portion of the “direct selling” world; today it has grown to the point where the two terms are practically synonymous.) What Harris found was a classic schism between perception and reality: close to 100 percent of the people polled who had ever had any contact at all with the business had a positive experience—yet those same people had an overwhelmingly negative image of the industry itself. It was as if network marketing were a new food people still thought they hated—even though they’d actually tried it and found it tasted pretty good.

Things have changed since 1976, and especially since the mid-nineties. Mainstream acceptance, that elusive holy grail for so many network marketers, has been slow in coming, yet there are signs suggesting it may have finally arrived. For example, Fortune magazine has in the past few years published several multi-page supplements on the profession, citing involvement in the business by billionaires Warren Buffett and Richard Branson and such household brands as Citigroup, Sara Lee and Time Warner. According to statistics compiled from national surveys by the Direct Selling Association (DSA), the profession’s gross revenue has increased every single year for the past fifteen, which is as far back as DSA web site ( figures go. From 1999 to 2002, as U.S. retail sales overall suffered through a steep decline, the direct selling sector posted a marked increase in total sales.

In The Next Millionaires (2006), two-time presidential economic advisor and New York Times best-selling author Paul Zane Pilzer points out that as the institution of the modern corporation begins to falter and collapse, we are seeing a vast emigration from corporate employment to home-based business. “The twenty-first century we have just begun will be known as the Age of the Entrepreneur,” writes Pilzer. He goes on to forecast that the United States will spawn in excess of ten million new millionaires over the next decade—and that a significant portion of them will arise from the field of network marketing.

Over the decade and a half that this volume of essays covers, the profession has done some serious growing up. The self-policing efforts of the DSA and the network marketing companies themselves have helped to curb abuses of the system and establish profession-wide standards. As the profession’s ranks have continued to swell, it has been fascinating to watch the shifting demographics of those leaving behind traditional employment for the 1099 world of the work-at-home networking professional: college professors and coaches, bankers and surgeons, engineers and pro athletes. They range from twenty-somethings to ninety-somethings and hail from quite literally all walks of life.

And there are now fifty-five million of them worldwide.

What are all these people looking for? The answers are almost as diverse as the people, but they boil down to three. As I describe them, I’ll also explain what has happened since that 1986 phone conversation, and how the essays in this book came to be.