It was a crisp Friday July morning and I was meeting with a business colleague I'd only recently met via Skype. It felt sort of like meeting someone I'd known for awhile based on the immediate connection we established a week earlier on the video conference call with her partner. I was looking forward to our face-to-face meeting. We met in an open air cafe at a hip and cool west LA hotel on Sunset Blvd that could have easily been plucked right out of Miami south beach. There is just something especially invigorating about open-air cafes in LA and the way they generate a sense of optimism and creative energy.
The energized conversation began as we headed to our table and flowed easily and free picking up right where left our initial discussion when she suddenly changed the subject and said to me "I know we're here to discuss another matter, however, I had a meeting with a company here in LA that's very interesting named Visalus, have you ever heard of them?" I said "who?...Visalus?...I've never heard of them, what do they do?" She explained "Visalus is a health and wellness company started in 2005 and sold to Blyth, Inc (BLY) in 2008. They are attracting 40,000+ customers a month and generating over $15 million in monthly sales with a keen focus on nutritional weight loss and weight management products through a multi-level-marketing (MLM) approach." Yikes, did she say MLM? - aren't they all scams I thought to myself.
I recalled an experience I had in the 80's with an MLM company I joined in college hoping to raise money to help pay my way through college. It lasted about a month. Once I learned that trying to sell a product nobody wanted and that I didn't really believe in, I knew the business was doomed. The product was some weird freeze-dried spaceman chocolate beverage - no one needed it!
Having been fortunate enough to work with emotionally-based experiential brands including industry leaders like Disney, Starbucks, Universal Studios, Paramount Pictures and Commerce Bank, I learned how they build a powerful brand by immersing the Customer in the brand experience and creating strong emotional connections. Those connections easily spread by storytelling and word of mouth marketing. something I was skeptical about with most brands in the MLM industry.
However, I continued to listen to her as I consider myself open minded and I'm always intrigued to learn about new things and how they work. I listened as she told me the Visalus story, about the young 34 year old CEO named Ryan Blair that went from gang member to multi-millionaire as a serial entrepreneur. Honestly, my BS meter was on high alert! At the same time, with my wife and I being committed to fitness and a healthy lifestyle, what interested me was the focus on a highly nutritional natural products centered around a beverage called a Vi-Shape shake. And in my experience, great products that are well positioned within a successful business model lead by an authentic and believable brand always do well.
I read how the management team, lead by the three Visalus founders, Ryan, Blake Mallen and Nick Sarnicola were creating strong "emotional connections" and energizing the Visalus brand by promoting the Vi-Shake with a 90 Day Body by Vi Challenge where people set goals and are offered incentives to meet their goals. One of the incentives involves FREE products through encouraging people to form groups and build relationships within the Challenge reinforced by a bring 3 (customers or distributors) and yours is FREE offer. Very compelling especially knowing that the most successful fitness and weight loss programs usually involve people working together.
I was starting to alter my initial reaction about MLM based on what Visalus was doing. I told the person "I'm about to leave for 2-weeks on vacation so I'll order some of the Visalus product, do a little research on the company and let's speak more when I'm back."
I ordered the Vi-Shape shake through their website (which felt a bit overly focused on the distributorship model and short on promoting the great products and results) and began researching the company, management team and most importantly their culture and philosophy. I must admit, I began to get excited about what Visalus was doing and believed they were in a position to turn MLM on its head and redefine the entire industry. My sense is Visalus has a huge opportunity to lead with the products and results given the license the brand has been given by the customers and their success. Dial-up the voice of the customer and unleash the emotional brand love every customer is expressing about Vi-Shape shakes and results which are truly amazing - the distributor business model will take care of itself!
I also learned that the CEO, Ryan Blair was about to release his first book titled Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain in the next week. To be honest, the book title immediately brought my mindset back to everything I disliked about MLM companies, however, I forced myself to keep an open mind.
Upon my return, I opened the package and found my Vi-Shakes and chocolate flavoring - just the product inside - nothing special. Seemed like a missed opportunity to further tell the Visalus story, offer additional products, maybe include a catalog/flyer for apparel/cups/etc. Maybe even offer a special invitation via website as a new customer. Basically further the early emotional brand connections!
I tried the Vi-Shape shake and was pleasantly surprised how great it tasted. It is the shake mix that tastes like cake mix! Add a little chocolate flavor and peanut butter and you have a peanut butter cup! WOW!
I was equally impressed with the nutritional values. I wondered how well it compared to the competition especially since I just forked over more that $50 for 15 servings. Researching the comparison of Vi-Shape shakes to the competition - Visalus blew them all away! I continued to dig deeper into the company.
It was clear these guys had put lots of work into developing Visalus. By now Ryan's booked was released and he was in 100% promotion mode through facebook, twitter, email, video and a book tour. I read a few pages on Amazon and being a big reader of business books like Good to Great, The Tipping Point, Outliers, and dozens of others his book seemed fairly basic and common sense to me. Still, I thought why not order the book and hear what he has to say. Also, I started following the guys on Twitter to see what they were saying - amazing how easily it is to get access to people today!
I also listened in on several weekly Vision calls where people like Blake, Nick hold court with their distributors, customers and anyone else who wants to listen in as they share success stories, introduce guest speakers (i.e. Dr. Seidman - Chief Science Officer) as well as offer new product at a 40% discount to drive customer trial (just like a real retailer!). I literally was listening to the call on my iPhone speaker while at the same time through an iPhone app called Vi-Net watched the product orders race over 400 within 10 minutes. These guys not only had a great product and great business model, they were also pushing the social media networking revolution as far as it would go - very impressive.
A few days later I received Ryan's book and read it cover to cover (still a little doubtful). I must say what makes this company different comes directly from Ryan's core beliefs of doing well by doing good. Ryan has had more opportunities than most to put this approach to work (trust me, read the book and you'll know what I mean) and my hats off to him - he proves through his actions throughout his life that he is always learning, applying, and improving his skills with a focus to be a better leader through positive change. It is what it is - Ryan speaks from the truth from his heart!
In all my experience in business and working with founders like Howard Schultz-Starbucks, Vernon Hill-Commerce Bank and visionaries like Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffery Katzenberg-Disney, it is the power and belief of the founder/visionary that fuels the brand's culture. And it is the brand culture that makes the difference to "Make It Matter" within every fan of the company (Customer, Team Member, Distributor, Investor, Supplier, Vendor) - and that is something Customers notice. Great read! ...and a great (potential) one-of-a-kind MLM company.
Cool company with a great opportunity to redefine MLM....let's see if they do!