As of now, direct selling has stayed relatively immune to technological disruption but the future is unclear. As Peter Diamandis famously said, “Disrupt yourself or be disrupted.” In a time when it seems no industry is unaffected, are we naive to think we’re the only ones technology won’t disrupt? Should we be bracing our businesses for an upheaval or will direct selling be able to simply coast along (with a few nifty apps and shiny software)?
I’ve been posing these questions to several of our executives, starting with Doug DeVos of Amway.
DeVos has seen his company and our industry evolve over generations. On one hand he feels strongly about the institutional knowledge of the DSA and our industry: that we’ve learned how to treat people well and motivate them (a lesson the sharing economy is now only starting to learn). On the other hand, his reverence for technology is palpable, “I’m the old guy. I’m not a technology native and if you’re not a technology native you’re gonna get there a little slower. But everyone knows you’ve got to get there.” DeVos is committed to finding the sweet spot where technology and humans meet.
I sat down with Doug to understand his perception of how direct selling is keeping up and what role technology may play in our future…
MB: Do you consider Direct Selling to be behind other industries in its use and leverage of technology?
DD: In any industry, even if you’re not at the forefront of developing technology—on the leading, bleeding edge—you’re going to have to try to get close to it. I think direct selling is doing fine using new technology. Each and every company is going to have to figure it out at their own pace. We’ll be fast followers in the industry to make sure we get there. But I’m older, like I said, in Brazil [at the WFDSA World Congress] I’m “the old guy.” I’m not a technology native and if you’re not a native, you’ll move a little slower but everyone knows you’ve got to get there.MB: I know the sharing economy is important to Amway. Do you participate in the sharing economy as a customer at all?
DD: Not much, I’ve gone online to book vacation rentals, but my kids all use Uber and it shows a huge shift from my generation. When I was their age, drinking and driving was always a big issue. I’ve told them, “Hey, be careful driving if you’re going to go out with your friends and have a drink.” And my kids reply that they’d never think of drinking and driving, they don’t need to because they have this service. It’s just one of the great, unintended consequences of sharing apps.
MB: In the last 3-4 years companies have developed hundreds of new ways to help people make money on the side and many in our industry see the sharing economy as direct competition. Do you consider the Über’s and Etsy’s of the world to be a threat or an opportunity? (Learn more about the sharing economy and its relationship to DS here).
DD: We don’t look at those kinds of things as a threat because we think it makes the pie bigger. If anything, it continues to expand and enhance the entrepreneurial spirit. And when there’s an entrepreneurial spirit out there we’re gonna be just fine. We have to make sure that we present the business opportunity and the products in a way that people say “OK, thats for me.” So while we want to learn from and understand how people are enabling entrepreneurship differently from what we do, we like who we are. We like being Amway.
Are we going to wake up tomorrow and say we don’t want to be Amway? Of course not. We’re gonna learn, we’re going to be fascinated, and to a certain extent, enjoy what’s happening there, because in our mind it’s enhancing the entrepreneurial spirit.
MB: In terms of future vision, what are some of the top things you’d like to see change about direct selling?
DD: So many times in direct sales we talk amongst ourselves but we fail to get the information from the consumer. We think, ”I’m gonna do a better job of selling myself.” Rather than, “Why don’t I stop for a second and see what the world’s interested in?” One of the reasons behind our entrepreneurship study is we want to learn from this pool of people who are interested. What holds them back? What interests them? What do they need?
We want to keep driving on the data to help us think about someone and their success first. We’ve always done that, but now there are more and more tools to help us do that even better. I think if there’s things to work on, as an industry, it’s that. Caring for an army of entrepreneurs. Volunteers. You’ve got to be really transparent about the investment that you make, what they spend, and what their expectations are about earnings. It’s also an example of how other industries are now struggling with it and they could benefit from the institutional knowledge of the DSA.
MB: I know you see data as a major resource but I’ve spoken to a couple of direct selling executives who feel like big data is a waste of time. Do you see the industry getting hungrier for data?
DD: You remember the movie Moneyball? I think a lot of us in the industry think, “Well I just know a good baseball player when I see one.” Right now though we’re coming back and saying, “Well, I probably don’t know that much.” I have my experiences, but my experiences could limit my willingness to accept new information and what I want to do is be more willing. So you have to do that through process, data, and analytics to try to expand the knowledge-base.MB: To gather data you need a tool that people will use. How are direct sellers going to use technologies to measure what happens?
DD: The reality is there’s not going to be one perfect tool. There’s going to be a collection of tools and human judgement calls. We can gather facts and data, but at some point we’re going to have to digest it and turn it into real information about what we believe. You’re not going to find some magic something that says “Here’s what your going to do and you’re always going to be successful.” You’re gonna have challenges. You still have to go through that human process if you will.
MB: How can direct selling do a better job of showing its value to the world?
DD: We need to present, in word and in deed, the things we believe as an industry. We believe in consumer protection. We believe in enabling and empowering people. So how do we express that belief even though the world around us changes on a regular basis? To me, its about getting our minds around what’s happening in a better, faster, newer way. And that’s really fun by the way. It’s cool isn’t it, to see these ideas and say “How can these apply to us? How does that make Amway who we are and even more of who we are?”
MB: What is the most exciting thing for you about what you do?
DD: It’s all about people. It’s about their success. You know, my Dad and I were talking about the next stage for the company and he said, “Doug you have to do that. You have to move forward because people need more opportunity, they need to be able to see that, and you can’t stay still. You can’t just try to hold on to what you’ve got, you’ve got to keep moving forward.” Somebody right now, today, is making a decision about our product or about our business opportunity. Do they want to spend the money to buy the product? Do they want to spend the time and the energy to do the business opportunity? Are they willing to engage or not?
That’s what gets me going every day: we have an opportunity to be helpful in somebody’s life. And we want to make sure we’re doing it to the best of our ability. So we’ve got thousands of employees and hundreds of thousands of Amway Business Owners. Every day and every moment we have an opportunity to do that, and we have to figure out how to do it to the best of our ability. So what else, what more could you want to wake up and go do?Doug DeVos knows the tools and methodologies may change, but direct selling always has, and always will be about people. It’s not about high tech or high-touch. But rather about the melding of the two into something better than the sum of its parts. Sort of like what we teach our sellers about the Mastermind principle. 1+1=3.