In the women’s bathroom at Artscape Youngplace, a sleek community centre in Toronto’s West End, the electrical outlets are crammed with curling irons and the air is wreathed in perfume. Women are preparing to attend a book launch, and the book’s author, online business coach Joanna*, is standing at the sink. She is talking. She is patting her hair. She is sternly assessing the effect in the mirror. She is, professionally speaking, like a glass of cold-pressed juice: upscale, yet not impossible to replicate at home; in the business of improving your life.
Other women fix their makeup and chat affably, teasing their hair into waves. Everyone is dressed up: structured blouses and dresses in black, white, and flamingo pink. Everyone is also in heels — boots, mostly, because it’s December, though some wear stiletto pumps, exposing bare skin.
Out in the lobby, more women are either standing or perched on one of several backless leather benches, waiting for the launch to start. Amy tells me she is at the event to learn more about business. A single mother, her dream is to create a “women’s home” that could provide other single, low-income mothers with access to housing. She’s working full-time and going to school part-time, for a degree in social services, and Joanna’s book launch is the second business event she’s attended — the draw lies in how the events are at once efficient, available at a low cost, and figure as opportunities to meet other like-minded entrepreneurs. Amy has neither the time nor the money for an accredited business course.
Midway through our conversation, Amy’s friend Madeline arrives, and explains that her own business plan also involves a house — one that she can transform into a holistic wellness center. Clients would be able to get facials on the first floor and, because wellness is as much a matter of tempering the soul as it is a matter of excavating your pores, talk to therapists on the second floor. What’s missing from the entrepreneurship scene, Madeline says, is a focus on faith, by which she means religion. But, to be fair, she has only been to a handful of these things.
One of the event organizers walks into the foyer and announces that the launch will start soon. As we file into a conference room, I ask the two friends how they’d met. They attend the same church, they tell me.
And how did they find out about the launch?
“Instagram,” Amy replies.
“Yes, Instagram,” Madeline says. She laughs.
Instagram is how I’d also found out about the book launch. Over the past two years, I’ve noticed a certain kind of ad cropping up on my feed. They’re low in quality, their brightness is discernibly amped up by a host of Instagram filters and tricks, and they feature women: laughing, smiling into the ether, twisted into poses that convey authority. The captions to these ads hold claims about which I am reflexively apprehensive: here, they say, is a business coach who can teach you how to quit your nine-to-five job, be your own boss, and make five figures in a single month. The ads blend, rather seamlessly, into the landscape of internet garbage — pop-ups, spam — that jostles against the stuff that I deliberately log on for. But, in their consistency, they also began to stand out.
The ads feel oddly familiar. Their promises (lofty) and the phrases they feature (“biz,” “mastermind,” “webinar,” “discovery call”) look a lot like the ones posted by recruits at multi-level marketing companies — the majority of whom lose more money than they ever end up making, according to a study published this winter in the Hastings Business Law Journal. But, the women in these recent ads were ostensibly independent entrepreneurs, not brand ambassadors for a company. So why did they all look the same? They were clearly following a formula; where were they getting it from?
Last year, I started paying closer attention to the ads whenever they showed up. I clicked through to the websites they linked to and worried about my computer “getting a virus”. I saw “services” with prices that ranged from $50 to $10,000 but could not figure out what those services actually involved. I wanted to meet the people who would pay $50 to $10,000 for those services, so I began to look for local events where I could talk to them and also see the purveyor — a coach — at work. That’s how I found out about Joanna.
The women in these recent ads were ostensibly independent entrepreneurs, not brand ambassadors for a company. So why did they all look the same? They were clearly following a formula; where were they getting it from?
Back in the conference room where her launch was being held, vendors readied jewelry and desserts to sell on one end of the room. Balloons in pink, white, black, and silver floated around the stage where Joanna and her guest speakers — other entrepreneurs, including a contributing writer at Forbes — were set to present. Once the audience had settled into their seats, Joanna entered, smiling, in a pink strapless dress. Adorning her ears were dangling, precious stones.
Joanna said several things that resonated with her audience. She wanted to teach them how to “lead and live in the marketplace.” She talked about how “entrepreneurship has become a sexy thing,” and how, as an occupation, “it might not be for you.” She noted the failures and obstacles encountered by most entrepreneurs, even those who will ultimately achieve success, and introduced the term “cyber glitter” to describe the limited, glamorized picture of entrepreneurship that social media tends to offer. She said that it was important to both recognize the farce and to stop perpetuating it, and while she herself doesn’t “do the whole meltdown thing per se”, she is a big advocate of measured disclosure — of one’s insecurities, struggles — as a way to both demonstrate authenticity and appear more relatable to clients.
As Joanna spoke, her audience radiated enthusiasm. To express agreement, they nodded deeply and murmured aloud. If they had paid the ticket price of the launch ($38) mainly to access insider business tips (of which there were few), what they also got was community, and role models. Like Amy, a number of the guest speakers were also single mothers, and much of the evening’s talk revolved around how to balance the demands of starting your own business with the demands of motherhood, as well as the virtues of collaboration versus competition, and the importance of hard work. The speakers were enthusiastic, attractive, charismatic, and kind — just like Joanna, who presided over the conversation, commanding the room from center stage.
When companies — or, increasingly, individual people — express a desire to strengthen their “brand,” what they mean is that they want their products, or person, to more precisely guide consumers’ minds to specific associations. Think of how a bottle of perfume stamped with Versace insignia conjures up “opulence,” or how a picture of Martha Stewart might prompt “domesticity.”
Many companies also rely on narratives to move product. It might be an origin story about the company, or a story about the consumer herself. The narrative preferred by business coaches like Joanna combines both, and it goes something like this: you (the consumer) are a woman bogged down by obligations, financial and otherwise. To make ends meet, you work full-time at a job that neither pays enough nor inspires your interest. You’re competent and you work hard, but you’re exhausted and, all told, you are unhappy. I (the coach) was just like you not long ago, and I can help you get out and build a career that actually honors your full potential.
The best way for a business coach to prove that she is credible is by embodying all the traits she claims she can teach you — if she can make over herself, then she knows how to make over you. Her brand has to convey financial ease, spiritual fulfillment, competence, glamour, and relatability. To calibrate her brand this way, a coach will draw on a specific visual vocabulary that toes the line between “business casual” and “stock photo run heavily through a desaturation filter”: her Instagram feed will feature flat lays with Macbooks, pristine home offices (presumably her own), and herself in a blazer and statement necklace, telegraphing “modern working/propertied woman.”
This aesthetic, coupled with the promises of “flexible hours,” imminent “financial freedom,” and “creative control,” also shapes the advertising at women-targeted multi-level marketing companies like Rodan + Fields or Stella & Dot. But just because they’re using the same tactics doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re cranking out the same sausage. Ours is an economy, after all, in which the average Canadian carries more than $8,000 in consumer debt (in the U.S., where Joanna is based, the average household boasts US$15,000 in credit card debt alone). We could easily chalk up the similarities between online business coaching on the one hand, and multi-level marketing on the other, to diffuse financial strain: if a lot of people share the same problems (debt, overwork), then different businesses will inevitably begin to offer the same solutions.
Still: how different could two kinds of sausage be if they’re made from… the exact same stuff? A few days after Joanna’s book launch, I call her for insight. Joanna is a coach, but she also explicitly references a background in network marketing (a term sometimes used synonymously with “multi-level marketing”) on both her LinkedIn and Upwork profiles.
The best way for a business coach to prove that she is credible is by embodying all the traits she claims she can teach you — if she can make over herself, then she knows how to make over you
Joanna tells me she started coaching after “five or six years” of working for a multi-level marketing company that focuses on wellness. Before that, she was a workforce management analyst at one of the four largest telecommunications companies in Toronto (she declined to name which one).
“I kind of found myself in a position between a rock and a hard place,” she says of her decision to leave the telecommunications firm. “And based on the two options I had” — she doesn’t say what they were — “I thought entrepreneurship would have given me more options than having a job.”
The stint at the wellness company, which is where Joanna pinpoints the start of her entrepreneurial career, had not been easy, but working in multi-level marketing never is. “People join network marketing for two reasons, generally. Usually it’s because somebody they admire or respect or like told them to. Or because they were broke. So they get seduced, so to speak, by the possibility of them being able to become financially free.”
What people fail to understand, she says, is how hard you have to work to turn a profit, and how important it is to choose a company that supports its employees. At her peak at the wellness company, “I was in the top five percentile in the world for network marketing. [But] that required a lot of effort, a lot of traveling, a lot of home parties, being out the house, etc. I became exhausted with some of the things that were required for you to maintain that level of success within the industry.”
She eventually left to start her own practice. Her speciality, now, is to help women of colour “plan, launch and grow profitable businesses,” which translates to one-on-one coaching courses that teach clients copywriting, as well as how to launch a marketing campaign and create an “automated sales funnel”, among other skills. (The courses are taught entirely online). Because she’d made a name for herself at the wellness company, she was able to launch her business with an immediate client base: women who were also working in multi-level marketing, and who were seeking out her advice on how to sell more. Such women still make up a big chunk of her clients.
This means that much of what Joanna teaches her clients are not only skills that she learned by working in multi-level marketing; they’re also skills that are tailored for people who work in multi-level marketing, which they can use to meet its specific goals. These skills include how to approach people in your social network with a business proposal; how to be a salesperson; and how to convince prospective clients that you’re successful. This last skill is especially useful if you’re working with a company that hands out commissions either when you recruit a new employee, or when the employees you’ve recruited make a sale.
When Joanna and I first start talking, she yields information deliberately and with reserve. I never did find out what the “rock” and the “hard place” represented; the details of her life prior to her multi-level marketing career stayed blurry. The quality of her disclosures — polite, yet sternly vague — suggested a person who is used to having to defend her work. But once she started talking about coaching, she slipped easily into the role in which she thrives best: pep talker.
“I do believe that being an entrepreneur — it can be something that’s innate,” she explains at one point. “I think some people are more predisposed than others. But I also think that it’s something people can learn to do.
“It’s kind of like… Beyoncé,” she continues. “She’s inevitable. It was destined, in the stars, for her to become who she is. But it doesn’t mean that somebody else can’t sing. It doesn’t mean somebody else can’t be a Kelly. You’re just not going to be a Beyoncé. So I think that’s kind of the same way I view entrepreneurship. I think some people are gifted and innate…”
On Christine’s website, visitors can scroll through large, sun-dappled photographs that show her wading into a lake, smiling at a Macbook in a field encircled by pine trees, and perched on a log (wearing white jeans). Living in Ontario but based, like Joanna, online, Christine coaches “coaches, consultants, or strategists” and is driven by an interest in helping women understand that they can have it all. The main service that she offers clients is a consulting “intensive” that involves a two-hour-long, face-to-face meeting over Zoom, a video-messaging platform; a customized action plan, developed by Christine herself; and “unlimited” feedback via email or text message, for a limited time of 30 days.
Like Joanna, Christine honed her coaching practice by drawing on skills she’d learned while working at a multi-level marketing fitness company. In 2012, in an effort to pay down more than $120,000 in credit card and student debt, she worked full-time as a graphic designer at an ad agency as well as four part-time jobs. She’d already had a history with anxiety, but her work schedule — 80 hours a week — made it worse. Eventually, she found herself “completely burnt out.” So, Christine started to work out.
In Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book, Natural Causes, she notes the “surge of interest in physical fitness” that suddenly hit the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, chalking it up to a need for control. Those were decades, Ehrenreich says, during which “deindustrialization” shuttered plants and snatched jobs away from blue-collar workers, while “downsizing” left large segments of the professional middle class unemployed. As financial stability and the attendant certainties that come with it became more and more difficult to grasp, people started to shift their focus to what they could still control: their own bodies.
If Ehrenreich is right, and there is a correlation between socioeconomic instability on the one hand, and a desire for individual self-mastery on the other, it certainly seems to explain the current moment: millennials are financially screwed, but they also love to hit the gym.
'I was like, people make businesses by sharing this stuff? I don’t even think this is real'
This line of logic made sense at least to Christine, who honed in on “getting healthier” as the “one thing I can fix in my life” as her finances and working life seemed to slip more and more into chaos. She bought a fitness DVD, and started doing the workouts. The more she worked out and the more she grew to like it, the more she realized that none of her friends were quite as interested in “that lifestyle,” as she put it. So she started looking for people to share her progress with online, and eventually, found a community. Three months in, one of these online strangers approached her and asked whether she was interested in translating her online presence into a business.
“I was like, people make businesses by sharing this stuff?” Christine says when we speak over Zoom in January. “I don’t even think this is real.”
What was real, though, was her unhappiness, and the money she owed. So she said yes. The spokesperson worked for a fitness-oriented multi-level marketing company (Christine declined to name which one), and Christine signed up to be a recruit but still kept her graphic design job — just to be safe. Eleven months into her new job, though, she was making enough money to quit her full-time agency job for good. When other recruits at the company saw how much product Christine was moving, they began hiring her to work on their social media strategy, too. And when that freelance work started bringing in enough money, she was able to stop putting effort into her multi-level marketing job, although she is technically still affiliated with the company.
Christine has since refined her speciality. She helps women who have already started ventures — whether in multi-level marketing or not — “scale their income online.” When I asked Christine what this means, she says that “scaling is just another way of saying ‘increasing your income.’”
“With most people,” she explains, “what happens when they start in the online space is, they do a lot of one-on-one [work] — either consulting or coaching — and what happens is that once they’ve filled all their spots, they have no more ways to earn their money unless they raise the price [of their services]. This is where courses come in. This is where passive income comes in.”
Passive income — earnings that come in on a regular basis, but that also require little to no consistent effort to make — is a concept that is frequently invoked by investors, landlords and published authors, albeit not always by that name. It’s also a term that gets a lot of traction in get-rich-quick schemes— a bonafide genre in the scammier reaches of the internet.
In the coaching world, creating “courses” or online workshops that you can sell again and again with minimal upkeep is a canonical way to bring in passive income. These courses are distinct from, but are often sold alongside, one-on-one workshops like the “intensive” that Christine offers. While the latter involves live facetime with the coach herself, the former comes in the form of static, pre-packaged materials like videos or worksheets that can be bought for a lower price.
In one course, a series of five videos on how to “scale a multiple 6-figure business," a Connecticut-based coach with side-swept blonde hair talks about “the universe” and advises viewers to “share what you’re afraid of to release your fears.” She makes references to “energies,” as in “my sales posts have a lot of powerful energy around them” and “invest-in-me energy” (what you should try to emanate around clients). She urges viewers to share more of their lives with clients, for example, “your relationships, your dogs,” and berates them for “not wanting to do their homework.” The effect is as if The Secret were yelling at you. The videos look as if they were filmed from a webcam in the coach’s computer room, and in one of them, the coach’s hair seems not completely dry, as if she’s just taken a shower.
To varying degrees of quality, this is what coaches like Christine teach their clients: how to scale their income by creating courses, some of which might teach other people how to scale their income by making courses. The overall effect, I imagine, is reminiscent of a Thai fish sauce label that I grew up looking at: a mise en abyme in which a fat baby is clutching a bottle of fish sauce, whose label features the same baby clutching yet another bottle of fish sauce, whose label features the same baby clutching yet another bottle of fish sauce — and on and on. The bottles, and the babies, get smaller and smaller with each recursion, but there are always, without question, more bottles and babies.
The yelling Connecticut coach sold her course for US$47, but prices can run into the hundreds or even thousands. In the early days of her business, the Connecticut coach said, she was making $2,000 a month from her business. That lasted about a year, and then she was making $4,000 a month. Then it was $6,000. Then, $8,000. “I was making enough, totally enough,” she says, in the first video in her scaling course. “I didn’t really need more, right?”
But, “I was disappointed in myself. I wasn’t happy.”
“I was so obsessed with the money, and with being successful.”
Early on in our conversation, I ask Christine about her experience at the fitness multi-level marketing company. Did she like it?
“I definitely did,” she says. “Because everything I know now — that’s the foundation of it. A lot of it was the handholding I needed.
“I don’t know if I would’ve have started my own business, necessarily, without that. Just ‘cause I didn’t know that that was possible.”
Katie wears her hair long, in hues that skew far from her natural deep brown. In August, it was blonde, except when it was lilac and grey, and in April and May there were fuschia streaks — a tribute to the creature that she says “is still a really big part of my energy”: the unicorn.
When Katie was a junior in high school, she moved out of her family’s home in Hawaii. “Our education there [isn’t] like, the top,” she tells me. “So I didn’t get any prep, like — ‘hey: college this, college that.’ There was nothing in school that really focused on college and what you want to do after. But I always knew that I wanted to succeed at something, and of course, have my own business.”
Katie is in her 30s now. Since 2005, she’s lived in Las Vegas, where she works full-time as a blackjack dealer at a major casino on the Strip. In between shifts, she gives psychic readings (“mostly about love, finance”) and sells crystals through an Instagram boutique that she co-founded several years ago with a friend. Last November, she also started selling essential oils alongside the crystals. Katie is physically slight, and prone to punctuating her sentences with giggles. She comes across as much younger than she actually is.
She first learned about business coaching a few years ago, when she was taking an online copywriting course with a Los Angeles-based screenwriter whose credits include two Lifetime movies about romances that bloom under sinister circumstances (a murder investigation; an encounter with a 22-year old man). Another student in the course, Nicole, was an online business coach, and Katie eventually signed up for several of her courses, for insight on how to expand her crystals business.
Katie says that of the people who’ve joined her team, the majority are women: yoga teachers, wellness enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, and 'a lot of moms' who 'want the best for their kids'
The two quickly became friends. For the past few years, they’ve been supportive of each other’s projects. Katie sells crystals to Nicole, and when Nicole launched an online school that looked to combine business teachings with “woo-woo elements,” she asked Katie to join the staff as a crystals teacher. When I ask Katie what the connection was between crystals and entrepreneurship, she spoke of the one’s potential to facilitate the other.
“I feel that your mind and just setting an intention is very powerful and you don’t need any tools,” she says. “But, just for me and my clients, I feel like having something physical really brings it out into reality and that it’s easier for them to manifest and hit their intentions and goals when they have a physical tool.
“So in the school, I would teach crystals to attract abundance into your business. Crystals for clear communication to your clients. Crystals to help you de-stress and unfrazzle during a launch.”
It was also Nicole who’d convinced Katie to sell essential oils. Shortly after American Thanksgiving in November, Nicole recruited Katie into her team at a U.S.-based, essential oils multi-level marketing company. By January, when I spoke to Katie, she had already recruited 30 people. Nicole had about 80 recruits on her own team, and offered business coaching services to new recruits as an incentive for them to join. At the time, Katie was planning to launch a unicorn-themed tarot deck to gift to her own new recruits, who pay either US$150 or US$275 for a starting kit. Katie says that of the people who’ve joined her team, the majority are women: yoga teachers, wellness enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, and “a lot of moms” who “want the best for their kids.”
“I’ve been in a multi-level marketing company before, when I was really young,” she says. “And I didn’t want to ever do that again, because I just had a bad experience.”
But the essential oils company struck Katie as different. For one, she actually liked — and used — what she was tasked with selling, which ranges from essential oil blends to essential oils-infused softgel capsules that “cleanse” the digestive system. She also immediately connected to her team members. “All the leaders have been very, very helpful. They’ll be like, ‘anything you want, we’re here for you.’”
“I really like to work with Nicole because of the way she runs her business,” Katie explains. “She teaches people to be 'multi-passionate. And that you can really swirl whatever you want into your business.”
You’ll make the calls, create the websites, and curate the Instagram feed, because you need things to be different. Even if it means preying on the vulnerabilities of other women to get there
Katie is animated when she talks about her relationship with Nicole and the opportunities it’s given her. Since she left home as a teenager, Katie’s been looking for guidance. She went to college for one semester before she dropped out, dissuaded by the high tuition fees. After she moved to Vegas, she got certified in Reiki to try to “find myself.” A woman who saw her perform tarot readings one day told her she needed to start a business, to start charging money for her skills, so she began hiring online business coaches and buying online courses to figure out how. But before Nicole, nothing really seemed to work: “they confused me even more.”
Before she started dealing on the Strip, Katie had only ever had “food and beverage” jobs — jobs that got her “easy, fast money,” for which you “don’t need a college degree.” There was never a career track that she found both desirable and feasible; she knew she wanted to be a business owner, but she didn’t know how to start a business. Since the launch of her crystals boutique, though, and since she’s joined Nicole’s essential oils team, Katie’s been able to discern the sketches of a life that’s different from the one she has now. In this new life, she wouldn’t have to devote most of her time and energy to a job she doesn’t care about, or spend all of her time off from that job building her own business. She would be able to work only on her boutique, full-time. She would be a successful entrepreneur. Katie credits Nicole with steering her life in this direction. That Nicole has actually managed to convince Katie to take on yet another job — one that will divert even more of Katie’s attention away from her boutique, and that also directly benefits Nicole in the essential oils company’s multi-level marketing scheme — doesn’t seem to register.
But Nicole — like Joanna, like Christine, like the yelling Connecticut coach — understood her. They know, firsthand, what it’s like to work 40, 50, 60 hours a week at a job that depletes you and dulls you. They know what it’s like to face debt loads so high that they seem insurmountable, and what it’s like to finally look the numbers in the face and recognize that it’s happened — they've reached the crest of the crisis, and they can either continue on and inevitably break, or they can decide to take a leap of faith and permit themselves to hope for an alternative outcome. That’s when they’ll make the calls, create the websites, and curate the Instagram feed, because they need things to be different. Even if it means preying on the vulnerabilities of other women to get there.
“I’ll wake up,” Katie says. “I’ll get on calls or something, and I’ll network and reach out to people. Then I go to work. Today is my day off, so on my days off, I basically dedicate that to my business.”
She is sheepish, even apologetic, about not making enough money from her crystals boutique or the multi-level marketing company yet to be able to quit her casino job. “I’m not full time at this yet, although I should be,” she laughs. Still, she's optimistic.
“There’s so much good — an abundance of coaches out there,” she says. “It’s easy for people to sign up with someone and, you know, create their own business.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.