As founder and chairman of the board of both an investment bank and a commercial bank, Arizona banking executive Sherman Unkefer looked for all the world like the picture of conservative success.

Then came the 1980s. Suddenly, negotiating the terrain of the banking landscape was like taking a stroll in a mine field, and Sherman found himself, as he puts it (with characteristic refined understatement), “looking for other options.”

Having lost everything, Sherman and his wife Sharon were looking at starting over from scratch. “I didn’t want a regular job,” recalls Sherman, “but I didn’t have sufficient cash to launch a conventional business.”

Savvy network marketers know this as a business of “looking for people who are looking.” Sherman was looking, all right—and when a banking colleague told him he was joining a network marketing company, Sherman surprised himself by listening, too.

“In the days when I was doing very well and making good money,” says Sherman, “if someone had approached me about network marketing, I would probably have looked down my nose with an air of superiority and politely declined. But I had lost my shirt.” He pauses for a rueful smile. “One tends to become more humble under those circumstances.”

He started out by making the classic names list.

“I knew nobody in network marketing. My peer group were small businesspeople, doctors, attorneys…professional people. So I simply went to them, explained what I was going to do and where I thought it could go, and then invited them to join me. Some did. Some didn’t.”

The Unkefers’ timing and choice of companies proved auspicious. Over the following three years, their organization grew to numbers over 100,000 people, about one-third the company’s total size, and they were back in solid six-figure cash flow.

Beginners’ Luck?

It was after those three years that the Unkefers’ network marketing education really began in earnest.

“The company we were with reached a point where it could not adequately fund its own growth,” says Sherman. “They had to pull in their horns for some years and wait until the balance sheet improved.”

In other words, the horse they were riding was shot out from under them. Rather than walk or hitch-hike, Sherman immediately began looking for another horse.

“I was bitten by the bug of passive residual income. Once you have a taste of time freedom and the kind of financial leverage you can have through this business, it’s pretty hard to go back to conventional business.”

Over the next two decades, Sherman and Sharon tried to duplicate their early success with company after company, with varying degrees of success.

“Some were companies that were ill-conceived, undercapitalized or poorly managed. With some, we started to go down the path, but no matter what we tried or how hard we worked, we could not make it work.”

In fact, says Sherman, this is one of the biggest pitfalls in this business: making the wrong choice of company.

“We gradually learned that the vehicle one chooses is critically important to the potential outcome. Many people look at network marketing and see it as a simple business model, something that’s quite easy to do—but the facts of the case are quite different. It’s a fairly complex business model, and it’s rare to find a company that has all the bases covered.”

Yes, he explains, from the distributor side the business appears quite simple. But to make that simple distributor experience work, you need on the corporate side a management or ownership that understands operations, manufacturing, distribution, marketing, regulatory issues, a host of other aspects of what is in fact a very complex business model.

“When you find a company that has all its bases covered like that, it can be truly magical and you can accomplish in just a matter of three or four years what it might otherwise take a lifetime working for a Fortune 500 company.

“Of course,” again the rueful smile, “we didn’t come to this knowledge on Day One. We made our share of mistakes—and we kissed many frogs that did not turn out to be princes.”

With a few of those princes, the Unkefers were able to achieve fairly strong six-figure incomes, and they still see a residual income stream from some of those companies. Yet none quite worked out for the long-term.

Giving It One More Try…

In early 2003, the Unkefers heard some promising rumors about a company that had just opened its doors. They cautiously decided to give it a careful look—but by now, they had learned their lessons well. They only way they would even consider joining would be if the company passed their rigorous litmus test, which boils down to five factors:

“For a stable, long-term business, you want to see 1) a product at reasonably low unit cost, that is 2) consumable and 3) has a certain mystique or exclusivity. You also must have 4) an experienced, proven management team in place, and 5) a fair and balanced compensation plan. Any time I have neglected to pay attention, any time even one of these five was missing, it has come back to bite me.”

Much to their delight, what Sherman and Sharon found was a company that had all five pieces squarely in place. They were back in business.

Now all they had to do was find people who would join them.

“A lot of people have this notion that when you enter a new company, you can just snap your fingers and leaders come out of the woodwork and—voila!—you have an organization over-night. I’ve never seen it work that way.”

Despite their past successes, the Unkefers also had some baggage that added to the challenge. The previous five years had been an especially rough patch: they had been involved in three companies in a row that just plain didn’t work out. Ouch.

Not surprisingly, many of their warm list—friends, family and business associates—had come to doubt their judgment.

“Which I completely understood,” Sherman adds. “In fact, we had come fairly close to the point of wondering if I had the ability to make the right judgment too!” He laughs.

“Now, here we come, one more time, with our new business and say, ‘Look, this is really it!’ and their response was, ‘Now wait a minute—we did those three other things and none of those worked out. Why is this one any different?’ What could we say? We did our mea culpas, said that we’d made a few bad choices, and then carefully explained what made this different.”

Some joined them; some waited.

“With some of these people, it took a year or more until they would even consider joining. Once they saw this was not a matter of ‘flavor of the month,’ but that I was really serious and committed, that changed their point of view.”

And that’s actually not unusual, says Sherman: sometimes the highest quality prospects need months or even a year to consider an opportunity seriously.

“Recruiting is more of a process than a singular event. Especially with those people you respect the most.”

And their friends’ faith was not misplaced: the Unkefers’ exploding organization has already far exceeded anything they’ve ever experienced before.

“Over the next twelve months,” Sherman adds, “we expect to see cash flow that may as much as quadruple our total earnings for the prior twenty years in the business.”

The Time of Their Lives

Sherman and Sharon have worked as partners in every business they’ve done.

“We make a great team,” he says. “She is great with communications. I couldn’t begin to get done what I do if it weren’t for her active participation.”

In addition to Sharon’s weekly Internet newsletter, the Unkefers also run a daily voice blog off a web site.

“It’s a great way for me to stay in touch with the organization. I can call in from anywhere in the world—from Tokyo, Stockholm or Boston, wherever I happen to be—and everyone else can share the excitement.”

Today, with their business barely three years old, the Unkefers have an organization of well over 100,000 people in fourteen countries. In another five years, Sherman guesstimates, it will be somewhere between fifty and one hundred countries.

“At that point,” he says, “I believe we’ll have leaders in every major city in the world. It makes for a pretty rich life. I can fly into Vienna, call one of our leaders, go to the symphony together. Tokyo, Paris, London, Sydney, wherever. It’s a fascinating opportunity for us to travel to these different countries. And it’s comforting to know that you’ve got people around the world who are part of your business.

“This is clearly the most enjoyable way I have found to make a living. You can touch lives and help others—and you can do quite well while doing a lot of good!”

No doubt about it: they are having the time of their lives.


A Failed Meeting

Most people who fail simply don’t stay the course long enough to see the cumulative compound effect of their efforts.

A little over a year ago, I did a meeting in San Antonio, Texas. My host had the room set up for 100 people—twelve showed up. He was mortified.
One was a Chinese businessman who brought a friend, a stockbroker who had grown up in Hong Kong. They both joined that night, and proceeded to do absolutely nothing but consume the product.

Three months later I was planning my first trip to Japan and decided I would stop off in Hong Kong. I didn’t know anybody in Hong Kong (or in Japan either, for that matter), so I called this stockbroker and said, “Would you consider flying in and meeting me in Hong Kong? You could introduce me to some of your fraternity buddies.” He hadn’t been there in thirty-five years. He decided to do it.

We met in Hong Kong and spent a fairly unfruitful several days, going around and meeting all his buddies. Nobody joined.

While we were there, we also had dinner with his seventy-five-year-old brother-in-law, who is a very prominent architect with huge projects all over Asia running into the billions of dollars. Conventional wisdom says, there’s absolutely no way this man would ever be interested in our business. Why even talk to him about it? But over our leisurely dinner, I talked about our product and our plans for expanding in Asia. Before I left town I got a few cases from our Hong Kong warehouse and left them with him.

I visited again about six weeks later, and another six weeks after that. Soon after that, he decided to do the business.

You could have knocked me over with a feather.

I recently asked his assistant, “Why do you think your boss does network marketing?” She said, “When he’s doing his regular business, he’s very serious and often stressed out—but when he’s doing this business, he’s always happy and smiling.”

About two months later, he took me to dinner with a gentleman who is one of the top three network marketers in all of Japan. That gentleman had such profound respect for his architect friend from Hong Kong that he resigned his position and joined our organization. That one individual will likely light up all of Asia.

That little “failed meeting” in San Antonio may prove to be the most important meeting I’ve ever done in my life. — S.U.