If you were connected to network marketing in any way, shape, or form in the late 1990s, then you probably recognize the name Charles King immediately from the classic video presentation Brilliant Compensation, created by Dr. King and network marketing legend Tim Sales in 1998. For tens of thousands in our profession, Dr. King was the person who brought academic and professional credibility to what we were doing in the mid-nineties with his famed certification seminar in network marketing at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).
Charles's background is distinguished by his double-barreled accomplishments in both academia and the business world. After a brief and highly successful career as a market research coordinator for Exxon (then called Humble Oil & Refining Company), he took his doctorate in business administration from Harvard University, then served on the faculty of the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University and then as a marketing professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Meanwhile, he also founded a long-running business consulting practice in strategic planning and strategic marketing across a wide range of industries and throughout the globe. For those of us in network marketing, however, his primary distinction is his role as the world's leading academic advocate for our profession.
This fall, as Dr. King joins Networking University as its first president, we felt it was high time we introduced him to our readers. — J.D.M.
What led you to leave the corporate business world and pursue your academic career?
In 1960, I was still working with Humble Oil & Refining Company (later renamed Exxon), then the largest crude oil producer in the U.S. petroleum industry. It was an excellent company, and I was quite pleased with my work.
However, after four years there I discovered something that may be familiar to anyone in network marketing: I could work with almost anyone—but I could not work for anyone.
How did you come by this revelation?
As much as I enjoyed my job, I saw stupid decisions being made for purely political reasons. In my fourth-year evaluation I complained about this and told my boss I wanted to grow beyond the job I was then doing.
"You're already earning beyond your pay scale," he said, "we can't pay you more money."
"Fine," I said, "then don't pay me more money—just get me more training. Get me a lateral transfer so I can have more experience."
He said, "I'll tell you what, I'll give you a bonus. Take your wife with you to Boston next week—" (where I was scheduled to attend a conference at MIT) "and have a good time. Stay all week. We'll talk when you get back."
"When I get back," I said, "you'll have some information for me on that lateral transfer...?"
"When you get back," he replied, "you're going back into that corner office that I paid for with blood, you're going to shut the door, and you're going to get your ass back to work until I think you've paid your dues."
I went back to my office, called Harvard and said, "I'm coming to Boston, and I want to interview for your doctoral program." When I got back from that trip, I left my job.
That decision made my life.
What was your goal at Harvard?
I thought, what could I do that would distinguish me from all the other emerging Harvard graduates?
I decided to learn everything I could about marketing and strategic positioning at Harvard, then combine that with my industry training and become someone who could take those concepts from academia and convert them into pragmatic solutions for management. From that day forward, I had a mission.
As soon as I finished my degree I went to teach at Purdue University—and at the same time, with my freshly minted Harvard doctorate, I launched a consulting practice.
When and how did network marketing come into the picture?
In 1990, the university where I was teaching, University of Illinois at Chicago, was suddenly faced with a serious decline in the economy. Things were almost as bad then as they have been now for the past few years. Suddenly our graduating students couldn't find jobs.
My dean came to me and said, "Charles, can you help us figure out what to teach these students so they can get jobs? Because whatever we're teaching them now isn't selling in the marketplace."
I talked to our most successful alumni and found that the majority of them were enthusiastic, aggressive entrepreneurs. I kept hearing the same comment: "Get people into business for themselves. They may have to struggle, but once they find their niche, it's the most satisfying opportunity in the world."
Okay—but most of my graduating students were in their mid- to late twenties and had families to feed and student loans to pay off. How could they afford to become entrepreneurs?
I looked at the franchise concept, which did a superb job of greatly reducing the likelihood of failure. But that was still too expensive; the going rate for a successful franchise was $250,000, and a McDonald's franchise was three-quarters of a million dollars and up.
I wondered, what could we teach in the university that would have both a low-risk component and an entrepreneurial flair, yet be affordable?
And I thought about direct selling.
How did you know about direct selling?
I had sold Encyclopedia Britannica door to door for three years to help pay my way through college. I knew there were great courses in salesmanship. My students might not be salesmen all their lives, but this could give them some real-world experience and get them launched.
My student committee was enthusiastic about this idea—and then one student said, "Professor King, if you're looking at direct selling, why don't you look at network marketing?"
I said, "Network marketing?!"
He said, "Why don't we go to the library and investigate the network marketing business model?"
I looked at him and said, "Son, I know enough about network marketing to know that I don't want to know any more about it."
Ha—I love it!
He said, "Professor, I have so much respect for you, but you don't know enough about network marketing to make any comment at all. You just made an F on that answer!"
Now that stopped me cold. I said, "Son, you just made an A! Let's go the library and research network marketing—and if I like it, I'll teach it in my class."
He jumped up and hugged me (I didn't realize it, but he was an Amway rep), and off we went to the library—where all I could find were legal cases where people had sued network marketing companies. I knew there had to be more to this field than what we were seeing.
My wife suggested we do what I always did in my consulting practice whenever entering a new field: go talk directly with the industry leaders.
That summer we visited the top fifteen network marketing companies in the country. Some were more impressive than others, but they all had a passion, they were all successful—and they all had leaders who were making a great deal of money.
I wanted to learn about the whole process, so I approached the companies we respected the most and studied how they trained their people.
That fall, as part of our overall marketing curriculum, we included a six-week introduction to network marketing. I wanted to include speakers with direct knowledge of the field, so I brought in Mark Yarnell and his wife, whom I'd met at a training meeting, and they spoke to my class every semester for the next few years.
How did you go from there to a full-fledged course in network marketing?
Some of the training we'd seen was frankly not very good, and we thought, "Why don't we do this in a very professional way? We could do this at the university as part of our adult education program."
The dean was enthusiastic and said, "I will support a seminar in network marketing if you get Yarnell to teach it with you and also bring in other outside speakers."
I said, "It's going to take some money to do this. We'll need to do some advertising, generate brochures and materials to hand out in class and all that."
He said he'd loan us $10,000 to get the program started. "And if you don't pay it back out of the revenue," he added, "your colleagues are going to come after you—because it's their money."
Well that's motivating!
I called Scott DeGarmo, the editor of Success magazine, to whom Mark and I had been contributing articles, and said, "Scott, I need your help. I'm going to do this class at the university, the first one in the history of the world."
He said, "I commend you."
I said, "Then help me. I need some free advertising."
"Can't do that," he said, "but here's what I'll do. In your next article, I'll insert a two-inch-square announcement about your seminar."
He ran the announcement. Three weeks after it came out, the dean came to me and said, "Charles, I need to talk to you—you've closed out our continuing education department!"
All five of the continuing education department's incoming phone lines had been jammed with incoming calls for the past three weeks. They got over 900 calls about our seminar.
We could only seat 100 people; the first day, 150 showed up. I told the overflow that we'd try to have another session in three months, and people signed up on the spot.
You were off and running!
At about $900 a seat, we had no problem paying back the dean's loan.
For the next few years, we ran that seminar every quarter. Eventually I had to scale back to one or two a year, so I could keep up with the rest of my academic and consulting commitments. Others started copying the program; some did a better job than others, but from that point on network marketing suddenly had a new color to it.
Didn't your course offer students some sort of certificate or credential?
Yes, and that was something we sold aggressively. It was a certificate of performance and attendance signed by the dean on the university seal. It was quite credible anywhere in the world—and we took it all over the world over the next few years.
We also started tailoring the program to individual companies. People walked out of those programs as well educated network marketing practitioners.
Fast forward: what has brought you to align yourself now with Networking University?
I think network marketing is desperate for a well-organized, intellectually sound, and pragmatically useful educational platform.
A few years ago, it became obvious that neither state nor private university systems were likely to take a major leadership role. If anyone was going to move this idea forward, it would have to be based on a different model than what we'd used in the past.
In January of this year, Josephine and Chris contacted me and said they wanted to talk about working together. We spent a weekend with them and I came away quite enthusiastic.
What most excited me was that they had done one thing very well: they created a periodical that served distributors, and spent a decade making it quite credible and effective. Now, in my view, it was time to take a new platform and do for distributors what was not being done.
There was simply not much information broadly available about the distribution process, about how distributors operate and what they should be doing.
Chris and Josephine's university had precisely that framework in place; all that needed to happen was to take it to the next level, with academic professionalism. I knew how to do that, and Chris and Josephine had a passion for the idea.
We did some dreaming and brainstorming, and arrived at an agreement about how to proceed. Now we're very committed to creating a whole new educational platform for the network marketing profession.
What does that new direction look like?
We're building this at two levels. Number one, a program that includes both the belly-to-belly, professor-talking-to-students model as well as working through the e-marketplace. They've already been doing this, to some extent, though not as extensively as we will be.
Secondly, we're going to take that program to individual companies and work with them to tailor the selection of courses and presentations to meet their own particular needs.
Do you see this replacing the kinds of training companies and individual field leaders typically give?
I see it being a complement to those kinds of training. We'll bring to it a more formalized platform, with greater academic credibility, a high-quality program, and a certification from Networking University that is widely recognized.
In this business there's always been a sort of ethos that says, "Hey, we're not academic, we're street smart." In a way, the whole idea of having a classical, formal education in network marketing is almost a cognitive dissonance.
That's the root issue I've faced with my academic colleagues ever since I joined this effort back in the early 1990s. They'd say, "You're too smart for this, Charles, why are you wasting your time with these hillbilly direct sales people?"
And how would you answer that?
"Number one," I'd say, "they're not hillbilly direct sales people." (Well, okay, some are—but most aren't.) "Furthermore, it is our objective to elevate the educational level of every profession."
Chris and I debate over whether network marketing is a profession or an industry. I think it's both. You look at this infrastructure of companies, formulators, distribution programs, warehouses, IT, and the full configuration of power and talent, with global sales of over $153 billion involving more than 91 million distributors—that's an industry!
On the other hand, the skills and processes you go through to make a success of this is in fact a professional dialogue. This is indeed a profession that we can teach as such, both to network marketing distributors on the street and to the network marketing corporate executives!
It's intriguing that, as you pointed out, the economic climate right now very much echoes the situation when you first started this, in 1990.
I believe we are heading into a new revolution in the creation of the home-based business. Network marketing, the business model, is the best, least expensive way to get into a home-based business.
Most important—and I'm an absolute evangelist on this one—is the impact in developing countries. In places like Egypt, India, or Latin America, they may not have the financial resources or infrastructure to have a full-fledged corporate network marketing operation—but they do have the environment for a direct seller selling out of the bazaar.
People will say, "Those people can't afford to do network marketing, they're all poor." But that's not true. The United Nations tells us that 20 to 30 percent of the world population is middle to upper-middle class. If you take the 700 million people in Latin America, add 1.3 billion in China and 1 billion in India, you've got 3 billion people. Thirty percent of 3 billion is 900 million people! That's more people than the entire populations of Canada and Europe combined.
If you can teach even a handful of these people the entrepreneurial skills we know how to teach, you've just converted someone who is homeless and possibly starving into a bazaar entrepreneur.
And you've done it with minimal investment.
There are industries all over Latin America that put people in business for ten dollars. What can they do with ten dollars? They can go buy a bag of something and break it down into one-dollars bits, then go out into the street and sell those, then bring back their cash and buy another bag.
What I'm describing, of course, is a common illegal drug-dealing street model of distribution—but it can be done with legitimate vitamins and beauty aids, too.
In fact, that's exactly what we teach people in Bogota, Columbia: the people there buy a $25 bottle of vitamins, break it into Ziploc bags of five capsules each, and go sell them.
These are street people who are learning entrepreneurism the simplest way in the world. They can't read, but they don't have to. They are word-of-mouth practitioners of the highest order. We can teach them a reasonable amount about how to run a business—and we have created entrepreneurs who will lead the world.
A mobile platform for the birth of a new middle class everywhere.
Exactly. I call it the rebirth of the entrepreneurial mentality in the downtrodden.
It's what Fareed Zakaria calls "the rise of the rest"—only it never occurred to me that network marketing could play such a central role in that global phenomenon.
Without a question. That's a more colorful title than mine, but I think it's right on. There are hundreds of millions of people, billions of people, who desperately need a helping hand.
The Asian market is ready for it. The Chinese are ready; we just have a political problem with China. But all across Southeast Asia, outside of Chinese influence, they are doing it very effectively. We've taught educational programs all over that region, and the people are passionate about network marketing.
Now we're doing it in Latin America, too. There's no question in my mind that in ten years Latin America will be a powerful center for network marketing.
That's quite a journey—from the dean coming to you in 1990 saying "Our students aren't getting jobs" to the global vision you just sketched out.
And I do get passionate about it. I'm quite sure it's not as easy as it sounds, but it's clearly a way to start.
Network marketing offers such a great opportunity. Does everyone succeed? Of course not. Does everyone succeed in everything? Of course not. The bottom line is, those who work at it can be very successful.
The beauty of network marketing is that it is the ideal situation for people who want to live their own lifestyle, their own way. I believe in the concept of time and financial freedom, and that it lets you create your own message and your own direction in your own way. That independence is invaluable.