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Dear Kiki: How do I tell my friend her ‘small business’ is a pyramid scheme?


Questions about love and sex in the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids area can be submitted to dearkiki@littlevillagemag.com, or anonymously using this form. Questions may be edited for clarity and length, and may appear either in print or online.

Dear Kiki,

I work a full time job but I’m an artist on the side, and I make my own stuff from scratch. I’ve been doing this a really long time and it’s taken years of practice to reach my level of skill. But I have a friend that got sucked into an MLM selling kitschy, mass-produced tchotchkes and tries to sell them at some of the same art fairs I attend. Some of these fairs are good at catching and restricting MLMs, but hers sometimes slip through the cracks because the products “look homemade.” I don’t think it’s fair for her to sell cheap, made-in-China stuff posing as a small business owner, when the people around her are putting their time, money and resources into their own crafts. Especially when her things draw away customers. My question is: How do I approach her about this and tell her that it’s not OK? I’ve tried to explain to her that she’s basically in a pyramid scheme, but she actually makes a small profit so she’s not willing to stop. I’d hate to make an enemy of her since we have a lot of mutual friends, but she’s kind of making an enemy of the artists around her. How should I handle this?

Sincerely,
Aggravated Artist

Dear Aggravated,

The social situation you’ve found yourself in is not an easy one, but the challenge for your overall industry is becoming increasingly common. It’s hard to impose strict regulations on opportunities for independent artists, not least because, as you note, enforcement can be difficult. The folks running craft fairs are seldom bringing in the big bucks themselves, and if you were to raise the issue with the organizers (the easiest way to address this without raising your acquaintance’s ire), you’d probably find yourself cordially invited to volunteer as the product police for future events. If that’s your jam, then go for it! Your fellow artists will thank you. But with a full-time job and your art besides, chances are you haven’t got the time for that sort of unpaid task. Hence, your question.

Here’s the thing: As any 15-year-old playing UNO will assure you, it’s only cheating if you get caught. More people than you’d think carry that philosophy over into adulthood with them, to one degree or another (’fess up: How often do you actually go between 40 and 65 mph on the interstate?). If it’s truly the case that she just “slip[s] through the cracks” and she’s not actively misrepresenting her product to buyers or explicitly breaking fair rules, you’ll be hard pressed to appeal to her sense of moral rightness. After all, if they don’t tell her to leave, then there’s nothing “wrong” with her being there. Per se. Officially.

Where you might be able to find an in is through her sense of community. I don’t mean by pointing out to her that she’s making enemies; that kind of rhetoric tends to come off as a threat or a challenge, and it often makes people dig in harder. But the thing is that more and more MLM proprietors are finding opportunities to create their own fairs. See if you can track one down in your area (pro-tip: They’re often held in the open space in malls). Recommend it to her; maybe even make a friend date to check it out together. She’ll find better companionship and camaraderie with other folks in her same line of work. And chances are she’ll find their conversations about business, rather than craft, both more interesting and more valuable to her.

I share your ethical quandary on this, Aggravated. I believe that healthy competition should improve everyone’s lot, and that luring customers with bargain-basement prices is harmful to all commerce, even if she were crafting the goods herself. That might be a gentle way to explain things to her, if you do want to take a direct approach. But the fact is that not everyone feels that way. Some people think that every penny they make matters, even if they could make more by respecting their fellow entrepreneurs. If your views are that far apart, it may be worth re-thinking the friendship.

xoxo, Kiki

This article was originally published in Little Village’s May 2022 issue.


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