SeneGence Founder Joni Rogers-Kante Wants To Set The MLM Record Straight
Some of beauty’s most iconic brands—Avon, Mary Kay and Rodan + Fields, for example—have grown into business empires utilizing multi-level marketing models. As popular as these brands’ products may be, direct-sales or MLM companies get a notoriously bad rap for being everything from a waste of time to a Ponzi scheme. That taint hasn’t deterred millions from entering direct selling. According to Fundera, there are about 6.2 million Americans actively involved in direct selling as of December last year, though only 25% of MLM participants turn a profit. Selling skincare via Facebook feed isn’t so easy, it seems.
SeneGence is one of beauty’s biggest direct sales players. Founded in 1999 by a then newly divorced and practically penniless Joni Rogers-Kante, the Foothill Ranch, Calif.-based company has become Orange County’s largest woman-owned business. In 2020, it generated an estimated $1 billion in annual revenues. Beauty Independent spoke to the founder about her company’s humble beginnings and rapid scale, the hard reality of succeeding at direct selling, her no-mean-girls policy and the brand’s continued commitment to cutting-edge technology.
How did SeneGence start?
It was a blessing and a prayer. I became a single mother, and the only thing I walked away with was physical and legal custody of my son. My husband did not think I would leave him, but I got the paperwork and I signed. I was so relieved. I went to live with a girlfriend. I had nothing to my name. I literally had $7 in my pocket. I thought, “I have nothing to lose at all. Why don’t I create my perfect company?” I was in direct sales anyway, and I had fallen in love with the industry.
I think what people don’t understand is the flexibility and the freedom that direct sales offers. I’ve heard women who didn’t have a lot of choices when it came to how much time they want to spend at home, taking care of the home and children versus work. As a working mom, it’s just like, you got to find the time. If you’re ambitious, you’ve got to put in those hours, so working out of your home seemed like a perfect solution to me.
If you could actually have a product that was good enough to build a business with, you could take it to any retailer, and they would be all over it, it would be a No. 1 selling product line, if you could do that, and you just gave it to the women instead of the retailers, imagine what you could do for women who wanted to not work as much, but who still wanted the opportunity to earn a living and support themselves. That’s what the company was built around.
I don’t think there’s a product in the marketplace through direct sales that isn’t a substantial product. It wouldn’t last. The company would not last if they had products that were subpar, that didn’t perform in the way that your girlfriend told you. It would embarrass you. You’d say I’m never buying from her again. The products have to be able to stand on their own.
We patented long-lasting color and introduced it into the market. We were really blessed in that. We had an amazing new technology in that we didn’t have to reteach women how to put on makeup. We just showed them how to do it better. It lasted longer, and they could go throughout their day without prepping. That’s really how the company got started.
I flew around to 18 different locations on donated mileage points. People bought me tickets to visit venture capitalists to try to get the money for funding. Of course, no one would give a broke single woman with no assets $3.4 million, which is what was outlined in my business plan to start the company.
What did you do?
I took some samples and went to a trade show, and began to sell those samples that my scientist who helped me formulate the product had made and began to sell that product. Then, he’d make more, I paid for it, and I’d sell it the next weekend. We sold product and I started signing up women who were at that trade show and who wanted to take some back and start selling it in her community to her girlfriends.
That’s how we began to generate income and build our salesforce. That first year—I started in April of 1999—we sold $1.7 million worth of product. The next year, I think we did $3.8 and, then, $5.4, and it’s just gotten better ever since.
What were those first products?
It was only LipSense. We had six colors. In fact, the samples were under a different name, and I told the girls as they were jumping on board that we’re improving the formula, and we would, of course, expand the line.
How many salespeople do you have working with you now?
Tens of thousands in 17 countries. We also have 220 employees. Our offices here in America are in Orange County, California and just outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma. We’re going on our 22nd year.
Do you consider SeneGence a multi-level marketing company?
I think that term is misunderstood. We are a direct-sales company. That means that SeneGence is the manufacturer and the provider of the product to our independent contractors—the distributor—and the distributor sells directly to the end consumer. The difference is that the distributor buys it from the company and what they sell it for to the consumer is their profit, no different than a department store. That person is just representing usually one or two lines, and she’s building her own clientele out of her home.
That’s direct sales, and 90% of our distributors are simply direct sellers. They buy wholesale, they sell it for retail. Then, there’s a small fraction of women who also earn an override by the company for expanding our distributor base, which is our market share. That’s multi-level marketing. The women get a commission paid to them, a separate commission, who are building levels of the salesforce, and they manage that salesforce.
How many people are in that leadership level?
They’re between one or 2% [of the total salesforce]. That means those are girls who have sold $1 million in retail and above in a single calendar year. Our highest [earner sold] $27 million. So, we have a range from $1 million, but that’s the top 1% or 2%. They’re the ones who have built sales organizations upon which they collect commission override for doing that.
Why do you think MLM has a bad rap?
I think people have a misconception of what it really takes to build your own business. It’s tough. It really is tough, no different than if you’re an ambitious woman within your own career, putting in the hours and doing the work to climb to whatever level it is you want. You have to work the same amount of time. You have to work hard. There is no free lunch.
When people join a company like ours, where it’s up to you 100%, I don’t think they have been prepared for that kind of a challenge. So, we try in our company really hard to face the facts, to give them the truth, to say this is not a get-rich-quick scheme. We’re going to take you through all kinds of scenarios so that you can learn from our mistakes or benefit from what really works. We are constantly training our girls in sharing with one another. All of our leaders share, not only amongst themselves, but with all of our people, on winning strategies constantly. That helps to create a really beautiful type of culture. We also don’t allow mean girls.
Tell us more about the no-mean-girls policy. What does that mean to you?
It means that we don’t allow mean girls to come in and start belittling someone else or making fun of someone else or using slander against someone. There’s just a line that we draw in the sand. What you find is when you have a group of leaders who communicate the same, who are of the same heart, who have great intent on helping other people grow, the mean girls don’t stick around very long because they can’t get traction. I think that helps preserve our culture of being a very open and loving organization in which to work.
Where can SeneGence expand its reach?
Puerto Rico is one place. Before COVID, we had just opened Hong Kong, and it opened huge there, but we closed up the offices [because of the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill protests] and our employees went home. Then, they never really came back because of COVID. So, we’re kind of in limbo with that launch. We continue to work on registering our products in other countries, but we’re not physically there. We’re not renting facilities or shipping anything there because it just doesn’t make sense for us to prepare that way right now. It may not even be the way that we go as we expand around the world. I am building a “Seneworld” in the spatial web.
That’s the next level of cloud. We all do our thing in the cloud now. The spatial web is the 3D web where you have your avatar. Then, you go in and you could put on makeup in the beauty bar. You can sit there and talk to me in full person, and you would be your full person, and we’re standing or sitting there together having a full on conversation. You actually feel like you’re in the room with the person. It’s so fun. My husband and I are working on that project right now in a way where we can just connect the world. As more and more companies rebuild their worlds in this spatial web, that’s the future.
How many products does SeneGence have today?
Over 300. And I have to tell you, although our premier product was LipSense, we sell more skincare. Our skincare is amazing.
How many of the over 300 products are skincare?
Two-thirds. I would have to count the eyeshadows because our makeup is skincare. Not only do we have the basic cleansing and moisturizing, but, as we’re putting on our foundation and everything else, it’s layer after layer of skincare. We were first in the marketplace to do that. We launched that in 2000. At least a hundred items are strictly skincare.
Do you have any upcoming product launches that you’re excited about?
We’re addressing beauty from the inside and out soon. My husband and I, for 30 years, have been nutrition junkies. It’s very important to take care of yourself inside so you can have beautiful skin on the outside. Beauty is in the blend between nutrition and taking care of yourself, so we’re addressing that. Then, there are some very interesting new skincare technologies that are coming down the road, and we are working with some outside scientists to bring some of those interesting ingredients that have amazing results for your skin to the marketplace in a way where it is affordable for the masses, not just reserved for those who have wealth to purchase. We’re very excited about expanding our line in that way.