I've started seeing promotional weight-loss posts from people I know on Facebook and Instagram.
Sandwiched between party photos and wedding announcements, the posts show stomachs, legs, and arms before and after application of "this crazy wrap" that can "tighten, tone, and firm" with "minimized appearance of cellulite" and "fast and lasting results" in "as little as 45 minutes." Similar posts endorse "fat fighter" pills, eye cream, menopausal supplements, "greens" powder that can "detoxify, energize, and alkalize," and "defining gel" that does wonders on wrinkles.
These people, mostly women, also tell me they're making thousands of dollars selling this stuff.
As if that weren't enough, they're inviting me to join.
I've gotten the opportunity to WELCOME this beautiful girl to the family in more ways than 1!! 💚💚 My sissy in law is ready to work hard 💪🏼 earn rewards 💰 && change lives but most importantly have FUN while doing it all!! 🎉 We're going to be the ultimate #tagteamduo taking it to a #wholenothalevel 💥 #welcometothefamily #itworksdistributor #itworksfamily #wrapreneurs #makingmoney #workinghard #havingFUN 💪🏼😍 #itworksrewards #itworkswraps #wrapsonwraps #workingwomen #beyourownboss #paychecks #bonuses #itworks #moneymoneymoney💰
It Works is a multilevel-marketing company that claims a staggering $538 million in revenue last year and $1.2 billion in three years, with more than a million recurring customers. The cosmetics upstart is powered by a global network of 100,000 distributors who do most of their sales through social media - a 21st-century version of the direct-sales business model popularized by Avon.
The company has done all of this despite its main product, "that crazy wrap thing," having no clinically proven benefits.
What makes It Works so successful? Tech Insider flew me down to the company's Florida headquarters to peek behind the curtain.
'A customer-generating machine'
The It Works headquarters in Palmetto, Florida, is as sleek as anything you'll find in Silicon Valley. It's a 50,000-square-foot office with a big stone It Works sign out front, It Works-branded vehicles, an It Works fountain, a rooftop bar with a putting green, and a giant metal slide from the second floor to the first.
It also has a relentlessly uplifting vibe. The word "Freedom" is written in giant, all-capital green letters on one wall, and those letters are covered in stickers on which distributors have written personal goals like "retire husband," "pay off house," "kids in private school," and "new car."
Each day at 3:05 p.m., all of the It Works corporate employees stop what they are doing to give each other high fives.
Inside his corner office overlooking the Manatee River, the man who built it all, CEO Mark Pentecost, told me about the wonders of multilevel marketing.
"I think it's the greatest industry there is because the American Dream is back alive," he said. "I was a teacher and a coach, and now I'm the CEO of a multimillion-dollar company."
Pentecost got his start as a public-school teacher in Michigan. Looking for extra cash, he dabbled in a few direct-sales companies including Excel Communications, where he got to work with billionaire Kenny Troutt. He raised money to start his own business after buying a deserted church and converting it into high-end condos.
When the entrepreneur came across a body wrap that created the appearance of rapid slimming, he knew he had his product.
"I watched my wife try it. She was ecstatic with the results, and I watched her call her girlfriend right away to tell her what had happened," Pentecost says on the It Works website. "Her girlfriend said that she wanted to try it, and they hung up. It wasn't 30 seconds later, her girlfriend called back and said, 'My daughter was listening, and she wants one for her chin. Is there something for the chin?' That was when I knew that we had a perfect product for direct selling, a product that people would be excited to share with their friends and family."
Pentecost had a flash of inspiration in naming his company.
"You literally would show someone the product or tell them, and you could wait three seconds, and they'd go, 'If this works ... Does it work?'" Pentecost told me. "Almost always, there'd be something with 'it works.' We said, 'We've gotta call the company It Works.' Some people are like, 'You can't name the company that.' There's a lot of genius with that."
It Works now sells dozens of skincare and nutritional supplements, but the Ultimate Body Applicator, aka "that crazy wrap," is what gets people through the door.
"We're a customer-generating machine," Pentecost said.
Nearly all of those sales go through that network of 100,000 distributors - an army of stay-at-home moms, hairdressers, and teachers who serve as a PR team, marketing department, and sales force rolled into one.
It's getting those distributors on board that is It Works' greatest achievement.
'A job that's all about fun'
It Works distributors are told that by following the company's "steps to success" they can have a fun and flexible job, get out of debt, and even get rich.
One It Works video features a cartoon woman named Jan explaining what it means to be a "wrapreneur extraordinaire."
"It means days filled with friendship, a job that's all about fun, and a life of freedom," Jan says. "But it wasn't always this way. Not long ago, I was a stressed out working mom with a boring job, just trying to make ends meet, when I saw this amazing picture on Facebook."
But the truth is that the vast majority of salespeople earn nowhere near enough to live on.
Indeed, the average salesperson earned only $937 in 2013 - and that's before subtracting the costs of joining and staying in the company, which can be around $1,000 yearly, much of which goes to buying It Works product.
In fact, it seems that many distributors are spending more to be a part of the program than they are earning.
In short, getting rich as an It Works distributor is not easy.
While this may seem controversial, it is how things work with lots of multilevel-marketing companies, and It Works has not faced any major public legal issues.
Meanwhile, some distributors really are living the dream - and inspiring everyone to try to do the same.
'How do you separate your faith?'
The most successful distributors are the ones who completely buy in to the It Works lifestyle and never stop selling.
Ashley Sinclair, a 33-year-old distributor from Lubbock, Texas, is one of the company's 10 highest earners. As I spoke with her via Skype in Pentecost's office, she told me she could find a new customer anywhere - she said she even recently converted one person while waiting in line for the Starbucks bathroom.
Sinclair had been skeptical about It Works at first. She found out about the company when someone she had known from junior high messaged her and told her about this crazy wrap. Sinclair deleted the message. The boutique owner and mother of two "was not interested at all" in adding anything to her schedule.
"But something kind of kept drawing me back to the product and wondering if it worked," she said. "So I called her two weeks later, jumped in, and never looked back."
She was used to working retail with a $10,000 monthly overhead, she said. The monthly buy-in for It Works is about $100.
"I looked over at my husband and said, 'I am going to make us a million dollars. Like, this is it,'" she said. "And he just said, 'That's awesome - will you make me lunch?'" She laughed.
Now, she and her husband have both quit their previous jobs, and they tend to her It Works network of distributors full time.
I asked whether she ever tried to separate the rest of her life from her It Works involvement.
"I had a very hard time at the beginning sort of wanting to separate," she said. "I tried to at first. I really did try to at first … I created two separate [Facebook] profiles, and I immediately had to delete that and just say, you know what? This is me. It Works is a part of who I am.
"Just like I wouldn't separate posting about being a wife, posting about being a mom, posting about how much I love guacamole at Chipotle, you know, these are all things that I love. My relationship with God, It Works - it's all integral. It's a part of me. You can't separate it, I don't think. I don't think it's smart to separate it."
He ended up getting involved when his sister, Kami Dempsey, persuaded him to show some It Works materials to the women in his office. They went nuts for the before-and-after photos and begged him to let them try out the wraps, he said. Soon after, Kyler attended an It Works distributor event and was moved to tears by the level of devotion and joy he saw.
"It's something that really touches you," Kyler said. "And I remember going to my first event and being like, 'I will never see this in a law firm.'"
Kyler soon quit his job and ditched his law-school plans. Now he makes his own hours, traveling to see clients and other distributors and always wearing an It Works T-shirt in hopes that someone will stop him on the street and turn into a customer. He also has a huge number of distributors working under him - 7,000 or 8,000, he said, who help beef up his commission checks.
Kyler is never really off the clock. Whenever he meets someone new, he has the person add him as a friend on Facebook on the spot so the person will see his It Works promotions.
Kyler explains that Instagram hashtags are the best way to reel in new customers online.
Personally, I've come across It Works materials when checking hashtags associated with everything from Kim Kardashian photo shoots to medical treatments.
Last Mother's Day, the company sent out green capes emblazoned with #supermom to distributors who have kids. Those distributors then took photos of themselves with their kids, hashtagged the photos #supermom, and appended gushy captions about how much they loved It Works. That way, those who had hashtagged a photo #supermom on Mother's Day were guaranteed to see promos for It Works if they clicked the hashtag.
I asked whether It Works had also cracked Pinterest, the most female-dominated of all online social networks. Kyler told me he didn't personally use it but he knew of another male distributor who had crafted his own Pinterest profile full of womenswear inspiration and would occasionally drop in strategic It Works promos.
"He's a high-fashion woman on Pinterest," Kyler said. "That's his persona ... And he has all of these followers and then occasionally he's like, 'Oh my goodness, when I'm looking to tone up, this is what I use.' And then he gets customers. But it's not him. It's like, another persona. It's like catfishing."
I ask him whether he has a rule of thumb to keep from inundating his friends and family with It Works information.
"I would say that It Works is a very large part of my life," he said. "It would be like saying, 'How do you separate your faith?' I know that sounds weird, but it's just part of what I do. It's part of what I believe helps people."
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It Works does what it can to cultivate this obsession in all of its distributors.
The company brings top earners to headquarters for training bonanzas, complete with guest speakers and fun events. This summer, 7,000 distributors from all over the world headed to Palmetto, Florida, for a "green carpet" event. Here's video of a recent "green carpet."
"We believe God has drawn them to this company," she says of the company's distributors and customers. "We prayed them in. And now we want to be good stewards of their lives and their families."
So does it work?
While people at It Works went on and on about their devotion to the company, no one gave me a convincing explanation of the science behind the body wrap that the entire business hinges on.
When I asked Mark Pentecost what the wrap actually did, he was vague: "It's herbal," he said. "Four or five things are going on. It's a detox using herbal, all-natural … detoxing the area and feeding the area. There's about five or six all-natural things happening there to tighten, tone, and firm."
It Works Global's product coach Krista Rapa demonstrated a wrap on one of the company's office employees. She showed me that you were supposed to stick the wrap, which is covered in lotion on one side, to the body part you want to tone, tighten, and/or firm. After you stick it to your body, you use plastic wrap, tight clothing, or an It Works-branded "fab wrap" to keep the wrap in place.
"The lotion that is on the applicator is just going to be absorbed into her skin and it's just gonna help her to tighten, tone, and firm up," she said.
When I asked what the active ingredients were, Rapa couldn't tell me.
"There's a lot of different things," she said. "I should've brought a list."
"You'll see all the ingredients," she said. "The active ingredients are all of the herbs and botanicals that are in here. They all just work together."
People using the wraps are instructed to drink a lot of water for optimum results. Why?
"Basically, we say it helps to … Everyone needs water," Rapa said. "So it just helps with keeping you hydrated and making the applicator work better."
"The minute you start drinking water, it intensifies," Kyler chimed in. "You can feel it more. You can tell the water is, I don't know, activating. People show up skeptical. We embrace it. You'd have to be silly not to be skeptical."
It Works says it has a doctor who explains how products like these work at training sessions, but he was unavailable when I visited Florida.
Over the next several weeks, I asked multiple times to speak with the It Works doctor and was told he was still unavailable. Finally, PR head Kate Martin Carlson told me, "Due to the fact that the It Works wrap is a cosmetic, the FDA limits the claims that can be made about cosmetic products."
To get another perspective on how the wrap works, I spoke with an unaffiliated medical professional. Dr. Bill Sukala, a Sydney-based clinical exercise physiologist, attributed the supposed slimming shown in It Works promos to something simple: sweating.
"I am unaware of any product in existence that you can apply topically that will melt away fat and cause weight loss," he said. "If you wrap yourself in plastic, with or without the herbal lotion, you will probably sweat a bit more than usual and lose water weight on the scale. But this is a short-lived effect, and the water will be replaced with the next meal or drink."
"[Body wraps] won't give you long-term weight loss," a Washington, D.C.-based doctor named Elizabeth Tanzi told WebMD. "They can temporarily make you feel a little thinner, and when you look at the scale the pounds can go down a pound or two. But that's water-weight loss. It's a temporary phenomenon."
We also tested a pack of wraps at the Tech Insider office and had mixed results.
When I sent Carlson our before-and-after photos, however, she responded with more qualifications. The best results are actually visible 24 hours later, she said. Plus, a full wrap treatment consists of using each of the four wraps in the kit on the same body part, three days apart. Also, you're supposed to watch what you eat before and after wrapping - never mind that drinking more water and watching what you eat for 12 days straight could result in weight loss with or without a pack of wraps.
Of course, the company is careful in how it markets the product, avoiding verifiable claims like "weight loss."
"The terms 'firm, tone, and tighten' are overused and ambiguous marketing terms that mean different things to different people," Sukala said. "How do they quantify 'firm, tone, and tighten' for consumers so they actually know the product is working?"
An island in the sun
Since I left Palmetto, the Pentecosts added to their real-estate holdings. They bought an island.
Yes, Mark and Cindy are now the proud owners of Little Bokeelia Island, a land mass off the coast of Florida for which they coughed up $14.5 million.
"I like to make money like Warren Buffett, but I like to relax like Jimmy Buffett," Pentecost told the Bradenton Herald.
It Works distributors caught wind of the purchase, and now they are celebrating Pentecost's victory as if it's their own:
It sounded like a bit of an overstatement at first, but now I get it. The American Dream is not about everyone having a piece of the pie. It is about everyone believing the dream is within reach after a person works hard enough. And if there's one thing It Works is good at, it is selling that fantasy.