You or someone you know has lived through the dinner-party sales pitch where instead of a friendly meal, you are asked to join Amway or another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

It’s certainly not a recommended practice if you plan to keep your friends. But it works. From humble beginnings in 1959, Amway has grown to nearly $11 billion in retail sales in 2009, second only to Avon in so-called multi-level marketing, and there are dozens of copycats.

While Amway’s origins focused on cleaning supplies and hygiene products, today the corporation appears to have everything for consumers and lots of competition. There are network marketing businesses specializing in jewelry, skin care, food and nutritional supplements and even travel.

The attraction is the desire to own a business.

What owners say

Ruth Shapovalov sells Isagenix nutritional products through her company, Laughing in the Rain. She’s been at it for for more than two years and has 750 independent agents in her network. Her experience of weight loss and improved health fueled her passion for the products.

When asked how she was able to recruit so many associates without alienating people, Shapalov responded, “I see myself as a flashlight seeking reflectors.” She explained that her approach was not to talk people into signing up, but to see if they might be a good fit for the product before inviting them to sign up.

Michele Johnson still works her day job at Everett Community College. For the past five years she has been a Creative Memories consultant. While she enjoys crafts and designing memory books, she considers her network marketing activity more of a hobby. When asked if she’s ever been exhorted to do more to grow her business, which benefits everyone higher up the pyramid, Johnson said she has never felt pressured.

“It’s really a great opportunity for people who want to work from home,” she said.

Logo from Amway