Direct to Her

By Maghan McDowell
San Francisco Chronicle.

Founded by women with women-focused products, Bay Area entrepreneurs are breathing new life into the staid direct sales business model.

When launching Burlingame-based Ruby Ribbon in 2011, Anna Zornosa faced two challenges: shapewear’s unsavory reputation, and the direct-sales model she planned to use to get her products into the closets of her customers.

“They would say, ‘Oh, I’ve been to those house parties before–I don’t think that’s going to be so much fun,'” Zornosa says.

But that problem is quickly turning into no problem at all. Despite lingering Tupperware-party connotations, direct selling — also known as “social commerce,” in which sales are made directly to a customer without a retail store — has gotten a face-lift from the next generation.

The new direct sales companies are offering covetable fashion and beauty products through legions of sellers who are combining the tradition of personal recommendations with tech tools that are a far cry from peddlers past, and a handful of Bay Area women, including Ruby Ribbon’s Zornosa, are leading the charge.

Among them is Jessica Herrin of Stella & Dot (with jewelry and accessories), Lori Bush of Rodan + Fields (dermatological skincare) and Elenor Mak of Keaton Row (personal styling).

Last year was the best in the past four or five years for direct selling, says Direct Sales Association president Joseph Mariano, who has been representing the organization for more than 30 years.

In 2013, the direct selling sales force in the United States reached a record high of almost 17 million. That’s thanks, in part, to the recession. But the increase in direct sales businesses — “the original social network,” Mariano says — goes beyond sellers with excess spare time and a need for extra money.

It reflects a trend among the younger generation of embracing entrepreneurship; of blending business with the personal; and of flexibility in when, where and how one works, he says. “You can be social, commercial and technological at the same time, so it’s the perfect mix.”

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