In their first month of business, 4Life Research founders David and Bianca Lisonbee made $254 in sales. Today that would buy only about six containers of 4Life Transfer Factor Classic supplements.
Headquarters: Sandy, Utah
Top Executive: President and CEO Danny Lee
2016 Revenue: $316 Million
Products: Cell-Based Health and Wellness.
In 2017, their sales were $316 million—enough for more than 8 million containers.
That’s more like it.
But these things take time, the Lisonbees say. While they had big goals when they started their direct selling business 20 years ago, they were willing to reach them gradually if it meant they could build a solid foundation of research and attract people with a passion for their vision: to share Transfer Factor, the company’s core ingredient, with the world.
“We didn’t just take off like a shot,” David says. “We grew one person at a time.”
Bianca remembers hearing from more than one person that she and David should “find some big guns in the industry” to help them leapfrog to success. They resisted, and it paid off. Now they are big guns, at No. 51 on the 2017 Direct Selling News Global 100 list of the world’s largest direct selling companies. As Sandy, Utah-based 4Life celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, executives will leverage what they have learned over the past two decades to further develop their niche as a research-driven, immune system support company; sharpen their focus on customer acquisition; and position the company to triple its worldwide base of distributors and customers to 1 million in the next five years.
When the Lisonbees, their 4Life leadership team and thousands of distributors gather for 4Life20, the company’s international convention in April, they will celebrate company history and accomplishments—to a point. Executives say they are too focused on and excited about the future to dwell too much on the past.
“We come to this 20th anniversary with a lot to be grateful for and with great expectations,” says 4Life Vice President of Communications Calvin Jolley. “But it’s not a story that we want to look back on for long. It’s one that we want to build into the future with.”
Newly named 4Life President and CEO Danny Lee says the lessons he will carry with him as he leads the company into its next phase will be a blend of what has and hasn’t worked at 4Life and what has and hasn’t worked for the direct selling channel in general. “We have learned over the past 20 years that you can have a charismatic leader. You can have exponential growth in markets. You can have all kinds of flashpoints. But if you don’t have a great product, backed by science and research, you’re not going to last in the long term.”
Science has been at the center of 4Life’s values and operations since day one, David Lisonbee says. It even made the difference between Bianca resisting David’s startup idea and jumping on board with it.
“We come to this 20th anniversary with a lot to be grateful for and with great expectations. But it’s not a story that we want to look back on for long. It’s one that we want to build into the future with.”
—Calvin Jolley, Vice President of Communications, 4Life Research
“I was David’s hardest sell,” Bianca says, remembering how nervous she was about launching into another business. David had just left another nutraceutical company he had co-founded, and she wasn’t sure they should be entrepreneurs all over again.
But then she started reading the research on and using transfer factor—the product that had lit a fire in David—and she became its biggest cheerleader. Says David, “I felt in the deepest part of my bones we had to start this company,” to which Bianca adds, “Once I had an experience with the product, I felt the same way.”
4Life Transfer Factor, which is made up of proteins and other peptides from cow colostrum and chicken eggs with the primary purpose to balance the immune system’s natural responsiveness, has been an ingredient in the company’s most successful products. 4Life has launched and had “respectable” success with such lines as personal-care products and protein products, Lee says. “But they have never truly caught on the way we hoped. It’s a reminder that you want to stick to your core competency. We are the immune system company.”
Starting with Science
4Life Chief Scientific Officer David Vollmer, whose Ph.D. is in analytical chemistry, says his research and development team wants to capitalize on what it has already discovered about transfer factors while it taps the ingredient’s deeper potential.
Twenty years ago, Vollmer says, the ingredient targeted just the immune system. Now his team of doctors, chemists and lab technicians as well as the company’s university and private laboratory research partners are seeing connections between the immune system and many other body systems. Together these systems make up the body’s microbe community, or microbiome, Vollmer explains, and the fact that they’re so interdependent has big implications for 4Life Transfer Factor and its contribution to health and wellness. “That’s what we’ve centered on lately, having a product that’s addressing the microbiome in a way no one else is doing,” he says.
A product that 4Life will unveil at its international convention in April will reflect some of this recent microbiome research. They’re keeping the product name and most of its details under wraps, but company executives will say that the 4Life Transfer Factor-based product “promotes gut microbiome wellness.”
The research and tests that 4Life has conducted on this and other products often is published in academic and scientific journals, Vollmer says, adding validity to the research. The company’s most recent research is scheduled to appear in the next issue of Pharmacognosy Research, he says. And such publications as Nutrition & Metabolism; Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism; and Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition also have featured 4Life’s studies and results.
Vollmer and Jolley say that 4Life works to set itself apart in the area of science and research, in at least two ways.
The first is that it conducts research during the product development process instead of later “to corroborate preconceived data expectations,” Jolley says. Vollmer explains: “It’s important to do it along the way because we can validate individual ingredient effectiveness, as well as determine if the benefit we presumed isn’t really there.”
The other distinguishing feature of 4Life, as Lee also noted, is its consistent focus on immune health support. “We’re always looking at the immune system,” Vollmer says. “Everything we do should be centered around that.”
Leading with Product
In addition to launching a next-generation 4Life Transfer Factor product, the upcoming convention will introduce distributors to new technology tools that will put retail sales even more front and center.
The existing mobile business app allows distributors to enroll people on the spot, Lee says. A new app being unveiled at the convention will make it easy for them to pass along 4Life product information, too, and text presentation materials. It’s so important to be able to interact naturally with prospects through the technology everyone uses, Lee says, whether you’re at lunch, in the gym or at your neighbor’s house.
Trent Tenney, 4Life senior vice president worldwide sales, agrees that technology is key to connecting with customers and doing so in a way that allows them to share their 4Life product experiences, if they choose to. “It’s going to be imperative that 4Life continues to make it easier for the person who joins to simply share products through the ways they share everything: the smartphone,” Tenney says.
Much of what 4Life has been doing to refine its customer acquisition process stems from the in-depth sales cycle and customer behavior research Tenney has been doing the past two years. He was a member of 4Life’s marketing group for 15 years, he says. But in 2016 the company created the position he now holds so that 4Life could find out “what makes people tick in the transactional stages.”
From studying other high-performing companies in the channel to digging into how 4Life’s star distributors operate, Tenney has been talking to a lot of people. “I haven’t been on the phone this much my whole life—other than when I was 16,” he says.
What he’s hearing is a message that has been resonating among direct selling companies in general, as regulators push for the channel to make retail sales a higher priority. “I’ve uncovered a whole different set of behaviors allowing distributors to introduce products in ways that aren’t offending their networks,” Tenney says. This message has prompted 4Life to make sure its distributors approach most prospects as potential customers, not potential distributors. Prospects are often thinking, “‘I don’t care about your business, but tell me about your product,’ ” Tenney says.
“That kind of awareness shift falls into alignment with the shift in our industry,” adds Brian Gill, 4Life’s new senior vice president of marketing. “Back in 1998, everybody was a distributor—that’s what you were if you wanted to become a customer. But now? We support, promote and market retail sales to end customers who have no interest in building a business.”
Recruit, Reward and Train
But you can’t have customers—especially as many as Lee is tasked with recruiting by 2023—if you don’t have sellers. And since Lee became president last fall, he’s been making a big push to re-energize or replace company incentive programs.
In September 2017, the company launched “Builder Bonus,” an incentive that replaced a legacy program called “Power Pool.” Lee says the program wasn’t as focused on customer volume, but Builder Bonus is very clear: “X behavior gets Y result.” In this case, “X” behavior is signing up two customers or two distributors, with a certain sales volume, and getting the “Y” result of $100 for each person. The program is founded on building and retaining an organization, so the company has tied Builder Bonus to its loyalty program. And that payment will come quickly, through Rapid Rewards, a program 4Life has had for a while but hasn’t promoted well, he says. Rapid Rewards pays the Builder Bonus incentive the very next day.
Builder Bonus targets up-and-coming business builders. “We have great incentives for higher ranks,” Lee says. “We are now leveraging incentives to target the lower ranks, for people who are just getting started.”
To help team members succeed and to help the company reach its aggressive expansion goal, 4Life also recently opened 4Life University, an online training and professional development platform. 4Life University is the first formalized training effort the company has offered, and it covers everything from how to talk about 4Life products to the ethics of direct selling. “We have taken more responsibility than we had prior in training our field, on the essentials of the Transfer Factor product line, in particular,” Tenney says.
‘No Better Way’
The Lisonbees will be at 4Life20 in April to mark the company’s big milestone, congratulate the field teams on their personal wins, and thank everyone for their contributions to the company’s success. They also will highlight the corporate philanthropy work that they spend much of their time and energy doing.
David and Bianca recently returned from Puerto Rico, for example, where the company’s nonprofit Foundation 4Life had flown in 70,000 pounds of life-critical supplies in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. That effort alone has received donations from 40 countries with more than $1 million in cash and supplies. Assembling kits for other disaster victims actually will be the focus of a service project they will launch at 4Life20.
Aside from disaster relief work, 4Life and its distributors are involved in helping to solve chronic issues among people in poverty around the world. Primarily through its 4Life Foundation, established in 2006, the company has donated millions of dollars and hours to such causes as alleviating malnutrition and building homes for families in third-world countries. Since its inception, the organization has overseen service projects in 32 countries around the world.
The 4Life Foundation donates 100 percent of every dollar it collects directly to programs because the company underwrites all of the organization’s operational expenses, Jolley says.
The Lisonbees are as passionate about their company’s ability to do good works in the world as they are about providing goodness for the body. “There is no better way for a large group of people to benefit from bringing a great product to the marketplace and for establishing intercultural relationships,” Bianca says. “Together we can do things we could never do alone.”
“I’d like to be able to look back in another 20 years and see this period as an inflection point for 4Life, that we hit a new wave of momentum.”
—Danny Lee, President and CEO, 4Life Research
As the new captain of the 4Life ship, Lee says that while he’s “quite consumed” with the growth goals he’s facing, he is embracing this more expansive view of the company and its place in the channel.
He says, “I’d like to be able to look back in another 20 years and see this period as an inflection point for 4Life, that we hit a new wave of momentum.”