A new autobiography from Kenneth Brailsford, Founder and Board Chairman of Zija International, highlights a direct selling career that has spanned more than four decades. In My Life Encapsulated, Brailsford shares insights gleaned along the way to building a string of successful companies.
The industry veteran launched his first direct selling business, Nature’s Sunshine Products, in 1972. Nature’s Sunshine was said to be the first nutritional company to encapsulate herbs, earning Brailsford the title “Father of Encapsulation.” He went on to launch Nature’s Labs Inc., renamed Enrich International, with his wife, Linda, and David Lisonbee, the Founder and Chairman of 4Life Research.
Brailsford retired in 1997, but his direct selling journey would not end there. In 2005, he founded Zija International to bring the benefits of the moringa oleifera plant to market. In 2012—its best year yet—the nutrition and skincare company topped $100 million in revenue.
The following is an excerpt from Brailsford’s recent conversation with DSN about his career in direct selling and his perspective on the business model.
DSN: When you founded Nature’s Sunshine in 1972, direct selling was not nearly as prevalent as it is today. What attracted you to the model?
KB: We started out with the retail model; we were selling in health food stores. We had an individual tell us we ought to be selling through multi-level marketing, and I didn’t see a downside to it, other than that we had to put a different label out. So it was all potentially an upside. I didn’t know too much about it at the time. I knew about Amway, but that’s it.
DSN: Zija has spent the past three years on the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. What is behind that success?
KB: Number one: You have to have a fantastic product—I call it a superior product—so it will catch on and work. The product has to work for people. They have to be able to see a difference. To attract professionals in the business, you’ve also got to have a great compensation plan. You’ll need the infrastructure in place to be able to handle growth, and you’ve got to have a good staff. All these things contribute to growth for the company. Of course, I also think it’s helpful that so many people, if they’ve been in the industry very long, know my reputation—that it’s my third company and the other two are still successful and going forward.
DSN: You came out of retirement to help launch Zija. What inspired you to get back into the business?
KB: I didn’t intend to get back into the business at all—it’s not an easy business, though I had invested in others that were doing well. I was shown a video on the moringa tree by a friend of mine who wanted to start an MLM company. I told him I’d give him 30 minutes of my time, but didn’t tell him that at the end of 30 minutes I planned to tell him I wasn’t interested. Watching the video, I could see this tree replaced a couple hundred products from my old company. That was always a challenge, having too many products. I also felt this was a nutritional product that needed to go throughout the world, that God wanted it for His children. It’s called the “miracle tree” by the indigenous people because of the effects it has on a person’s health. When I saw that, I wanted to get back into the business.
DSN: Having led three direct selling companies, you’ve seen your share of distributor success stories. What do successful direct selling entrepreneurs have in common?
KB: They have a hunger to be successful, and they’re willing to pay the price. They’ll work hard, because it isn’t easy, and they have the ability to stay focused to make it to the top.
DSN: As Chairman at Zija, you still have an insider’s perspective on the industry. What would you consider the greatest challenge facing direct selling companies at this time?
KB: One challenge within the industry is that you sometimes have people running companies who put the companies ahead of the distributors, and that’s not good in the long term. There has to be a balance; it has to be good for everybody. That’s one thing I see that I don’t really like, but I also look at the industry as the closest thing we have to capitalism and free enterprise left in our country, if not in the world. It’s a great opportunity for people to start their own business for almost no investment, and it totally falls upon them to be successful or not. I think it’s a great tool.
DSN: What individuals have had the greatest influence on your career?
KB: In this industry it was Jack Ritchason. When I met him, he was a distributor at Shaklee, one of a handful of direct selling companies in business at that time. He gave me a lot of counsel and advice over the years, and without him I think I would have made some fatal mistakes, because we were really blazing a new trail. There weren’t too many people you could ask for information. Jack was one who understood the business from A to Z and pointed me in the right direction.
DSN: Nature’s Sunshine has grown to hundreds of millions in revenue. Did you foresee growth on that scale when you started out?
KB: I was very surprised. As I said, it was a new industry for me. I didn’t expect it to grow that quickly or to that size. I began the business to provide a job, and I didn’t really see it as more than a job until, one day, we had a testimonial from a distributor who said she’d been sent home to die from cancer. She’d taken the products and was cancer free, and she attributed it to the nutritional products. I don’t know anything about her medical condition beyond what she said, but that was an eye-opener for me. It was no longer just about making a living, but what these products can do for other people. My “why” then became helping other people and blessing their lives with health, as well as the ability to have another income. That’s been my driving force ever since. If you bless people’s lives, the money ought to take care of itself. You don’t have to worry too much about that, if you manage it right.
DSN: When you’re not hard at work, how do you prefer to spend your time these days?
KB: I’m different from a lot of people. I don’t fish or hunt, but I do read a lot. I love to read all kinds of books—religious, historical, motivational. If you ask my hobbies, I suppose I’d say business and reading. I own 10 or 12 businesses. They’re all doing quite well, but I don’t run them. I find good people who can run the businesses, and I just look at the big picture.