Last year was a rough one for Debbie Lawson, a primary teacher with nine years' experience. Medical problems led to frequent time off. Her local education authority took unkindly to the situation and, rather than face a gruelling confrontation, she resigned. "I went into teaching thinking my job would be secure. But with that experience coupled with all the cuts, that security didn't appear to exist any more," she says.
She moved to another full-time job in a different LEA, Croydon, but this time she resisted putting all her eggs in one basket. For the equivalent of one day a week for the past four months, she has been selling educational books through the Dorling Kindersley direct-marketing Family Library scheme. So far she has earned only Pounds 300 but she believes the potential to earn more is enormous. She knows a former further education lecturer who, over a period of several years, has earned Pounds 50,000 selling full-time.
Teachers who don't know multi-level marketing from their elbow are getting involved in pyramid sales operations of educational books and CDs and some are making good money from it. Of the 7,000 people involved in direct selling Dorling Kindersley books and CDs, up to 500 are thought to be teachers. Some are retired, some are teaching part-time and some are selling alongside their full-time teaching commitments.
The Dorling Kindersley Family Library set-up is a far cry from the door-to-door, brown-suited Encyclopaedia Britannica salesmen of my youth who had the uncanny knack of always ringing the doorbell just as you were sitting down to supper.
The DKFL, now in its third year, is a trained and well-supported army of people of all ages and backgrounds who target their customers through personal contacts. It works on a somewhat evangelical model. You sell to your friends and colleagues, either individually or at a "party" at one of their homes.
For teachers, selling Dorling Kindersley products is a million miles away from Tupperware. Says Debbie Lawson: "I became involved because I knew DK books from teaching and I was aware that they're the first books that children go to because of their good balance of text and real-life photographs."
Being a teacher with an understanding of children's development allows for professional credibility, a sort of teacherly seal of approval to teachers and non-teachers alike. The work also draws on communication skills and training skills - both of which are teachers' stock-in-trade.
Upon signing up with DK Family Library, "distributors" or sellers invest in a Pounds 50 Home Business Starter Pack, complete with a selection of books worth more than Pounds 80, sales aids, and a sales and training manual. Free training is available on a weekly basis. Telephone support, too, is on tap. Sellers receive a 27 per cent profit on the books they sell. Bonuses of between 3 and 20 per cent are awarded, based on the number of sales. Distributors are also rewarded for recruiting new sellers into the network by earning a percentage of the profits from the new business generated.
There is a pyramidal hierarchy attached to the increase in sales, which means that the higher you go, the more you earn from your team's combined profits and the less you need to sell directly. Training takes over as the focus, although even those at the top still sell. The big money is earned through building a strong team of sellers.
Sue Watkins of Abingdon, Oxfordshire, is the mother of four young boys and teaches geography part-time. She earns Pounds 500 a month on average from her DKFL work, but expects a minimum of Pounds 700 from September. Sue puts her success down to realising early on that building a strong team was the only way she was going to make money from the scheme. "I couldn't realistically go out and sell lots of books every month."
In less than a year, she has recruited 45 people. For Sue, it is a very happy arrangement. "Giving my children something they need - DK books at bargain prices - and at the same time bringing in extra cash seems too good to be true."
DK Family Library also sells to schools, which account for between 15 and 20 per cent of its turnover. Each DK distributor works with a handful of schools local to them. Often they will already know staff through their own teaching or through their children. Of the 1,500 distributors selling to schools, around 30 per cent are teachers. A system in which teachers sell to other teachers offers, according to Phil Donoghue, DKFL's schools manager, "an understanding of the education market and a credibility, because they understand what schools need and want".
Adds DKFL's managing director, Peter Cartwright: "We sell education, not books. You don't have to have entrepreneurial skills to succeed at this. What you need is a commitment to the product. Teachers, if they have honesty and integrity, patience and training skills - which I believe they have in bagfuls - will succeed."
For details on the Dorling Kindersley Family Library, ring DK head office on 01403 270 274.