Tianwen, who started as a direct seller and later became a media professional, management consultant, and independent researcher in the industry, has accumulated 20 years of organizational marketing experience and ultimately became a senior partner in M company’s global market. His lifestyle has also evolved into that of a global backpacker and columnist. This interview was conducted by “Direct Sales” magazine under Direct Group and the China Direct Sales Museum, featuring the top 100 influential figures in China’s direct sales industry.
Tianwen, originally named Xu Ke with the nickname Tianwen, was born in Banan District, Chongqing. He is a well-known marketing planning expert and independent researcher in China’s direct sales/anti-direct sales industry. He first encountered direct sales in 1995 and founded China Direct Sales Communication Website in 1999. In 2000, he entered the consulting industry and participated in the founding of “China Direct Sales” magazine in 2003 and “Economic & Trade World – Direct Sales Edition” in 2004. In 2005, he established a direct sales industry consulting company in Beijing and Bozu Direct Selling Blog Network in Shanghai in 2006. He left the direct sales industry in 2007 and joined M company in September 2008, where he still works to this day.
In 1998, Tianwen founded China’s first industry forum – China Direct Sales Alliance Forum, which was later revised as China Direct Sales Communication Website. In 2002, he completed the first industry history of the Chinese direct sales industry, “12 Years of Wind and Rain in China’s Direct Sales Industry.” In 2003, his book “Direct Sales Trends and Special Training” became a bestseller and ranked ninth on the “Non-Literature Bestseller List” by China Bookselling Intelligence. In 2004, he was selected as one of the “Top 10 Most Influential Figures in the Direct Sales Industry in 2004” by Economic & Trade World magazine. In 2006, he was invited as a guest lecturer for the Direct Sales President Class at Peking University. In 2010, he was selected as an “Outstanding Industry Media Figure Influencing China’s Direct Sales Industry for 20 Years” by the China Direct Sales Expert Committee at the First China Direct Sales Industry Forum.
Tianwen’s articles, including “Analysis of the Contemporary Situation of China’s Direct Sales Industry,” “Why I Joined M Company,” “The Destiny and Extinction of Direct Sales at its Roots,” “Analysis of M Company’s Business Model,” and “From Avon and Amway to M Company,” have had a profound impact. From being a direct sales expert in the past to becoming a pioneer in direct-to-consumer (DTC) enlightenment today, Tianwen’s career can be described as legendary, with his thinking transforming as he continuously questioned and pondered the industry’s problems. His 20 years of organizational marketing experience spanned various roles, such as direct seller, direct sales website, direct sales media publishing, direct sales management consulting, and organizational marketing leader, in which he almost pioneered every field he touched upon, achieving remarkable results.
Scholar Jia Lin Ji analyzed Qu Yuan’s works and called his “Tianwen” a work of “problem consciousness.” Today, encountering Tianwen’s words and deeds in the direct sales industry, it is somewhat reminiscent of “problem consciousness” that has been floating on paper over the past 20 years of his direct sales trajectory. Perhaps it is due to the two characters “Tian Wen (Questioning Heaven)” that are “haunting,” although more than two thousand years separate this time from that time.
What is “problem consciousness”? Einstein’s words “The important thing is not to stop questioning” and Hua Luo Geng’s statement that “mathematicians cannot be without problems in their minds” can be viewed as answers to “problem consciousness.” From Thales, the father of ancient Greek philosophy, who proposed the “question of the origin of all things” to Joseph Needham’s “question of ancient Chinese science,” from Hilbert’s mathematical problem in 1900 to today’s “Clay Prize” problems, they are all works left by “problem consciousness” in their respective research fields. In today’s direct sales industry, facing Tianwen’s sincere words written in field media, it feels like being in the realm of “problem consciousness,” full of uniqueness.
1、Why did direct sales have such problems?”
Tianwen is not his real name, and he has a full name with a given name and a courtesy name. His original name is Xu Ke, and his courtesy name is Haoran. Tianwen is the nickname he adopted when he first went online in 1998 and also used as his nickname when he founded the direct sales forum in 1999, which was only three or four years after he joined the direct sales industry.
Tianwen entered the direct sales industry in 1995 at the age of 20, like many others, with the dream of creating a wealthy and extraordinary life through this lever for ordinary people’s entrepreneurship. However, after three years, the national ban on direct sales in 1998 left him with deep pain. Tianwen then joined a management consulting company but continued to hold a positive outlook for the future of direct sales through his own thinking and understanding. In 1999, he founded China Direct Sales Communication Network by chance, which became a platform for him to express his direct sales concepts. He wrote numerous positive articles about the imminent opening of the direct sales industry and organized a lot of debates on the forum, which had a wide-ranging impact in China.
In 2002, Tianwen wrote “On the Proposal of the Concept of the ‘Pre-MLM Era,'” which was later renamed as “12 Years of Wind and Rain in China’s Direct Sales Industry” and became the first historical work of the Chinese direct sales industry, included in the best-selling book “Direct Selling Is King” of knowledge economy. Although the direct sales industry had not yet been reopened in 2003, Tianwen began building direct sales theory by participating in the founding of “China Direct Sales,” the predecessor of China’s first professional magazine for direct sales, “Knowledge Economy,” and editing various best-selling books such as “Direct Sales Trends and Special Training,” “Direct Sales Psychology and Service,” and “Five Innovative Marketing Models.” Meanwhile, the direct sales alliance forum he founded was revised into China Direct Sales Communication Network, the first direct sales industry portal website in China.
Due to his macro and professional insights into the direct sales industry and his influence, Tianwen has been interviewed by many media outlets, including CCTV, and was invited to participate in the direct sales legislation research of the Ministry of Commerce as a special invited expert on direct sales research for the Research Center for China’s Economic System Reform. It was during this process that he “completed” his transformation from a direct sales participant to the “enemy” of mainland China’s direct sales industry today.
It all started with his question, “Why did direct sales have such problems?” In an article about his market research experience at that time, Tianwen wrote: “At that time, China’s direct sales industry also experienced rapid recovery and growth. While this seemed worthy of joy, it also brought about widespread chaos. First, there was the rampant underground direct sales companies, followed by the stockpiling phenomenon caused by many distributors blindly pursuing performance of the top ten legitimate transforming companies, resulting in a large number of direct sales refugees.”
The answer needs to be sought from history. From the birth of Avon in 1886, Tianwen traced the direct sales industry all the way to the emergence of Amway and the sprouting of new direct sales companies in China at that time. The conclusion drawn from the lines on paper is that the successful rules of direct sales from global to China have gone through three waves: sales-oriented, recommendation-oriented, and consumption-oriented. Based on this, he boldly predicted that the future trend of direct sales will inevitably move from sales-oriented “direct selling” to consumption-oriented “direct consumption.” His concept of “direct consumption” was born out of this.
Having penetrated the laws and trends of direct sales, Tianwen also fell into the painful realization that he was powerless to change the situation in the industry he loved because he could not see any direct sales company truly pioneering a consumption-oriented market. With a sense of regret, Tianwen made the decision to leave the direct sales industry at the end of 2007.
2、Why did direct sales have such problems?
“Will there be such a direct consumption enterprise in China?” After returning from the direct sales industry to traditional media work, Tianwen did not feel any comfort from leaving that chaotic place. On the contrary, the socializing and nine-to-five work of the traditional industry brought him only pain because although he temporarily put his dream aside, he still held onto the idea of achieving it. Moreover, contemplating the value of life after the Wenchuan earthquake also became a question for him.
“Will there be such a direct consumption enterprise in China to provide me with a place to settle my future?” Days went by as he asked this question over and over again, and September came around, bringing about a turning point in his fate. One day in September, two friends who had been friends for more than ten years approached Tianwen for help. They wanted to operate a company called M but were struggling to find the right team leader as a referrer. Given Tianwen’s various high-end relationships in the direct sales circle, they entrusted him to help find one.
At that time, Tianwen only knew that M was a well-known international direct sales company with a good reputation, and he thought of it as just another Amway or Nu Skin. However, out of his desire to help, he contacted Danny, the national business director of M, who recommended Wei Zhaoyang, the market pioneer of M in Taiwan. After some communication, the result was that Wei Zhaoyang would come to Chongqing on September 18th, and as a host, Tianwen would welcome and entertain him.
A banquet changed the trajectory of Tianwen’s entire life because at that gathering, he heard an echo of his own heartfelt question. What stayed with him after their long conversation was this: M is a company that originated from direct sales but has gone beyond direct sales.
“What’s important about M is that it removes the most lethal ‘sales’ and performance-oriented aspects of direct sales while retaining its reputation advantage. Therefore, M has given the direct sales industry the greatest gift – safety, without the risk of harm.”
“By being a consumer, you can develop the market without any performance requirements. Not only are there no performance requirements, but if you recommend friends to consume with you, the company will directly serve them and retain them. M company has a ‘consumer retention system’ that no other direct sales company has.”
Tianwen couldn’t sleep all night after hearing those words at the banquet. The next day, he made a decision in his heart and shed his old skin for a new one. He “married” M company because that was the direct consumption enterprise he had predicted and searched for many years.
On September 22, 2008, Tianwen’s birthday became his first day at M company, marking the start of his new career. His entry ceremony was particularly low-key, as in his view, he needed to break through the malignant side of the direct sales industry’s hype in the new environment.
To transition into the operating atmosphere of M company from the direct sales industry, Tianwen was informed that he needed to go through six months of “blood transfusion,” which meant learning how to refer real consumers rather than people who were eager to make money or other direct sellers. While it sounded easy, implementing it was the biggest challenge for all direct salespeople joining M company, including Tianwen.
Tianwen had a lot of connections in the direct sales industry, but he didn’t have full confidence in leading them to refer the same type of consumers in M company. Therefore, for almost a year before operating M company, it became a life-and-death test for him. During this time, Wei Zhaoyang, his senior colleague, always offered precise guidance at the right time: “The blood transfusion process cannot be rushed, take it slow, and when it succeeds, you can go fast.”
It took Tianwen two years to complete this “blood transfusion” process, from becoming a director in his second month at M company to later becoming a senior director. When the blood transfusion was successful, he only needed seven months to become an executive director. After three silent years, he rose to fame. In the following three years, Tianwen’s market achieved the fastest development in all of M company’s operations in China, making him a member of the M company president’s club and a policy committee member of M company’s Chinese market for two consecutive years.
3、M Company: The Terminator Model of Direct Sales?
When Tianwen joined M Company, he constantly received questions from friends: ‘Tianwen, why did you become a direct seller?’ He always replied, ‘I work for M Company, not direct sales.’ Then these friends would ask, ‘Isn’t it still direct sales? It’s the same thing with a different name. What’s the difference?’ Every time this conversation came up, Tianwen would feel helpless because their understanding was based on established facts: M Company is a member of the World Federation of Direct Selling Associations overseas, and in China, it holds a direct selling operating license issued by the Ministry of Commerce.”
“Despite this, Tianwen still believes that M Company’s business model is not typical direct sales. In fact, as early as 1985, M Company’s founder, VanderSloot, said the same thing. Tianwen once explained VanderSloot’s journey of thought in the article ‘The Background and Social Significance of M Company’s Business Model’:”
“At the time, VanderSloot believed that there were problems with the direct sales industry, such as false advertising, high rewards, and dishonest business practices. Therefore, he tried to break the traditional direct sales model and create a new model to solve these problems. He defined M Company as a consumer direct sales enterprise, emphasizing product quality and reputation advantages, and refused to adopt traditional sales methods and high reward systems. By establishing consumer retention systems and referral systems, he wanted to make consumers the core of the enterprise and maintain good reputation, thereby achieving sustainable development.”
“Therefore, M Company’s business model is not a typical direct sales model but more of a consumer direct sales model, with a focus on maintaining good reputation and consumer loyalty. This is also why Tianwen has always believed that the M Company model is not direct sales.”
“In summarizing the advantages and disadvantages of traditional direct sales, VanderSloot found that its benefits were freedom and multiplication, but its drawbacks were the tendency to hoard inventory and engage in price-cutting, causing market chaos and damaging the company’s image. At the same time, based on wealth-oriented business presentations, many direct sellers would engage in speculative behavior, resulting in a bubble effect on team development and false prosperity in company performance, which was not conducive to planned production and stable development of the enterprise. In addition, with the diversification of employment opportunities and improvements in social welfare, people began to tire of direct sales.”
Inspired by the insurance industry’s extremely high renewal rates, which are attributed to the “big brother” of direct sales, VanderSloot completely changed the rules of the game and created M Company’s “consumer-direct-effect marketing model,” which allowed not only operators but also consumers to benefit.
Tianwen’s consumer-oriented “direct consumption” concept was like a carefully crafted bolt that found its corresponding nut in M Company’s model philosophy. In 2011, Tianwen boldly proposed that M Company was an anti-direct sales model that would ultimately end direct sales. This groundbreaking statement almost made him a public enemy in the mainland direct sales industry.
A year later, Tianwen wrote an article titled “The Fate of Direct Sales and M Company’s Business Model” to defend his argument. Starting from the background and social-psychological reasons for the emergence of direct sales, Tianwen explored the collapse of the direct sales value system, and concluded that “the fate of direct sales is to disappear in the process of compound evolution.”
He believed that the direct sales industry needed to be rebuilt and undergo a complete rebirth from the root to break free from direct sales itself, or it could only disappear or redefine itself. Therefore, in 2006, Tianwen gave his direct “consumption” concept a new dual meaning: “消” (xiāo) means both “consumption” and “disappearance.”
Tianwen’s writing “ended an era” while leaving behind “a future trend and a new model” for others. He outlined M Company’s core philosophy of the “Five Twos,” which mainly includes transforming direct sales members into consumers, solving the problem of inventory hoarding; creating a “consumer retention system” that turns the company’s member team into an accumulative and multiplicational “reservoir”; achieving continuous income through a 95% customer retention rate and a fixed monthly consumption amount of 340 yuan per person; and developing consumption characteristics that resemble a safe, stable, and comfortable sightseeing train with a slow intelligence.
Tianwen spent six years deeply cultivating M Company, distancing himself from the competitive red ocean of direct sales and building a large consumer market team consisting of over 90% mainstream social groups who are not involved in direct selling. With his achievements, he has become one of the largest leaders in the Chinese market share of M Company, and countless people from different backgrounds have succeeded by following his philosophy in M Company.
His correct interpretation of M Company’s business model and successful results have made him a godfather-like figure in the mainland Chinese market of M Company. From being a direct sales expert to becoming the core leader of M Company in the Chinese market, Tianwen has become increasingly low-key and mysterious, distancing himself from the direct sales industry. He no longer participates in any forums or summits related to the direct sales industry and prefers to focus on the M Company market.
Known as “Tianwen,” he is renowned for his ultimate thinking skills. His personal legendary story has provided the best answer to the ultimate proposition of the direct sales industry – “direct consumption.” Thus, today, he prefers to position himself as an enlightener of direct consumption and a backpacker who enjoys life, rather than a direct sales expert.
Direct Sales: Every time your pen name “Tianwen” is mentioned, people will think of Qu Yuan’s masterpiece “Tianwen.” Combined with your criticism of direct sales, there must be some connection between the two, right?
Tianwen: The pen name “Tianwen” comes from when I first got online in 1998 and was also my nickname when I founded the first direct sales forum in China in 1999. There is not much connection between the name and my criticism of direct sales.
Direct Sales: How did you go from being a direct sales participant to becoming the “public enemy” of mainland direct sales today?
Tianwen: As an early advocate of direct sales models in China, I evolved into a “public enemy” of the industry not intentionally, but rather by seeing trends. In 2003, I proposed the concept that the future of direct sales in China would move towards “direct consumption,” and in 2006, I further developed a systematic theory. However, I had not found a successful business model until I came across M Company in 2008, which I believed was a real enterprise that matched the “direct consumption” model.
As time passed, especially with the rapid development of mobile internet, I saw not only “direct consumption” but more importantly, the end of all intermediary models through the internet. This, besides traditional marketing channels such as “wholesale-retail,” necessarily included the “direct salesperson” intermediary model.
Therefore, instead of saying I am the “public enemy” of the mainland direct sales industry, it is more accurate to say that I was the first person to declare that the direct sales model would inevitably be terminated by the internet.
Direct Sales: Do your novel views resonate with the direct sales industry? Do you feel like Qu Yuan, who was not understood by others?
Tianwen: My views are not novel, and I am not as miserable as Qu Yuan! The idea that direct sales will inevitably come to an end was only proposed early on, and people did not take it seriously or investigate it thoroughly. Moreover, when I joined M Company, many people had a preconceived notion that I was promoting M Company’s ideas. In fact, they violated logic: I saw the trend first and then found that M Company’s model matched this trend. In this regard, undoubtedly, I took a road that no one had taken before. While they were still deceiving themselves in the traditional red ocean of direct sales, I had already found a way out in the “direct consumption” trend.
With the challenge of mobile internet to traditional direct sales, more and more people in the industry are feeling the pressure and prospects brought about by the trend. I believe they will gradually realize that what I said is correct. I discussed this topic with Liang Xuewei, the CEO of Zhixiaoren.com, who has a deep understanding of the internet. He increasingly agrees with my ideas and direction because there is more consensus on the internet.
Direct Sales: What specifically attracted you to M Company compared to other direct sales companies?
Tianwen: I must reiterate that M Company is not a direct sales company; this is also the founder’s philosophy. Although it must have a direct sales license to operate in China according to local conditions. M Company’s business model is a consumer direct purchase model, which is the “direct consumption” concept that I talked about.
Regarding M Company, due to internal company policies and my personal identity, I cannot accept interviews to discuss it, so I used the hidden abbreviation “M Company.” Here, I am only speaking from the perspective of a private researcher to share my understanding.
Direct Sales: How did M Company’s direct sales business change your views on direct sales?
Tianwen: As mentioned in the previous question, M Company is not a direct sales business. If the premise of the question is wrong, it will be difficult to answer.
But I can tell you that personally, the success of my theoretical and practical research in M Company did not change my views on direct sales but confirmed my belief that the direct sales model will eventually be terminated. Although the direct sales model will still exist reasonably for a certain period in history. For example, the most popular WeChat business model right now is a variant of it in the mobile internet era!
Direct Sales: Do you still believe that “the destiny of direct sales is to disappear in evolution”? In your opinion, will there be a way for direct sales to undergo rebirth in the future?
Tianwen: Since it will disappear in evolution, there is no need to talk about the rebirth of direct sales. Direct sales are direct sales, and “direct consumption” is “direct consumption,” two different things!
Monkeys are fundamentally different from humans, can this monkey of direct sales be reborn as a human being of “direct consumption”? Perhaps when I first proposed the concept of “direct consumption,” I had such fantasies, but now I am more aware that it is the result of natural selection and impossible. Therefore, I no longer speak on this topic.
Direct Sales: What are the significant events that have had a profound impact on you since you started working in the direct sales industry?
Tianwen: The most impactful event in the direct sales industry was undoubtedly the ban on direct sales on April 21, 1998. It was the first time the government had denied its own policy. The second most significant event was the introduction of direct sales legislation in 2005, which resulted in the current disabled single-layer direct sales law and created chaos in the industry with hidden rules, rent-seeking, and fishing for law enforcement.
In fact, the bribery scandal between Avon and officials from the Ministry of Commerce led to the formation of an inappropriate law that cannot be aligned with international standards, and it is still being paid for by direct sales companies and people today! Should the new government department restart the legislative process? Can they make changes?
Direct Sales: As a media person, you have come into contact with many direct sales companies. Can you talk about your impression of them?
Tianwen: Not as a media person, but as someone who used to work in the media, I believe that the direct sales industry is like a casino or a river and lake. There are many factions, black and white, violence and deception, and good and evil mixed together.
Many years ago, I made an analogy that direct sales (career) is like a peasant uprising in the economic field, where individuals pull the banner to establish an economic “regime.”
Direct Sales: What suggestions do you have for academic research in the direct sales industry in the future?
Tianwen: Direct sales, if we must talk about it from an academic perspective, is essentially a business behavior, a business form, and should be called an industry. The fact that it can be agreed to call it an “industry” today is actually the result of insiders’ self-indulgence.
Regarding academic research, I personally respect scholars like Professor Chen Defa in Taiwan and Mr. Qin Yongnan from the China Economic System Reform Research Institute, but they are completely detached from reality and ivory tower-style research, which is of little practical value.
As for the so-called “direct sales academics” by media, brokers, and pseudo-experts who cheat, joke, distribute awards indiscriminately, and lack social morality and conscience, I despise them and do not want to associate with them. Of course, this does not mean that I am noble. I have many friends in this circle, and I used to be one of them. However, the longer I stay away from this circle, the more clear-headed I become, and I am not the same kind of person as them. People live only once, follow their own inclinations, and be happy. I never force myself.
Does direct sales have any academia? Perhaps it does. It has been highly summarized in market practice and ultimately formed a system. The writings of a few theoretical experts who connect theory with practice in the industry have enough gold content, and I should be regarded as one of the more prolific ones (laughs). However, they don’t have time or interest to talk about academia because they are experienced.
Direct Sales: What are your personal hobbies? How do you usually balance work and life?
Tianwen: I have many and diverse personal hobbies. Regarding the balance between work and life, for someone with my personality, they are integrated. I think it’s better not to talk about it here, as I am not living for others to see.