As a journalist I have met more than my fair share of multi-millionaires. More often than not they are ancient, ugly and have had personality by-passes. So its rather a nice surprise when I am invited to interview 36-year-old Ryan Blair, of a highly successful multi-level marketing company which is literally cashing in on obesity.
A bit like death, obesity is becoming inevitable for more and more people in developing countries, claiming more lives than malnutrition. The US recently lost its claim to fame as the world’s fattest country (31.8%) with Mexico in poll position at 32.8%. But the UK now has the plaudit of being the fatman of Europe with 50% of adults overweight.
Ryan is one of three co-founders of ViSalus Sciences, the US subsidiary of the publicly traded company Blyth Inc. He is also a best-selling author, regularly contributes to Forbes magazine and was awarded the accolade of Entrepreneur of the Year in 2012 by Ernst & Young.
But not all is what it seems. Ryan was once a ‘bad boy’. A gang-member in his home town of Los Angeles, he was arrested 10 times by the time he was 16 and facing a four year jail sentence for his last arrest.
And there’s more – as a child, the youngest of six, he suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder and was brought up by a violent father addicted to methamphetamines. So it was not surprising that he was fast-tracked on the looser trail from early childhood. But his life began to turn round when his mother started dating a successful real-estate businessman who nurtured Ryan’s entrepreneurial streak by giving him a job.
In 2005 Ryan went on to acquire the multi-level marketing company, ViSalus. The company floundered and the dream was going pear-shaped when sheer determination kicked-in and he turned round $6m of debts into revenues of $150 million, with the company being sold to Blyth in 2008. Ryan remains as CEO and ViSalus is currently valued at around $600m.
In 2011, Ryan released his autobiography Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain: How I Went from Gang Member to Multimillionaire Entrepreneur. The book was ranked 3rd in the New York Times bestseller list for August 2011 and was a No1 New York Times hardcover business book bestseller.
So back to obesity and multi-level marketing. ViSalus works by turning successful dieters into entrepreneurs who in turn recruit new dieters who use the company’s products and so on. There are now 114,000 ‘promoters’ internally. The three partners in the business are anti-obesity evangelists, holding conferences to audiences of thousands about their passion. In the US over 2 million people have taken the Vi Challenge.
Anyone wanting to loose weight is invited to join a 90-day challenge in which the goal is to loose 10lbs. Dieters are encouraged to declare and commit publicly to their intention to loose weight on social media sites like Facebook- very clever because that literally spreads the business model virally. The support groups on Facebook are also aimed at giving the dieter encouragement.
There are also other incentives to loose weight including competitions with cash prizes, in which you can submit a video of yourself after dropping the pounds.
The would-be slimmer also buys dietary shakes and supplements. As a permanent dieter myself I know it helps if you can be precise about calorie intake – so that you are not tempted or have to guess amounts. The Vi Salus regime aims for 1,200 calories per day with two shakes and one meal. And its designed, along with the supplements, to supercharge the metabolism.
The shakes have one principle flavour that is changed by adding chocolate or other powders to change the taste, and are nutritionally balanced and have low fat and sugars. There are various prices for the shakes and supplements, starting at £39 for 30 meals, right up to £199 for all the products. But if you manage to recruit three more dieters then you get a month of shakes free.
The company pre-launched Vi UK in April this year and says it already has 35,000 people who have taken up the challenge to date.
When we meet at the Berkley Hotel in Knightsbridge Ryan has his ‘bad-boy’ tattoes covered up and looks the part of successful young entrepreneur.
Surprisingly Ryan, who is very trim and fit, tells me that he was once a fat boy – weighing in at 260lbs in 2005. A blonde sitting at a nearby table can’t keep her eyes of him.
He says he is driven by a passion for changing people’s lives for the better – not just the money – whether its a bride who looses weight for her special day or a multi-level marketing success story.
“I take the most pride in changing the lives of the millions of people who are in need whether its because of poverty or by obesity,” he says.
I comment on the fact that his has the surname Blair and he laughs and remarks: “Yes that’s helped get a few tables in restaurants!”
In mid-flow he realises its 4pm and he has promised to speak to his four-year-old son, Regan, in Los Angeles. He leaps up and disappears. Clearly a man who is on a mission not to repeat “the sins of the father”.
All I can say is watch out Weight Watchers!