The sales network for these "computer Tupperware" parties has been built up by Dorling Kindersley Family Library - part of the company that is best known for its highly illustrated books and CD-Roms. Growth has been phenomenal: DKFL now has 10,000 people working as distributors. "Most people do it part-time, and make a few thousand pounds a year," says the managing director, Peter Cart-wright. "But at the other end of the scale, someone is on course to make pounds 180,000 this year."
I joined Stuart Miller, a distributor, for a typical evening party on a smart housing estate in Oxfordshire.
6.40pm: DKFL distributors usually arrange for the party to be held at a friend's house, in this case on the outskirts of Bicester. "They're probably still hoovering," says Stuart as we arrive. We are shown into an immaculate sitting-room, where we unpack the demonstration computer, to the delight of the two small children. Ravi, aged four, who has never used a computer before, is transfixed. Stuart loads a CD-Rom, and after a couple of minutes, Ravi masters the mouse, and looks as if he should be doing the demonstrations.
7pm: meet the other local distributors: Sonja from Abingdon, a recent convert from Tupperware, and Norman from Didcot, who was a removal man until his back gave out. All kinds of people, from opera singers to schoolteachers, take this up, but career mums do particularly well - they have oodles of sitting-room credibility. Stuart explains: "In someone's home, it's a very personal approach - we basically just show the products." As the guests begin to arrive, Ravi is ushered off to bed, protesting.
7.20pm: after analysing the new four-day local secondary school week - "If I hadn't got these CD-Roms, I'd be in a panic about my children" - Norman launches an impromptu demonstration of a multimedia dictionary, for the benefit of an elderly German woman: "Get it wrong, it's a raspberry; get it right, a fanfare. It's as simple as that." His listener interrupts: "I would rather have my grandchildren out playing than sitting chasing tiny figures round that screen." Norman doesn't miss a beat: "It's all about balance - too much of anything is bad for them. I'm the same with my kids about TV. But with this, they remember it, they can drive it, and they don't even realise that they are learning. What better start for any child?"
7.25pm: two visitors in their twenties have been listening in the background. "Do you have a computer?" I ask, doing my bit for the sales effort. "Well, actually, several," says the nearer of the two. "I'm working at Oxford on improving human/computer interaction using artificial intelligence. One day this kind of software will learn about the child who is using it, and adapt its behaviour accordingly." I desperately try to steer him out of earshot, but he corners Norman: "How many megabytes of information on a CD-Rom?" Norman is having none of this numbers nonsense, and produces an activity sheet: "An awful lot of books' worth - I've forgotten how many - but just look at all the projects that you can do with it."
8.15pm: the presentation. After a low-key introduction from Sonja - mentioning books, videos and CD-Roms, but avoiding computers - Stuart stands up. "Has anyone got a computer at home?" (Mr human/ computer interaction does.) "What you have got here on this CD-Rom is like a lot of books, but more exciting. Do come and play - you can't do any damage. I'm basically computer- illiterate, and I used to think you could break it, but it's OK." He then shows them Stowaway, a multimedia exploration of an 18th-century warship. "Children always head straight for the gory bits, like the operating theatre," says Stuart. At the sight of limbs coming off with saws, the German woman laughs uproariously: "A bit like the National Health Service, ja?"
Stuart continues: "Now what's a company like Dorling Kindersley doing showing a computer?" He explains the vision that one day, every household will have a home learning centre, with books and computer-based material to help the family learn together. "If anyone is interested in looking at a computer, then we offer this Presario machine from Compaq. If you are technical (I'm not), I can get you help - I'm not going into the boring nitty-gritty now."
Now it's question time, and I brace myself for the barrage of difficult inquiries. But there are only three things people want to know: how much does all this cost, how long does it take to arrive, and when do you pay?
8.30pm: informal demonstrations. The PC is on a neat lace cloth on a coffee table. People gather round on the floor. One man who has shown serious interest starts selling himself the computer (everything is in there together - there is no wire hanging out the back - so you can move it from room to room easily, can't you?)
Stuart explains the future: "We're coming out with a new model at the same price, so you will get bigger numbers for your money. We're not really computer salesmen." Nearby, Norman is telling someone what he would change about this particular PC.
8.45pm: a woman checks the prices of CD-Roms. "One way to purchase them cheaper is to become a distributor," says Stuart. "This sounds very much like network marketing," says the woman. "It is," replies Stuart. He explains that as an independent distributor, you make a profit on everything you sell, plus commission, which rises as you sell more. But if you also choose to recruit friends, the company pays you commission on what they sell, too. As the network grows, and people move up the promotion scale, you need a computer to work out all the figures, but the idea is simple: if you nurture your recruits, then it is better for everybody.
9.35pm: the last guest leaves and we hold a post-mortem. This is like a family gathering: Stuart recruited Sonja, who recruited Norman, who asked potential recruits Naren and Kirti whether they would hold tonight's party.
The event is judged a success, and for me it has been an eye-opener. The message was clear: "Forget the high-pressure sales techniques; just be yourself and sell to a need. Forget the technology. Ask what they want to do with the computer. How will it help their family learn?" There was not one word of techno-babble.
9:55pm: As we say goodbye to our hosts, Ravi tiptoes downstairs: "Daddy, I really liked that computer - can we keep it?"Reuse content