Is Bonvera Wichita’s answer to Amazon?

There’s a new Wichita company that’s a cross between Amazon and Amway, though that’s not how the executives at Bonvera describe the business.

They prefer the term “social selling company.”

“A lot of people will compare us to companies like … Amway or Tupperware or Mary Kay because they have a similar model,” Bonvera president Jeff Selzer said.

He said they’re all relationship businesses, “But their product offerings are nothing like what we do.”

Bonvera is an internet-based business that offers a range of products – including toiletries, household items, pet food and snacks – that anyone can buy.

However, its model is built on associates referring friends to buy those products in exchange for rebates.

“When people buy from our company, they get paid to do it,” Selzer said. “This is a great opportunity for a regular person to be able to go into business for themselves.”

The company, which started in March, has 400 products so far from companies such as Procter & Gamble and S.C. Johnson & Son and expects to have 500 by the end of next week.

That doesn’t count the products Bonvera has through affiliate companies, such as Target and Wal-Mart. Associates and their friends can use the Bonvera website to get to the websites for those companies and then be paid for any transactions.

“The larger our community gets, the more leverage we have,” Selzer said.

“Our secret sauce is the fact that the company keeps a very small profit off what is purchased. We’re (a) very competitive company so our prices are very comparable to what’s online.”

Bonvera also is developing house brands. So far, that includes two energy drinks and bars under the brand name Phyzix.

The company is expanding into a skin care line next month.

There are also Wichita products on the site, such as Tortilla King’s tortillas, and chips and salsa under the Mama Lupe brand name.

“The concept is a concept I’ve never seen before, so I was kind of intrigued about it,” Tortilla King president Juan Guardiola said of Bonvera.

“It will expose our products to consumers outside of the Midwest and grow our market share.”

Selzer said Bonvera is an opportunity even for big-name products that don’t get the in-store shelf space they used to at chains that now have their own brands to promote.

“The kings on the block are now being pushed around,” Selzer said. “You would think that they’d never talk to a company our size.”

Selzer won’t discuss the size of the company in terms of sales or number of associates.

Selzer sees companies such as Amazon and Jet as his chief competitors – not other direct marketing businesses.

“Those are mammoth companies that we’re going up against, but I’m not scared of that,” he said.

He said he’s done it before with his All Brands Distribution beverage company. Selzer said when starting All Brands years ago, he had competition from huge brands such as Coke and Pepsi, but he found a niche with off-name brands that he was able to place in stores such as QuikTrip and Kroger.

“So we had to go and scrape in and just find a little seam and just grow,” he said.

That’s what he’s now doing with Bonvera.

“It’s not easy to do, but it’s possible.”

A ‘better model’

A group of investors – some local, some national – approached Selzer about starting the company late last summer.

“The majority of the founders of Bonvera have had years’ experience running similar direct marketing companies,” said Bryan Frye, a City Council member who is Bonvera’s marketing director.

“They always saw the shortcomings and the challenges of those direct marketing companies, and they wanted to build a better model,” Frye said. “The beauty of Bonvera is these are products you buy every day anyway.”

Michigan-based Bonvera associate Tim Jarvinen, who has worked for other direct marketing companies, said that is one of the things that sets apart Bonvera.

“You’re just connecting people to something they’re already doing,” Jarvinen said.

He said even if people don’t have jobs or if it’s a tough economy, there are certain products that customers always need, and Bonvera has those.

Jarvinen said he uses “the power of social media” to sell Bonvera to friends, along with everyday conversations about its benefits.

“It’s hard just to not bring that up in conversation,” he said. “It’s not a sales-y conversation.”

While Jarvinen touts the ability to use personal connections to make sales, others can be skeptical of it.

“That’s not something that a lot of people are comfortable with,” said Dorothy Harpool, who is on the marketing faculty at the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University.

“You would think that it would be easier,” Harpool said of selling to friends, “but it’s not.”

She said a friend’s referral may be a powerful influence to check out something once, though.

“I wonder how long-term the behavior would be?” she said.

Selzer says his goal is to eventually sell outside the United States.

“This is what we’ve got done in five months. You should see where we’re going,” he said.

The company’s corporate headquarters is at the former Asian Market space on East Central just east of the Canal Route. Bonvera’s products ship from a warehouse at 1659 S. Sabin.

“I call that a facility, not a warehouse, because our goal is not to store things,” Selzer said. “Our goal is to move things.”

With the help of associates, Selzer said that’s what is happening.

“I see so many people hungry for opportunity,” he said.

Selzer said Bonvera provides a nontraditional avenue to success.

“We are totally out of the box,” he said. “We are so far out of the box, we don’t even see the box anymore.”

Carrie Rengers: 316-268-6340, @CarrieRengers