VGN – The Bloggers’ Story about a Blogger Network

Village Green Network (VGN) was, until recently, a blogger network. But it can only be a blogger network as long as it has bloggers. As one blogger put it, most of the bloggers have “left the fold and fled”.

Many of the bloggers are afraid to speak out. Threatened with lawsuits by VGN, they don’t dare speak publicly. So the story seems to have been a bit one-sided in the public view up to this point.

I’ve never been a member of the VGN network, so I can tell the story for the other side — the bloggers themselves.

Let me try to piece together the history of VGN.

VGN originally began as Real Food Media (RFM) in 2009, founded by advertising executive Ann Marie Michaels and then-boyfriend Seth Shapiro. The network started with a handful of bloggers who were practitioners of the traditional Weston A. Price lifestyle.

It expanded slowly but steadily until, in 2012, after failing to secure a trademark for the brand, Real Food Media, it changed its name to Village Green Network.

As a blogger network, it’s purpose was to expand readership for the bloggers within the network, while providing streamlined advertising and affiliate opportunities for the bloggers. Bloggers were drawn for a variety of reasons. Some wanted to connect and collaborate, some wanted to grow their readership, and some who weren’t comfortable hosting Twinkies ads wanted VGN to manage ads that supported real food/real products for them. In exchange, the network would keep a share of the bloggers’ earnings.

It may have started as a great idea, but for many the bloggers themselves, it turned into a disappointment at best, and a nightmare for some. Much of it was due to dealing with terms of the contract, lack of payment of earned money, and the threats of lawsuits.

In 2012, Doris Tan was hired as Director of Operations and Publisher’s Development, the company’s very first hire. The company began to recruit other real food and natural health bloggers, from foodies to gardeners, and soap makers to chicken keepers.

Within 7 months it grew to over 700 blogs.

VGN’s revenue model was set up as a 50-50 split (which is how it is spelled out in the contract). VGN would collect the money that the blogs brought in, and then pay each blogger half of the money their blog earned.This included money earned on banner ads, sponsored posts, by hosting paid giveaways, and by participating in the company’s online product sales and affiliate marketing.

Tan states that by November 2012, VGN was getting 7 million visits each month from its collective group of 700 member blogs. The revenue doubled from its previous earnings of $20k/month.

It seemed to be good timing to launch the VGN Marketplace, which at first appeared to be a brilliant idea. It would be a gathering place of health and nutrition products that would promote health for many people, making it easier for people to get the things they needed to live a healthier lifestyle all in one go.

However, there were several problems with it.

Once the Marketplace was launched, VGN bloggers were unofficially required to link only to the Marketplace, excluding all other sources. For example, if the blogger was writing about olive oil, their “this is where you should buy olive oil” link was required to point to VGN’s Marketplace.

The problem was that a lot of products that bloggers would be writing about were not available in the Marketplace, or were not the kind specified by the bloggers. In this case, the blogger could only link the post to a “Coming Soon” page, thus losing out on potential earnings.

Naturally, some bloggers chose to sustain their blogs (and for some, their livelihood) by linking to other places/products when the specific products they were referring people to were not available on the VGN Marketplace. At first this was allowed – there was no contract requiring bloggers to do otherwise.

Then in 2013, in late October, the VGN 2.0 contract was rolled out. Not all of the bloggers in the network received it. This was presumably the first stage of the intention of the contract — which VGN said was to intentionally “weed out” unproductive blogs, and to keep better tabs on the participating bloggers.

Under the new contract, the bloggers were still allowed to link to other affiliate sites, but only after they’d made a “reasonable effort to link [to] such product(s)” that were “listed in [the] VGN Marketplace”. (Quoted from the contract. I have the contract in hand and have read it in full, thanks to one blogger who was sent the contract and chose to leave the network rather than sign it.)

But the contract also stated that bloggers agreed to not “mention, or discuss by name, or link to any brands, products or companies on Your Blog or other website(s) except in connection with a paid engagement with Company [VGN]”.  They also could not “link to any affiliate programs, other than Company’s affiliated products, other individual Bloggers’ affiliate programs, or Amazon Associates, with the exception of single e-books, meal plans or single online classes”. The problem was, a lot of products that were “listed” still didn’t have products behind them.

So the contract states they could link to other affiliate sites… but it also states that they weren’t allowed to do that?

Tom Davis explains:

“It was worded to eliminate amazon links in the future but allow us some affiliate revenew as they built the marketplace. Amazon links were allowed as an exception IF there was no similar item in the marketplace. Had the marketplace grown sufficiently to cover everything we needed link to (hypothetically) then amazon links would have been prohibited.”

Confusing language isn’t the only thing to wonder about with the VGN 2.0 contract. Under the contract, the bloggers were required to “grant Company access to Your Blog’s Google Analytics account”(As a blogger myself, I think “Oh my heck, really?! I would never allow that!”)

One blogger, who wishes to remain anonymous, told me:

“Everyone was required to give her Google account (Ann Marie’s personal google account) access to their google analytics. That was a ‘rule’ of VGN before there was the contract, and in the contract it states that it is a requirement. Ann Marie would look at our data and assign us various ‘ranks’ based off of our traffic levels, and announce everyone’s standings to the whole group. I think only Sandrine spoke out in objection to this, so she was excluded, but everyone else’s information was displayed semi-publicly via the traffic ranking lists every month, on the forum and Facebook groups.”

Some bloggers signed. (Numbers are given that only around 100 of the 900 blogs signed and remained on the network. This is also stated in David Gumpert’s recent article, in which he interviewed only Ann Marie, and none of the bloggers.)

Then this appeared on Facebook, posted by Ann Marie herself.

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Whether you call it tasteless or business savvy, is a moot point.

Money, however, is not.

Many (most?) bloggers have still never been paid for a e-book bundle last fall or for an online summit that took place in January called the “New Year, New You Summit”.

Any blogger who promoted and sold packages of either the e-book bundle or the summits were to receive half the revenue of the sales made through their site and their links. The e-book bundle was highly successful, and many bloggers made a lot of money from it. The summit was not nearly as successful, though I know at least one blogger made “several thousand dollars”.

(*Note: Bloggers told me the summit was a “total flop” and a “complete failure” – NOT because they didn’t promote it but because Ann Marie, as the host/mediator, talked negatively about many people, including Sally Fallon Morrell and even her own husband. I have not listened to the recordings myself so I can’t confirm this.)

From a blogger that wishes to remain anonymous:

“Money from the e-book bundle back in the fall, November I believe, was still unpaid to the bloggers who left the network in January, and Ann Marie claimed she wouldn’t be paying them due to their ‘breach of contract.'”

The amount of money still unpaid is apparently thousands of dollars, owed to dozens (or hundreds) of bloggers, ranging from $30 to $8000. (These are the best figures I can find, from the bloggers themselves, including David Gumpert.)

Up to November 2013, bloggers seem to have been fairly paid for their promotions of summits, book bundles, and VGN ads on their websites, though most were never told how much the VGN ads were actually making. (They were told they were paid fairly, but they never got to see the actual earnings even though they were told that they would have access to that.)

All payments to bloggers seems to have ended entirely in March or April 2014, regardless of how much each blogger was (and still is) owed.

Blogging is a difficult business to be in. Bloggers often spend hours putting together information and posts for their readers. In return, we hope to find ways to monetize our efforts – affiliate links, donations, ad revenue, etc. If you’re under contract to be paid, you should be paid. On time.

If VGN has been so profitable, as Michaels claims, then why aren’t the bloggers receiving their dues?

Not many bloggers can talk openly, but Sandrine Love was willing to provide this statement:

“Sandrine Love of Nourishing Our Children was not paid as agreed upon by VGN for her promotional efforts of their last ebook bundle, Fall Into Health, which included her own ebook. After numerous requests for payment were made, a payment plan was established by VGN in February of 2014, claiming lack of funds. Their plan was to pay off the money owed in 10 months yet it was abandoned after 3 payments. The last payment was made April 11. Numerous requests for payment have been made since with no response.”

The communication made by VGN to Sandrine Love in February 2014 stated:

“VGN experienced financial constraints due to publishers leaving the network en masse last fall. VGN intends to pay you in full; however, we can only afford to pay you in installment plan. We will make 10 monthly payments over a ten month period. As cash flow improves we will make every effort to pay you sooner.”

Sandrine Love states that she was told to leave, and that she wouldn’t be offered a contract because of her formal affiliation with the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Sandrine asked us to include this addendum:

“On June 26, 2014 Ann Marie Michaels emailed the following: As you know, we instituted a 10-month payment plan in February, after VGN experienced a wave of publishers under contract removing their banners and Marketplace links for our advertisers. This resulted in a major decline in revenue for the company, layoffs and the need for us to release advertisers from agreements. We have been unable to make payments on the payment plan for the past two months due to extreme financial hardship. We have always honored our agreements and will continue to do so. For the past 5 years, we have paid our publishers on time and in full.  We are committed to paying you in full, but we will need time to find and build new revenues to replace the major commitments we made in good faith. When over 50% of one’s partners violate an agreement, economic hardship results.  As happens in life, a few individuals have been saying negative things about the company. This is unfortunate and hurts our efforts to rebuild the business. Our plan is to resume our previously agreed-upon payment plan in 60 days.  We appreciate your patience as we make this transition.”

It wasn’t just the bloggers that weren’t paid. Doris Tan and two other employees were terminated, without having their salary paid in full. Tan and one of the other employees, Natalie Ferraro, took Ann Marie/VGN to court. Tan was rewarded $19,000 and Ferraro received $5,000. The third employee was recuperating from throat cancer and chose not to fight the issue in court. Neither Tan or Ferraro has actually received the payment awarded in the settlement.

David Gumpert, in a recent article about the implosion of VGN, said that Michaels stated that Tan was hired as a contractor, not an employee, and that Tan was suing because VGN failed to “abide by employment niceties like paying overtime and providing meal periods”. Doris Tan states that she was an employee – Director of Operations & Publisher’s Development. In court, the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) sided with the former employees.

Bloggers have stayed silent because small bloggers, as most of them are, cannot afford to retaliate against the legal letters from VGN lawyers scaring them with promises of lawsuits. Many bloggers have preferred to just move on and leave VGN behind to get rid of the negativity.

But the bloggers who signed the contract are still bound to silence by the confidentiality clause of the VGN 2.0 contract. Even though they are still owed money (isn’t that a breach of the contract on the side of VGN?), they are told they cannot leave the network unless they “buy out their contract” with $30,000.

Nowhere in the contract can I find that bloggers must pay $30,000 to leave the network, yet this is what bloggers are being told, and they feel intimidated into silence.

They can’t even ask when they’ll be paid the moneys that are owed them – they are told that would be considered a breach of contract. And according to VGN, once they breach the contract by asking, VGN has the right to kick them out and keep all their earnings to “cover their losses”.

From David Gumpert’s article:

“Michaels says she is committed to paying everyone all they are owed, and asks the bloggers and others for patience.”

Why should they have to continue to wait for payment when it was owed to them months ago? It’s not as though Google is holding back money from VGN for the banner ads and VGN has to wait to be paid the full amount before it can pay the bloggers their half. The people who bought access to the summits paid the full amount to VGN months ago, so why haven’t the bloggers received their half?

Ann Marie Michaels wrote on June 2, 2014:

“Over the past 5 1/2 years, we built Village Green from nothing to a profitable business that supports my family and a few other families and an entity that has changed the lives of thousands of people for the better.”

As Sandrine Love said:

“If it is a profitable company, then why haven’t I received payment since April 11, 2014?

I was not offered a contract, and as such was never accused of breach of contract or accused of a breach of any kind. I simply wasn’t paid, it appears, due to lack of funds. Where did all the money go?”

If you put money in a bank and the bank spends your money, that is theft. The VGN bloggers had money that was supposed to be held in VGN accounts and then transferred to the bloggers.

I’m not saying that that money was spent illegally. I have no idea how it was spent, or if it is still in VGN. All I know is that the bloggers haven’t been paid. The bloggers themselves wonder why they haven’t been paid if the money was there, where it’s supposed to be? Why does Ann Marie claim that there is a lack of funds to pay the bloggers, when that money has been deposited in the VGN ‘bank’, and should be available in the bloggers’ accounts until/unless it had been paid to them?

In the summer of 2013, Ann Marie and her husband joined an upscale gym club. (The following excerpt is from her post on Cheeseslave entitled “10 Ways to Get Addicted to Exercise“, posted August 25, 2013.) 

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In December she posted on Cheeseslave about purchasing 4 panton chairs, which are listed at $310 each. (Screenshot provided by a former blogger.)

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An espresso maker (her husband’s purchase) for $499, which she posted about in December 2013 on Cheeseslave. (Screenshot provided by a blogger.)

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Marketplace?

And what became of the Marketplace? I wasn’t surprised to find that many of the products they have listed on there are their own Amazon affiliate links. (Everything for sale on their Marketplace is now simply affiliate links to other companies, with the exception of the online classes and meal plans.)

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Network No Longer

In a sudden change at the beginning of June 2014, it was announced that VGN would no longer be a blogger network, but instead will become a destination site. Instead of curating content from bloggers, VGN will produce its own content, and publish content contributed by others.

What about those who signed the 2-year VGN 2.0 contract? Are they still part of a blogger network, and bound by the terms of the contract, or aren’t they? The truth is, they don’t know. They were not released from the contract, nor have they been offered a new one under the new system. Some say they were offered a buy-out amount. Others have received no communication at all about the changes.

One of the final straws for many bloggers came just a few days ago when VGN posted a nearly exact copy of an article from a blogger without her permission, after her blog was no longer part of the network. The article was about Homemade Sunscreen from Scratch Mommy. Here’s VGN’s version of the article.

This does appear to be a copyright violation, and the blogger is working on having the article taken down from VGN. It still has not been removed, as of July 8, 2014.  (“Copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner .” Source http://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faqdefinitions)

VGN originally used Scratch Mommy’s own photo, cropping out her watermark and imposing their own text over the photo, which seems to imply that it was their own work.

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After some pressure from commenters, who recognized the origin of the picture, VGN changed the picture. Those comments appear to have been removed.

They did, and still have, a small link at the bottom indicating the original was from Scratch Mommy. But it simply isn’t ethical, or legal, to copy a whole textbook, give a “hat tip” at the end and sell it for your own profit. They have their own affiliate links all through the post, which means that they are making money off of someone else’s work without permission.

Jessica Healey of Scratch Mommy, LLC declined to be interviewed for this article. Although she declined to discuss publicly, Jessica did confirm that a DMCA Takedown notice was filed with host company (Linode) and has not yet been complied with by VGN. Due to ongoing investigations and potential litigations, Jessica’s attorney has asked that she not comment publicly right now

There are many more stories I could tell you that I’ve heard from the bloggers. But I’ll leave it at that.

I’m just a reporter in this situation. The sources themselves say it best.

Ann Marie:
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Lastly, a screenshot from Facebook from a blogger (not my work).
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