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The Eye of the Beholder

Image is everything. . . So what about ethics?

A decade ago, Andre Agassi popularized the phrase "Image is everything." The tennis star emphasized creating just the right outward appearance to gain that extra edge over opponents. In the same vein, homebased entrepreneurs are often looking for a similar edge in the image-oriented game of marketing. Striving for just the right look, many homebased business owners develop elaborate strategies-and sometimes even crazy schemes-to make their businesses look bigger than they really are. Why would they go to all this trouble? The rationale is, if your operation appears more substantial to potential customers, you're more likely to get the sale because size somehow translates into credibility.

But does a "big business" image really mean potential customers will choose your firm over a smaller-sized company? And to what degree does this form of packaging create ethical problems for both entrepreneurs and their clients? What happens when you're assigned too large of a job because your client assumes you have several business associates? And imagine the damage to your credibility when another client discovers the several departments you outline on your brochure are really only you--with different e-mail accounts.

In today's business environment--where entrepreneurial icons like Martha Stewart and Netscape's Marc Andreesson are revered and independent professionals are changing the workforce landscape--running a single-person enterprise is much more accepted than it was only a few years ago. And for many entrepreneurs, their solo status is a source of pride. So is it still necessary to present yourself as being bigger than you are? In the face of tough competition, you may be willing to fudge a few details, but consider the effect this misrepresentation has on your relationships with clients, your credibility and your own self-esteem. The following examples demonstrate the various ways-some subtle, others quite pronounced-that company image can be manipulated, and some of the ethical ramifications of these business policies.

Multipersonnel Illusion
Many homebased businesses deliberately choose business names to create an image that there's more than one person running the firm. For example, the name "J. White and Associates" may lead customers to believe they're dealing with a company that employs several others besides the owner. Another example is "The Jones Group," which implies a multitude of employees when in fact there is only Mrs. Jones. One homebased company in Rhode Island lists its business as "Smith, Brown and Co." (not the actual name) when in fact Mr. Smith is the company, and his wife just lends her maiden name to the company image.

Another entrepreneur operates a public relations consulting firm from her home with "& Associates" following her name. Her brochures highlight five company divisions, each apparently a specialized department handling unique clients for either speaking engagements, promotional events, press releases and so forth. The entrepreneur is listed as the senior manager heading up the overall company operation, when in fact she does every job herself and has no partners, associates or employees. But could this creativity get you into trouble? We suggest you choose a DBA-as well as present your company in print-with care, so as not to intentionally mislead potential customers.

Azriela Jaffe, author of several small business books including Create Your Own Luck, cautions, "When you choose a name that portrays the image of a larger firm and then a prospect reveals it to be a lie when inquiring about your firm, it can backfire and lead the prospect to question your integrity and wonder what you're trying to hide. I recommend only using a name like, 'and Associates' if in fact you regularly work with, and refer to, other professionals in the course of doing business. Otherwise you call attention to your attempt to cover up something you seem ashamed of, namely, being a solo professional."

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David Newton is a professor of entrepreneurial finance and head of the entrepreneurship program, which he founded in 1990, at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. The author of four books on both entrepreneurship and finance investments, David was formerly a contributing editor on growth capital for Industry Week Growing Companies magazine and has contributed to such publications as Entrepreneur, Your Money, Success, Red Herring, Business Week, Inc. and Solutions. He's also consulted to nearly 100 emerging, fast-growth entrepreneurial ventures since 1984.

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