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Beating a Bad Rap

Just a few years ago, polls and surveys showed that the vast majority of Americans admired business leaders, especially entrepreneurs. TV shows, radio programs, magazines and dozens (if not hundreds) of books celebrated your management and leadership styles, the secrets of your success and any pearls of wisdom you deigned to share.

And then the bubble of invincibility burst. At first, it seemed like all this new business negativity was aimed at entrepreneurs. You, who had just been hailed as heroes, were now the villains. Apparently, it was your fault that many dotcoms failed (even if they were started by greedy opportunity- seekers masquerading as entrepreneurs). The people who had forked over fistfuls of cash to businesses without plans (or even reasons to exist) blamed you, even as you studiously followed your business plans, and turned off their money spigots. Then, as if to seal the deal, the economy and the stock market plunged, taking lots of people's plans, money and hopes along with them.

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And just when you thought it couldn't get worse, it did. This year has been a horrible one for business. Every week, it seems a new, formerly exalted corporate hotshot is being grilled before congressional committees, investigated by numerous agencies or forced to declare Chapter 11. While current corporate troubles have taken the negative spotlight off you (at least temporarily), all businesses and business leaders are now being smeared with the same brush. Business leaders are greedy. Business leaders are not trustworthy. Business leaders are scum.

So are you going to sit back and let the slurs continue? Or are you going to defend yourselves? I vote for fighting back (you knew I was going to say that). You can start with contributing writer Chris Sandlund's article on credibility, "Trust Is a Must," starting on page 70. And then you can do more. You need to remind your customers, clients, suppliers, employees, vendors and everyone else who will listen that you are not out to rip anyone off. That the goal of your business is not to line your pockets while your staff goes hungry or to cheat your stockholders-most of you don't even have stockholders.

As I mentioned a few months ago, entrepreneurs are the folks who got us out of the last recession. At press time, I have no idea if we are out of, still in or headed back into a recession. I've heard that the recovery (if there is one) is a jobless recovery. What I don't hear is people explaining that you are the people who created the jobs the last time we went through this. You lost your corporate slots, started a business (maybe even out of desperation) and began to hire. You created the jobs a decade ago, and you can do it again. But you need help, and, frankly, at the moment, few are giving it to you. No money, no programs, no help. As the feds concentrate on indicting the big guys, they're ignoring you. Our economy is not going to recover just because somebody goes to jail. It's only going to rebound when we recreate the conditions that nurture creativity and ingenuity. When we figure out why the cost of doing business is spiraling out of control for entrepreneurs. When we remember that if we put people first, the profits will follow. When those in control start advocating on our behalf.

Remember (and I know I've told you this dozens of times), the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Call or e-mail your congressional representatives. Write the SBA and the White House. Demand action. You can create the jobs, but you need help, and you need it now. The longer you wait, the longer we all suffer.

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This article was originally published in the October 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Beating a Bad Rap.

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