Bad Rap

Has your industry got an image problem? Here's how to cope.
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the January 2004 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Rick Winfield, who owns Class Act Tattoo and Body Piercing, understands why few people associate his industry with class. "For many years, [tattoos] were underground," says Winfield, 40, whose shop is in Florissant, Missouri. "It was bikers [getting them], and drug addicts tattooing their arms so people couldn't see the needle marks."

Tattoo parlors, adult bookstores and bill collecting are just some of the numerous industries that have a bad reputation-deserved or not. How do these entrepreneurs do what they do and not feel miserable? The obvious reason: There's money to be made. But the less obvious reasons come from Glen Kreiner, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of Cincinnati, whose study of people in stigmatized industries shows that humans can adapt to almost anything. Entrepreneurs working in stigmatized fields do several things, says Kreiner.

  • Reframing: Think about something in a completely new way. "It's no coincidence that the used-car industry calls cars pre-owned."
  • Recalibrating: Entrepreneurs "find something redeeming about the job or industry that most people might not think about and make that [their] mantra."
  • Normalizing: "It's taking something unusual and making it normal."

Kreiner's work focuses on managers, but he says many of his findings are transferable to entrepreneurs-except perhaps the behavior of passing. "People in stigmatized occupations try to disguise the stigma," he says. "My guess is, most telemarketers don't say 'I'm a telemarketer.'" But Kreiner hasn't met Keith Fotta.

"When I'm at a cocktail party, and I tell people what I do, they get excited," says Fotta, who concedes he'll get a few grimaces at first. Fotta, 44, is CEO of Gryphon Networks, a multimillion-dollar Norwood, Massachusetts, company providing technology and services to the telemarketing industry. He employs 50 people, and as he sees it, he's helping fed-up consumers avoid interruptions and helping businesses avoid penalties for calling people on "do not call" lists. Fotta also notes that he's allowing a $660 billion industry, which employs more than 6 million people, to survive.

Winfield seems equally proud of his business, despite the tattoo industry's bad reputation. He employs three people who have families, sends his kids to parochial school, and has brought in more than $1 million since his business opened in 1996. Tattoos and telemarketing appear light-years apart, but Winfield's advice is universal to any entrepreneur: "Do what makes you happy."

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