The Stigma of Small Business

Photo Cred: Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

The 30-second commercial below aired on a few major networks several years ago. When I watch it today it still triggers me with a comical, mild dismay. It contrasts two typical scenarios young adults face after high school: make money immediately by getting a job versus pursue a college degree. The narration features a voiceover of a mother convincing her son to go to college while the son fights for his right to make his own decisions.

To make the case, the campaign juxtaposes the life of a doctor–the outcome of pursuing a college degree, and the life of a house painter–the outcome of choosing immediate money, but perhaps a low-wage. Images of the doctor’s life is depicted by sleek and modern home aesthetics while images of the painter’s life is represented by outdated home decor, old appliances, and a junky car. [Click below to play.]

The Old School Rhetoric of Success and Happiness

Despite its old school and questionable rhetoric, the commercial was an honest and well-intentioned effort to encourage youth, of hispanic heritage, to pursue a college degree as a pathway to access a quality of life.

Whether you consider this approach a scare tactic or not, campaigns do well to use our present realities and shared assumptions to connect with certain audiences. While this message can prove to be effective in presenting the value of a college degree, it simultaneously reinforces a limiting belief within our collective consciousness. The campaign makes an example out of the house painter’s work as something undesirable and empty of meaning.

Curious to see how others might have received the message, we engaged our community by asking an open-ended question about the commercial in a survey. Three themes stood out:

  1. The message is outdated. College no longer guarantees anyone a great career and there are tons of people without a higher education who have succeeded far beyond their college graduate counterparts. There is life, happiness, and success outside of a college degree.
  2. There’s a stigma against blue collar work and a prestige associated with white collar work.
  3. Education is absolutely essential, but a college degree does not guarantee happiness or a particular outcome in life.

Indeed, these three themes can form a basis for triggering some audiences (like myself) with mild dismay. There is no question that education is critical. And to credit the campaign, it is also true that a college experience can allow for personal growth leading to enlightenment and a path for a more fulfilled and happy life. It is also true that becoming a doctor, or more broadly, having a white collar career requires a certain type of discipline, knowledge, consistent practice and performance that’s recognized with a certain level of prestige. The campaign does well to highlight these points from a 30,000 foot level, and its purpose was not to zoom in on the value and marvels hidden in the layers of what a house painting business or its work can truly embody. Besides, it would be too much to ask a 30-second clip to reconcile how these features: enlightenment, happiness, discipline, performance, prestige can also exist in the path of someone who chooses to make money as a house painter. Especially in today’s world, given our era of disruption and cultural leap into entrepreneurship.

Small Business Stigma?

I also couldn’t help but zoom in on what the “house painter” might represent. Thoughts of small business or “Main Street” business came to mind. As a society, we seem to draw negative attachments to small business. Where does this come from? Is it possible to encourage a college degree or higher education without devaluing the “house painter” or what it might represent? Further, how do we eradicate the limiting beliefs or stigma attached to small business?

If we look through the lens of a business owner or entrepreneur, we may altogether digress from the discussion of the importance of a college degree. Instead we’d snap the focus into the marvels and opportunities hidden in the layers of what house painting can embody.

In this commercial, viewers saw a house painter. The campaign further stigmatized the trade with dread, the feeling of dead-end, and a lack of super success. But to an entrepreneur, business owner, or everyday go-getter, they see “house painting” and rather than dread, dead-end, and the lack of success, they see structure, craftsmanship, practice, ways to garner demand, a personal brand, a business culture, ownership, community, impact, relationship-building, and of course, income–far from undesirable and empty of meaning. But gaining access to this opening is key.

A New Business Norm and a Different Type of Business

Several years ago this commercial might have done well to resonate with its intended audience. Whether or not that would ring true for today, it’s provided a way to discuss the stigma we seem to attach to small business and the work that falls under the category.

Part of the limiting belief we seem to have about roles within small business and blue collar work is their cookie-cutter nature and the division of labor. Meaning if you are a house painter, that’s all you are: you paint houses and your path is presumably a dead-end. This format of thinking has been problematic for over a century. It separates the person behind the business/work from the work itself. The perception of prestige is sucked away when you operate as a cog in a machine.

But imagine if we took on the project of reformatting the way we encourage our young adults–that each piece of work has a value that contributes to society and it’s up to you, as an individual, to integrate aspects of yourself, your experience and knowledge and infuse it into your work. Could that space be where prestige is rooted? Going further, would it be too huge of a project to shift our idea of success, happiness, and prestige away from the old school rhetoric? How can young adults access an equally fulfilling path that doesn’t make them a “loser” if they don’t choose college? Not everyone is meant to be a doctor or take on what we commonly refer to as white-collar jobs, but everyone should have access to the tools that help build the person behind any business.

We’ve uncovered extraordinary ways of re-identifying our work, regardless of its type of business, with its corresponding prestige. The tools and body of knowledge we now have access to, through various examples such as breakthroughs in business approaches, coaching programs, online courses, and supportive business owner communities, have helped us reformat the way we define the value of our work. Booming Collective in an example of the body of knowledge and course platforms out there. The tools are endless and they have done well to help us eradicate the limiting beliefs and stigma. If only we can continue to spread this new norm, we could potentially experience small business and all types of work differently, and feel the rich value as consumers.

Today, we have a better understanding of what it means to deliver our value from our core and build our work as something related and interconnected to an entire ecosystem of things. Modern business concepts like branding, impact, and value have helped create a more integrated approach to work and business in which you’re no longer just cookie-cutting but instead, required to be both fisherman and philosopher, house painter and artist at the same time.

Other examples like the gig economy in which disruptive apps and other software technology have mobilized go-getters to use their trade to execute business. Taking ownership of your skills and dreams have never been more accessible than before. The cultural leap into entrepreneurship has made small business ownership hot. You have the opportunity to deliver your value through your business, and extend that same quality to the different roles within your business. It’s up to you how prestigious you set your role. It requires more responsibility, but with responsibility comes equal prestige. And with prestige, we trump the stigma attached to small business.



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