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If you think it’s difficult to explain to someone at a cocktail party what exactly it is that you do for a living, try being one of these entrepreneurs. They own small businesses that — while entirely legal — are definitely pushing the boundaries of what many would consider ethical.
Judgments aside, however, owners of these kinds of businesses face some unique marketing challenges. Just managing their public image can be a full-time job. BusinessNewsDaily interviewed five of these entrepreneurs to get a better understanding of how they run their businesses.
The group includes a brothel owner, a sex therapist, a penny stock trader, a medical marijuana publicist and the owner of a website that helps you cheat on your spouse.
Susan Austin runs not one, but two, legal brothels in Nevada. Her establishments, The Mustang Ranch and Wild Horses Resort, are really more like large resorts than traditional so-called "houses of ill repute." And although her services are may not be typical, her company’s marketing efforts aren’t that different than everyone else’s.
“There are many challenges, as you can imagine, running two legal brothels,” Austin told BusinessNewsDaily. “I’d say the biggest one is getting the word out to potential new guests that we’re here, we’re safe and our ladies are the most welcoming and wonderful in the world. Nevada law prohibits us from advertising, so we’ve had to work around that constraint with varying degrees of success.”
Doing that requires the business to do a lot to non-sex-related promotions to drive interest in the business.
“We provide guided tours to groups and individuals interested in the rich history of brothels in America, particularly ours,” said Austin who owns both establishments with her husband, Lance Gilman. “We host many, many social and charitable events in our houses as well as motocross and off-road competitions on the exceptional courses we helped build adjacent to our compound. I do radio, TV and print interviews regularly which have brought a lot of guests to our websites as well as our houses.”
The business also uses social media to get the word out. The bottom line, said Austin, is that like in any business, her approach to marketing is about creating a lasting impression of the business.
“It’s all about perception,” Austin said. “We provide a fun, sexy, welcoming experience for our guests. Everyone’s welcome to come out, have a drink in our bars, order some food, meet our ladies and simply enjoy their visit. Of course, they’re certainly encouraged to spend some private time with our ladies, and most of them do. Sex and the 'experience,' like love, are inextricably intertwined.”
Andrea Adams-Miller calls herself "The Sexuality Tutor."
Got your attention yet? Yes, that’s right — she teaches people how to have good sex…and to improve their relationships, of course.
But try explaining that to someone on the subway.
“Often when society hears "The Sexuality Tutor," they are taken aback. Their initial impression is discomfort with the blatant terminology and their preconceived notions,” Adams-Miller said. “However, the discomfort quickly changes to intrigue and curiosity with a desire to know more followed by their personal declaration or confession of a problem in their own lives.”
“I ease their initial shock by following up with ‘I assist others in achieving healthy relationships and healthy sexuality by revealing to them the secrets to ignite the spark, fire and passion in their lives.’”
Adams-Miller said that while her business might sound like it’s strictly about sex, it’s really about helping people learn to better communicate with each other.
“These lonely or hurting partners needed someone they could trust to talk about their personal intimate lives without judgment or shame so that they could figure out solutions to gain the love and intimacy they desired and deserved,” she said.
Adams-Miller is able to market herself in a number of ways. She has a radio show, has authored several books, is an avid user of social media and frequently appears as a “sexpert” in the media.
In spite of her very public appearances, her most valuable marketing tool is her ability to keep things private.
“I offer is a safe place for [clients] to talk, confess, or cry without judgment and without preconceived notions on how they should live their lives. I validate them without shaming them, without being embarrassed over terms a person may use, and without being surprised by behaviors that a person may desire to engage in with their partner. Lastly, I give them the right to receive honest feedback, unconditional respect, and utmost confidentiality, so they feel safe, secure, and heard,” Adams-Miller said.
She also gets creative when finding ways to meet clients’ needs. She offers counseling via face-to-face meetings, phone, email, chat or Skype appointments.
Noel Biderman isn’t surprised that some people find the mere existence of his website, AshleyMadison.com, a little offensive.
The site's sole purpose is to help married people cheat on their spouses by finding willing partners on his site.
What surprises Biderman is that in spite of all the sexual content, alcohol and violence aired during commercials during an average National Football League game, his company is not allowed to run a television advertisement during an NFL game.
“I know where my audience is, but I’m not allowed to reach them,” Biderman said. “I don’t get to advertise on Super Bowl or the evening news. Society has accepted they can promote alcohol and glorify violence. You’re allowed to advertise erectile dysfunction products, but society makes a morality judgment when it comes to marriage.”
Biderman said that he is also banned from buying key search engine terms, such as “infidelity” for certain search engines’ pay-per-click advertising programs.
Biderman, who invested $200,000 to start the company, counters that his site allows people who want to have affairs to do in an environment where everyone knows they are married. Rather than pretending to be single on a site like Match.com or eHarmony, AshleyMadison users have laid their cards on the table before logging in.
“The reality is, there are people who are married who want to stay in the marriage for their spouses, for their children, but the bedroom has become celibate. Those people are looking for intimacy and sexual fulfillment,” said Biderman, whose site has 7.5 million users who pay between $49 and $249 for various levels of membership.
“The bottom line is that we know affairs happen. Society seems to acknowledge that. Running a TV commercial is not going to convince someone to have an affair. In fact, it may keep people from going to prostitutes or having workplace affairs,” which, Biderman said, can be more damaging.
Biderman added that AshleyMadison isn’t just about allowing like-minded people find each other, it’s also about creating a digital platform for communications that leaves less detectable evidence than an email or text message, both of which Biderman refers to as “digital lipstick on the collar.”
And, before you have a chance to ask, yes, Biderman is married. Happily, he might add.
“You can be a divorce attorney while being married. You have to understand how and why people have affairs. If I woke up in a sexless marriage, I would probably stray before getting divorced. I think we accept that there are strip clubs, massage parlors, prostitutes. It’s reality.”
And, Biderman is quick to point out, you might be surprised to find out that the company markets itself to women, who make up more than a third of its membership.
Elizabeth Robinson’s medical marijuana communications firm, Grow Room Communications, isn’t exactly the hippie haven you might imagine.
Instead, Robinson, who until last year was focused on public relations and communications for not-necessarily-controversial clientele for Volume Public Relations, runs her new firm with a few strict marketing tropes in mind.
“This is a medicine. And the industry needs to act more like the pharmaceutical industry in the way it presents itself,” said Robinson, whose firm is based in Denver, where medical marijuana has been legal for a decade. “This is not a Cheech and Chong movie.”
Misconceptions about the industry abound — mainly that it is really just an excuse to use marijuana for recreational purposes.
Robinson is out to change that perception by helping companies — including medical marijuana dispensaries, technology providers, schools, social networks , web designers and growers — improve their public image.
Her goal is to help these businesses communicate a cohesive and on-point message that marijuana for medical purposes is legal.
“If the wrong people go onto the national stage to deliver this message, they are going to precipitate negative perceptions,” Robinson said. “This industry is made up of a lot of professional business people who are transforming it.”
Robinson’s services go beyond just marketing and public relations. Her company also helps guide medical marijuana firms through the traditional business development process, helping them brand themselves, find the best equipment and collaborate with the best business partners.
“We need to approach this industry with same level of professionalism that you would in any other business,” Robinson said.
While penny stock trading is a very lucrative business to be in, there are significant and deep-seated negative connotations surrounding the entire industry, said Peter Leeds, who calls himself "The Penny Stock Professional."
“Pump and dumps, promotional stocks, widows being tricked out of their money, the mafia, spam e-mails, and scams. Lots of dishonest practices, going back over a hundred years,” Leeds said.
Leeds said his business, however, is different.
“Penny stocks are the lowest priced shares on the stock market,” Leeds said. “While IBM might be trading for $120 per share, penny stocks are going for pennies. Picture a company trading for 12 cents per share, with massive debt and no revenues, and their main business activity is to convince people to put their hard earned money into their shares.”
“Penny stocks, (and some even trade for fractions of a penny because they are not worth a full cent per share), are not regulated very well at all, and they spend a lot of time trying to cast their company in the best light. This leads to a lot of misleading info as they try to ‘put lipstick on a pig’,” according to Leeds.
Most penny stocks actually pay promotional companies to go around and push their shares to potential investors through rumors, free websites, and spam e-mails, he said.
But, unlike these companies, Leeds penny stock trading firm makes its money legitimately.
“I (and my team) uphold a very high level of ethics,” Leeds said. "Unlike just about everyone else in our industry, we find only the highest quality penny stock companies that have strong fundamentals, proven management teams, and growing revenues,” he said. “We do not take bribes or compensation of any kind from the companies we review and we put all emphasis on protecting investors and educating them.”
Leeds said his company focuses on finding the 5 percent of penny stock companies that are great investments, therefore making his service very lucrative to his customers.
“Millions of people invest in penny stocks,” Leeds said. “Few talk about it. Even fewer make money at it. Yet, done right, trading penny stocks can be very lucrative.”