The Highs and Lows of Rural Entrepreneurship

Printed with permission from The Underwood News

One would think that economic developers would be used to the ups and downs of the business cycle, but I for one, am not.

I love the high of when a new business opens.  I can feel the energy when I walk into the door.  I react to the smell of a fresh coat of paint.  I smile at each creative whimsy that dares to show itself in the ambiance, customer service, or offering of the hopeful new owner.

In contrast, I hate the low of when a new business closes. The fact of the matter is, however, that most of them do.  Statistically, seven out of ten new businesses fail.  What distinguishes the winners from the losers is hard to quantify, and unfortunately blame is often unnecessarily placed on the wrong persons for unrelated reasons.

No one wins when a new business fails.  The community loses, the lender loses, the employees lose, and most significantly, the owner loses.  The sense of loss the entrepreneur feels is almost unbearable, and we, as a community, need to understand that and be as careful and gentle in our handling of any such loss as we can.

What some people do not know is that this high failure rate in entrepreneurial ventures sometimes results in the creation of other business opportunities.  While the original entrepreneur may in the end decide not to reenter the industry, others may seize the moment to re-open the business or “tweak” the operations plan to make the initial idea more viable.  More often than not, however, the original entrepreneur does reenter the market, having learned some valuable lessons from his or her first unhappy experience.

Some of you know that I was the executive director of a nonprofit performing arts organization in a prior life.  That company was my passion and my dream.  Initially we had wonderful, glorious, and successful years . . . but then we faltered.  Looking back, it is easy to see where we went wrong, but it is not so easy when everything seems to be crashing down around you.  For my own personal financial reasons after ten years I called it quits, but fortunately for me someone else came along to pick up the reins.  The business is still in operation, not quite the same vision as I and the original management team shared, but nonetheless still going.

I was lucky, able to pick up the pieces and start a new life.  Looking back, those years at the helm of that rocky and cheeky new business were the most challenging and least financially rewarding time of my life.  But to be honest, I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

Marketing Rural Communities

May 24, 2010 – Reprinted with permission from The Underwood News

For rural communities to prosper, population growth is paramount.  How do we get people to move here?  Just like with the latest version of the Smartphone or IPad, it takes innovation as well as marketing.  Marketing is impacted by the three Ps:  price, product, and place. Some experts add a fourth P:  promotion.  When laypeople think of marketing, advertising is the first thing that comes to mind, but advertising is only a part of the much larger effort of marketing, and advertising would fall under that fourth P of promotion.  So, what about the other Ps?

First, price.  How much does it cost to move to to a new town?  Well, there is the cost of the move itself:  buying the new house (which would include arranging the financing), selling the old house (dealing with potential new buyers and the realtor), packing up the stuff and loading it into the moving van.  Price consists of not only money but also time.  Some people cringe at simply the thought of all the work that is involved in a move.  And then there’s the loss of what you are giving up:  Friends, neighbors, familiarity, convenience.  Convincing someone to “buy” our small town thus involves some consideration of how to package it from a cost perspective.

Second, product.  Well, of course, we all know that our small town is irresistible!    The people and the spirit that reside here are endearing, but unfortunately these admirable qualities are not immediately visible.  So, it takes time and effort to package the product.  Packaging our small town as a caring, compassionate, and attractive community is a big undertaking, but one worth taking.  And that packaging is something that each and every one of you can play a role in.  Volunteer to help, whether or not you are directly asked.  Speak highly of yourself and your community.  You never know who is listening.

Third, place.  Or some experts say people.  The point is that in order to effectively market our small town we need to spend some time thinking about who our “target market” is.  Is it children who have moved away?  Is it workers at our major employers?  Once we determine who our target market is, we have to put all of our energy into researching that market to find out what they like.  The New Residents Survey that was administered to many of our town’s new residents last fall confirmed that that the #1 reason people moved to our small town was because of family.

Set forth below is an excerpt from the New Residents Survey.  Take a look at how these new residents made the decision to move to our small town.

Cost of living issues were influential in new residents’ decision to move.  Most new residents rated the following reasons as important in their decision to move: to lower the cost of housing (58%), to have lower taxes (58%), to lower the cost of living (58%), to spend more quality time with family (58%), and to find a less congested place to live (52%). Employment reasons were not a big factor in the decision to move. Not quite one in five (19%) of new residents moved to our small town to accept employment by a new employer and the same percentage (19%) moved to look for new work/job.

How did they arrive at their decision to move?

 Many new residents rated the following information sources as very or somewhat useful when making their decision to move : family (50%) and employer or co-workers (42%). Only one-quarter (25%) of new residents considered only our small town before moving. Thus, most considered other locations. Most (77%) had been to our small town before moving here. Of those that had been to our small town before moving here, most (53%) had visited family that lived here.

How do they feel about their new community?

 Most new residents rate their new community as friendly, trusting and supportive. Most (64%) say they probably or definitely will be living here five years from now. Many new residents found the following to be either somewhat or very helpful in helping them adapt to their new community: local news media (32%) and welcome information (30%). At least two-thirds of new residents rate the following items in our small town as excellent or good:  suitable housing and neighborhoods (86%), affordable housing (70%), opportunities to join local organizations (68%), safety of community (90%), senior living/services (69%), police protection (70%), fire protection (70%), school system (89%), Internet services (75%), standard of living (80%), environment for children (75%), natural, scenic or recreational amenities (70%), and community vision (70%).

So, there you have it.  Straight from the mouths of the very people we want to move to our small town.  Help me out here and make marketing our small town your #1 activity this summer.