Way back in the dark ages, before the Internet was invented, my husband and I decided to leave our horrific commute in New Jersey for the great unknown – Wisconsin. And since there was no Google (or Zillow), we had absolutely no idea what we were getting ourselves into.
Fast forward 20+ years later, and I don’t regret our decision at all. I am a small-town devotee. I am glad we didn’t raise our kids in the shadow of New York City, constantly fighting traffic no matter the day or time.
We certainly do not miss our 15-mile, 75-minute commute to work, the crazy pace of life, the overpriced housing, and the total anonymity of living in the Country’s most dense state. But we also had no idea what we were in for when we moved to (what I considered to be) the tiny little town of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. I would be lying if I said that the move didn’t come with some adjustments to small town life.
Big vs Small Towns
Everyone seemed to know everyone else, so we stood out when we first moved in. Still, people greeted us on the street and in the shopping mall – even though we were strangers. Very different from New Jersey where you keep your head down and stick to yourself.
At my first job in our new town, I was considered the most diverse person my co-workers knew, because I wasn’t born and raised in the area. I sorely missed the wide variety of giant shopping malls, ethnic food, good pizza, a nice warm bagel and a schmear. And the job market was (not surprisingly) severely limited in this region as compared to our previous location.
After my first job at a manufacturing plant, I left to teach in the College of Business at University of Wisconsin Eau Claire, and then eventually struck out to start my own consulting business. My business partner, a classmate from my MBA program, was a more typical Western-Wisconsin-ite, with multiple generations of her family and her husband’s family all from the same small area.
When we started meeting with clients in some of the smaller towns surrounding Eau Claire, I learned how difficult it would have been for me to find consulting work on my own. It wasn’t enough to have the experience and the degree – you had to have some sort of connection.
Who are your people?
Each meeting essentially started with the same question – “Who are your people?” – meaning who are you related to? How would I know you? Did you go to school with my cousin? Do our parents bowl together? Which church did your family attend? Surely there must be at least one if not multiple connections we could establish before we started talking business.
Sadly, I had no “people” in the area to create the sense of comfort and connection to the community that these clients were looking for. Fortunately, my business partner could offer that advantage to lend to our credibility.
I discovered that the “tiny town” of Eau Claire (population just under 70k) was considered “the city” to residents of the smaller outlying towns. When we worked with a client in Ladysmith WI (population 3149), the town was just coming to terms with their very first traffic light. We consulted with the local mayor/B&B owner/plumber on the project, teaching me the need for innovation and creativity when it comes to making a living in a small town.
Now that much of my business is working with small businesses in small towns in Wisconsin and across the Country, I have an even greater appreciation for the challenges that come along with building a business in a small community. How can you find qualified employees as you grow your business when there are so few people in the area? And does your distance to the nearest airport or major highway impact your ability to deliver your product? Don’t even get me started on the challenges of sketchy or non-existent Internet services in some of these areas.
However, when there is challenge there is also opportunity.
Benefits of Small Businesses in Small Towns
Due to COVID, more and more businesses in the busy, congested cities are letting their employees work from home, inspiring many people to consider a move to a less populated area. When the average Silicon Valley commute is 73 minutes per day, and the average housing cost is around $1.3 million, then I bet that a commute of ZERO minutes, living in the countryside, surrounded by lakes and trees, at the cost of more like $200,000 for a home sounds much more appealing.
If these employees start to recognize the value of picking your location first, then perhaps these rural areas will become more appealing. And if those employees are then inspired to start their own business, we can create a movement of new entrepreneurs in rural areas, which can help create jobs and sustain and grow these small towns.
Consider this analogy, which is attributed to Chris Gibbons, the founder of the National Center for Economic Gardening, where I work as a contractor. The health of these small towns can be likened to a bathtub.
How a Small Town is Like a Bathtub
The water in the bathtub represents the money that stays in the community. Businesses like the local grocery store, the bar, and the locally owned stores and restaurants make up that bathwater in the tub. The same dollars are circulated around among the residents, using their paychecks to spend locally.
The water being drained out of the bathtub represents the money that leaves the community, when residents chose to order their groceries or home goods from Amazon instead of the local grocer, or when they opt to eat at a giant restaurant chain rather than the independent restaurant. These are dollars leaving the community. And the more local residents spend outside of the community, the more the water in the tub drains, the more challenging it is for the local businesses that support the local residents to stay in business. Glug glug.
The faucet, adding water into the tub, represents local business owners who do business with customers outside of the community. These businesses hire locally but sell outside of the community. They are bringing fresh dollars into the town to raise the level of the bathwater. The more successful these businesses are, the more they are able to hire locally and bring more money into the community as they sell their goods and services all over the country or the world.
How to Make a Difference?
How can we support more rural entrepreneurship, so that these communities can continue to grow, and so that fewer people are facing a market with million-dollar homes and hour-long commutes in the big cities?
A recent report by Endeavor Insight tackled that very question. Here are some of their findings:
- Supporting local businesses helps grow rural areas. Branch offices of large companies in small towns “often displace the jobs of smaller independent stores in the region.” Locally owned businesses “generate value for others in the community as they procure most of their staff, goods and services from the people and businesses around them.” For example, “local restaurants returned 79 percent of their revenue locally, compared to just 30 percent for chain eateries.”
- Businesses with 50+ employees generate the majority of jobs and sales. “Adding just one or two new companies that scale beyond 50 employees can significantly reduce unemployment in rural counties.” This can also help to raise the median income.
- The combination of quality of life, technology, and support from local government offers the best combination to encourage growth. The rural lifestyle is a great fit for Millennials who tend to focus on purpose over paycheck and seek a high quality of life with a clear work/life balance. Recruiting them to smaller towns can help with the aging population of these towns. Improving the Internet access and supporting growing small business through economic development support, zoning and business loans help make this a reality.
The more I read and research small towns, the more it becomes clear to me that we need to work hard to encourage entrepreneurs to start their businesses in these rural communities and to support the existing small businesses already contributing to them. Have a crazy long commute? Sick of working for a giant corporation? Come join us and start your business in the bucolic beautiful world of small towns!
Are you an entrepreneur or small business owner located in a smaller town instead of the big city? Find and connect with business owners like you by subscribing to Learn Start Grow or following us on Linked In as I work to create a community of small business owners in small towns.