“What types of business can succeed in a community with a population less than 100?” That’s a question Becky McCray is asked often. The expert in rural and small town business creation and growth (and a small town multi-business owner) says starting a small business anywhere is a challenge. But technology advancements, the growth of online marketplaces, and logistic innovations during the past two decades have shrunk the world. Also, the growth of the “buy local” movement has provided the incentive to city retailers, food markets and restaurants to seek relationships with nearby suppliers in rural areas and small towns. Becky, a longtime friend of and contributor to SmallBusiness.com, provides the following advice about starting a business in a very small town.
Innovative Rural Business Models
To help people consider the creativity necessary to start and grow a small business in a town, I use examples of companies and towns that are Innovative Rural Business Models. These are small business owners and communities that display the following characteristics.
They Think Tiny
Expecting one single business to fill an entire building is a barrier to entry. So innovative rural businesses find ways to divide large spaces up, allowing many different businesses to fill just one tiny space. For example, in Washington, Iowa, there is a business called The Village. The huge old department store sat empty for decades because no one could fill all 15,000 square feet. It has now been divided up into a little “village” of shops that have only a few hundred square feet to fill. These smaller spaces give a lot more people the opportunity to try out a business idea.
They Think ‘Temporary’
Businesses may pop-up for a day, week, or season. The old image of a traditional business had them lasting for years, maybe decades–with little change. Innovative Rural Business Models accept that new businesses can come and go in a flash as the owners learn something, develop more assets, and gather more fans and customers for their next venture. Think about booths at events as opportunities to test entrepreneurial ideas and products. Almost every town has some kind of special event that could allow booths that enabled more business experiments to happen.
They Find Ways to Work Together
Rural people know how to work together, how to rely on each other. That’s why we excel at this model, where separate businesses share a space. Small towns have many examples of a store inside another store, a business inside a business, as well as co-working spaces, maker spaces, shared studios, galleries, and shared commercial kitchens. Commercial kitchens can be expensive to certify and may sit idle much of the time. That’s another barrier to entry for traditional businesses. Sharing kitchens can lower that barrier, allowing many new experimental businesses to pop-up. Co-working and maker spaces bring together diverse small businesses to share the assets of a physical location and to connect with each other. Shared art studios and galleries, like the ARTesian Galleries in Sulfur, Oklahoma, extend the sharing and networking benefits to artists.
They go mobile with trucks, trailers & social media
In big cities, “food trucks” and “trailer shops” have become an accepted and popular part of the retailing ecosystem. Rather than depending on having a market in one town only, innovative businesses are hitting the road to round up customers. Retail stores and boutiques now commonly operate from a truck or trailer. But you can’t just drive up your truck into people’s yards (unless, perhaps, you are the ice-cream man). You must reach out to them with your unique story told in your personal way. The Peach Truck has become a four-state operation by developing a transportation network and working with peach farmers in Georgia. The credit part of their reason for their growth to Instagram. Their photos are beautiful and have led to nearly 60,000 followers who can’t wait for the summer and the arrival of the Peach Truck (and canopy stores) to arrive. Many of their Instagram posts are about the men and women in small towns who grow their peaches.
Service businesses are using this model, too: wedding planners, financial consultants. Just about any kind of business can go mobile, expanding the market size of a small business in the smallest of towns.
They see opportunity beyond the town limits
Remember that you don’t have to rely on your physical marketplace. There are plenty of location-independent ideas. If you have skills you can use via computer, you can be anywhere. Writers, graphic designers, programmers, consultants, web designers, marketers, virtual assistants, and more people can build a business anywhere they can find internet access, even if the town itself is very small.
They practice creative ownership
For rural areas where people don’t have a lot of personal assets or wealth, the traditional model of risk of ownership may be too much for one person to bear alone. That’s why community ownership, cooperatives, and employee-owned models are appealing. Cody, Nebraska (pop. 154), has a community-owned and high shool student-run grocery store, the Circle C Market. The students even built the building! Now, they run the store.
- Learn more about the Innovative Rural Business Models in the video library at SaveYour.Town.
- The Tionesta Market Village is a terrific example of using the Innovative Rural Business Models to nurture many small businesses together in one space, all in a town of 500 people.
- 20 Small Ideas for Small Towns is a short ebook detailing 20 different ways you can make a successful business in a small town. It also covers seven ways to generate your own ideas, so you can dream up the small biz idea that best fits you. (PDF)
Cover photo by SmallBusiness.com: Reds Eats Lobster Shack, Wiscasset Maine