Chris Gibbons explains economic gardening

Chris Gibbons is well-known for pioneering the concept of “Economic Gardening” in the small-town of Littleton, Colorado. (Population about 40,000, and part of the greater Denver metropolitan area.)

On a recent webinar presented by the Kansas City Branch of the Federal Reserve, Gibbons explained the basics of economic gardening.

Differences between economic gardening and other strategies:

  1. Focus on Stage 2 companies. Companies with 10 to 100 employees  that are growth oriented were the target. Traditional business assistance programs, like the SBDC, focus on Stage 1 companies (with 2 to 9 employees, typically newly in business.)
  2. Focus on strategic issues. Economic gardening is not about offering general business help. It is only addressing critical issues like core strategy, marketing and management.
  3. Use corporate-level tools. Enterprise tools like market research, GIS, and SEO, can address problems common in these growing small companies. They find many companies didn’t know they could access these tools.
  4. Based on new sciences.  Many of their solutions hinge on chaos theory, systems thinking or other new sciences. It’s a reliable path for solving problems, Gibbons said.

Gibbons said they did not spend 1 cent on incentives, yet they doubled job growth at the same time as population rose 23%.

Gibbons said they used a 100-hour curriculum, a training retreat and shadowing of other entrepreneurs to help their businesses grow. They encounter two kinds of business problems in Stage 2 companies:

  1. Reference librarian problems: the answer is out there; we just have to find it.
  2. Wicked problems: these are going to take lots of work and new thinking to solve. For example, one company they worked with had a military-related product, but just wasn’t able to break into the network. The economic gardening team helped work up through the network of defense contractors and find the right buyers.

Gazelles (the much-praised and much-sought-after startups with crazy-big growth patterns) are rare, Gibbons said. Steady growth is more common. It’s also possible to take a stagnant firm and help it re-set its growth, returning to a growing pattern.

But where do they find Stage 2 companies to work with? They use news monitoring tools like One Source, News patterns and Recorded Future.

Can Stage 2 companies be found in small towns? Of course. Kansas found most of theirs in towns under 2,500 in populations. They found one growth company in a town under 100 in population.


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About Becky McCray

Becky started Small Biz Survival in 2006 to share rural business and community building stories and ideas with other small town business people. She and her husband own a retail liquor store in Alva, Oklahoma, and a small cattle ranch nearby. Becky is an international speaker on small business.

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