Writing about The Dip and The Long Tail triggered some additional thoughts for rural entrepreneurs. Here are two basic strategies to successful small town small biz.
1. Be a generalist. This is the Long Tail, kinda. Because you are in a limited market, you have to offer a very broad range of products or services. You are selling less of more in order to pile up enough sales to reach your goals.
2. Be a specialist. This is the Short Head, one of the lessons from The Dip. Be the absolute best at something, in order to reach customers from further geographically. Usually, this also means charging more, but not always.
How does this work?
John D. Deans explained the Generalist strategy, in his case for computer consultants. Develop a skill set so broad that you can handle any situation your client comes up with. While a general computer consultancy will be mired in the competition in a big town, it will stand out as the best solution in a small town. For retailers, carry as broad of a product line as possible, given the limits your market.
The Specialist strategy reaches outside your local market. By specializing and being the best in the world at something, you can draw on business from all over.
For example, if you are an accountant, you can offer a broad line of general services to your small town. Or you can specialize. Perhaps offering audits to nonprofits, governments, and so on. Now you will need to travel outside your home area, but you’ll stand a better chance of becoming well known in the larger market.
In a big city, a retailer can be a super-specialist. A fine wine shop can choose to have only the finest 100 wine selections. I don’t see that working well in small towns! My store has a great selection of fine wines, but we couldn’t live on just that! So we broaden the specialization to be all the finest items, relative to our market. That’s the Generalist side of small town business. Carefully apply the concepts to the right parts of your business. Don’t go overboard and become the muffler shop, cafe, gas station, and bait shop all in one. (I’ve seen it. It was out of business.)
If you want to use the Specialist strategy, definitely shoot for being the best in the world. If you are the premier maker of dulcimers in the world, you really can be based in the middle of the rural country of southern Oklahoma. (and they are!) If you have advanced education or credentials, you probably can’t make a living from just the small town market, so you need to be such a world-renowned master that people will come to you as the obvious choice. You invest the up-front work in positioning yourself as the expert in your field.
Being mediocre in either strategy is a recipe for having no strategy and no direction. Hard work for little reward, and that is not what you want.
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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 have a small cattle ranch and are lifelong entrepreneurs. Becky is an international speaker on small business and rural topics.