[Barbara Winter is one of the few folks talking about small town business. Her special focus is on being joyfully jobless. I’m thrilled she offered up this guest post. – Becky ]
Not long ago, I found myself seated next to a small town enthusiast on a flight to Dallas.
This man was a former pilot who had left flying when he was diagnosed with a serious illness. He had recently become a flight training instructor, but he was most excited about the little bed and breakfast inn he and his wife owned in a small town in northern Pennsylvania. It was their second such venture and he regaled me with stories about his life as an innkeeper.
This former pilot was also a former city dweller who had reinvented himself as a small town entrepreneur. He’s not alone in discovering new opportunities in off the beaten path places. What may not be so obvious is why so many new entrepreneurs are deciding that a small town is the perfect place to create their own version of World Headquarters.
For thousands of years, anyone running a business was at the mercy of geography. If you lived near a river or the ocean, you had opportunities not available to your landlocked neighbors. Being an entrepreneur usually meant plunking yourself down in a convenient spot and dealing with whomever happened to pass your way.
That’s all changing. Where business once meant marketing goods and services to those in close proximity, it now is more about reaching out to those who share values, concerns and ideas—no matter where they are located.
As a result, we’re seeing people who’ve built international consulting businesses from their cabins on the Western Slopes of Colorado or run an art gallery via the Internet from their home on Vancouver Island or sold their copywriting services from their houseboat.
If you’re dreaming about becoming an entrepreneurial villager yourself, you could either create a local business that serves your community or you could serve a clientele unlimited by geography. Either kind of business is possible in the new world of cottage industries since today’s cottage is apt to be an electronic one.
While it’s not my intention to suggest that these are the only possibilities (far from it),here are a few ideas for profit centers that are especially suited to village life.
- At your service. My old favorite, the service business, gets high points for small town enterprise. Even the tiniest communities can support a wide range of services. While some service businesses require special skills or training (i.e. furnace repair, barbering), more and more service businesses exist to save people time or money.
A great way to generate ideas for a service business is by asking yourself the question, “Who’s got a problem I know how to solve?”
- Put your computer to work. Nothing in our lifetime has had a bigger impact on business than the personal computer. Graphic designers, marketing pros,copywriters and virtual assistants can build their businesses locally and beyond.
Since many writers can live wherever they want, freelancers, as well as novelists, often choose to plant themselves in small communities. With the Internet putting research sources within reach of everyone, freelancing from almost anywhere has gotten even easier.
Today many consultants and life coaches work with clients via Skype, the popular alternative to landlines.
- Create a destination business. On a road trip several years ago, we visited a quilt shop in Goshen, Indiana, that had collectors coming from all over the world to buy their stunning creations.
Although many small towns have seen the demise of local businesses such as hardware and clothing stores, creative shopkeepers are bringing commercial spaces to life again with art galleries, antique shops, inns and unique restaurants that bring in out-of-town customers. If it’s special, people will come.
- Market products to the world. You don’t have to look very far to see that mail order has long flourished in tiny towns. Thousands of people will never set foot in Dodgeville, Wisconsin (population 4,975), but they’ll buy something from the Lands’ End catalog which is headquartered there. Like other forms of doing business, mail order has benefited from technology.
A woman I know living outside a small town in southern Wisconsin creates jewelry and handknit purses which she sells to celebrities and customers throughout the world via Etsy.com, as well as her own Website.
A quick survey of smaller mail order operations shows that many such businesses favor small town locales. You can order maple syrup directly from Vermont, Christmas trees from Michigan and software from New Hampshire. And if your town is served by FedEx or UPS, mail order marketing gets even easier.
For many people, an ideal life would be living in a place they love, with people they love, doing work that they love. Being an entrepreneurial villager could make that happen. As Jack Lessinger says, “Build something, help something, save something. The possibilities are endless.”
Barbara J. Winter is a speaker, writer and entrepreneur who started her first business while living in tiny Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. She is the author of Making a Living Without a Job: Winning Ways for Creating Work That You Love and publisher of Winning Ways newsletter, the longest-running self-employment publication of its kind in the country. She currently resides in the not-small-town of Las Vegas, Nevada.
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Life Coaches says
Its true the new technology enhanced economy allows each of us to have more autonomy over our personal and professional live and where we choose to live. But I still think that in order to make it big (not just tread water) you have to go where the people are.
I mean it says a lot that you are located in Las Vegas! Anyway, its great to see someone writing about small town business. As more of these markets become aware of the resources available on the internet your name and popularity are only going to skyrocket!
Becky McCray says
Jesse, I disagree. Look at Des Walsh in a small town in Australia, Ted Demopoulos in a completely rural area in New England, Pam O’Hara and Michelle Riggen-Ransom of Batch Blue of Rhode Island, and I can go on and on. They may not meet your definition of “make it big,” but they are doing lots more than “treading water.”
I think you need to define the type of bussiness that you are referring to. The examples of success seemed to be all consultants or authors who probably are not relying on the small population of the rural town they reside in. A retail business or a service oriented business, however, relies heavily upon the population of their town. And they rely upon those folks that might stop as a tourist. The number of supporters in the small towns are dwindling quickly as large companies shut their doors and cause the rural residents to leave town. Lack of industry and tourism is causing the retail/service businesses to “tread water”.
Becky McCray says
Jackie, if I read you right, your main point is that small towns are dwindling, and that hurts local service and retail businesses. Of course, not all small towns are dwindling. Many are growing. But for those who are facing a decline in population, it’s tough. And that is exactly why I started this site: to provide small business and economic development information to small towns, so they could slow, stop, or even reverse their decline. Right now, the tools are available to you and your community to make a difference, and not just accept things the way they are.