Businesses in small towns don’t work together very well. That was one of the top findings in our Survey of Rural Challenges.
Survey answers included a lot of examples of this inability to cooperate:
“Many of our merchants won’t participate in group promos.”
“Businesses don’t cooperate with each other!”
“The ‘competiveness’ of small town business is killing me! It doesn’t even matter if businesses are in completely differently lines of work – in this town is feels like they are out to see the others fail.”
“How do we get all the businesses to work together? Share advertising, have an evening once or twice a month that we all stay open later and encourage shoppers to come?”
“People seem more interested in competition [than] working together for our common goals.”
“How do we get past the apathy of our small business owners? No cooperation”
Intriguingly, another key finding was that small town businesses have difficulty in marketing themselves. Competing locally, nationally and online is challenging. Several people mentioned the difficulty of keeping up with changes in marketing. Reduced effectiveness of newspaper advertising, the fast rate of change of online marketing, and difficulties in reaching customers today leave some businesses at a loss.
Seems like these two things might be related, hmm?
Small businesses that are challenged with marketing could band together, work together on keeping up to date on new marketing techniques, and benefit from combined resources to generate bigger results than they could alone.
That’s what could happen, but apparently doesn’t happen very often.
In fact, last month, Germaine wrote in with this same question.
“I’m a Chamber Director and loved your article- hit the key points with substantive information. Wondered if you had any suggestions of how to help the businesses see themselves more like a mall and less as a competitor with each other.”
I’m not sure I’d use the word “mall” to describe the ideal of businesses cooperating. Maybe “business community” is a better term. We need to appeal to business owners’ aspirations, the best version of how they think of themselves. So talk about your business people as Leaders of the Business Community instead of competitive individuals.
Renee G, from The Garage in Fort Stockton, Texas, (where you can get coffee, listen to music and more), wrote in last year to share her success with building cooperation.
“Hi everyone! I’ve been lurking for a while now and now have something to bring to the brag basket :)
“When getting ready to open our business, we were getting the ‘vibe’ that businesses here didn’t play nice with each other – very territorial and not willing to share information, support, and in some cases – even talk to each other, even when the businesses were in completely different industries. We decided that just wouldn’t do at all.
“So we spent a year promoting other business’s events, websites, facebook pages – anything and everything, even when it directly competed with events we were holding. Customers noticed and it certainly helped build our reputation in the community, but even better than that – we now have over 20 local small businesses working TOGETHER on a Memorial Weekend giveaway package.
“The walls have started coming down and we can feel a tangible difference in the openness, communication, and support between the owners, managers, and even employees of locally owned businesses – and we’ve seen 5 new small businesses open in just the past month – I think our community is on the right path now. It was a gamble to go at it the way we did, but sometimes that’s all it takes – to break out of the ‘usual’ and shake it up a bit.”
Renee was very smart in starting by promoting others with no expectation of return. The customers noticed and the other businesses noticed. It took a year or more to get businesses working together. Are you ready to spend a year on this project? That’s what it is going to take.
More practical tips for building cooperation among businesses:
1. Look for the Leaders who are already working together. Look for the Renees who are building community and for those who do small joint projects, maybe just in twos or threes. The ad shown below is a group of three local businesses cooperating on their own. These are the kinds of examples you’re looking for. Find out how and why they got started and kept cooperation going. Duplicate that.
2. Create a list of local people and businesses on Facebook. Check it daily. Re-share what local people are talking about to promote discussion and connection.
3. Start by having coffee together with business owners and talk through upcoming joint promotions or community events. Do this regularly, maybe monthly to start. It will likely take a year or more to get them to start actually working together.
4. Appeal to their marketing challenges, but don’t start with big joint campaigns. Start with small ways to learn about current marketing techniques. Start with tiny-group cooperation with only two or three businesses. Start with a flyer they can post in their window and nothing more.
5. Create social-media lists of local businesses. Use a tool like List.ly or Pinterest. Share the project widely on social media to get others involved in the list-making. You’ll discover you have more businesses than you thought, and you’ll be giving your businesses more public recognition. Encourage businesses to share the list to bring more attention to the entire business community.
What projects have helped you to build cooperation with other local businesses in your community?
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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.