As Deb Brown and I drove away from the small town we had just visited, we talked about something that the town was missing. It wasn’t one specific business or an amenity. It was a characteristic. It was hustle.
We didn’t see that entrepreneurial drive we’d both noticed other places. There were businesses and entrepreneurs in town, yes, but there were opportunities for a lot more.
We started brainstorming the businesses we didn’t see, ones we could imagine working there. We could imagine cleaning services and concierges, preparing and stocking visitors’ cabins before they arrive, or cleaning up and winterizing after they leave. While some people are hunting or fishing, there are bound to be some family members who’d like other activities, like maybe yoga, tours, or outdoors skills classes. Visitors take their dogs into the National Forest, so surely dog washing would be popular before people make the long drive home with a dirty dog. Then there were all the opportunities around the emerging bike tourism trend…
We came up with a dozen more ideas during the drive. Why weren’t locals trying these ideas plus all the ones they could see that we didn’t? Where was the hustle?
I talked with a local person about this. She felt it went back to the heavy industry jobs that used to be there. The ethic was to find a good job, and it would take care of you. As those jobs left, people encouraged their kids to get an education and get out. Probably a lot of towns have had a similar pattern.
Sending your kids away makes sense if you think the town has no future.
Today, any small town can choose to have a future. We all have the technology available for our towns to survive, if we decide to.
Once you decide to survive, you look around to see what you have available. If all you have is the dirt under your feet and the sun in the sky, then you start there. This place has National Forest, an existing tourism base and the emerging rails to trails project. That is a huge base of assets and opportunities to build on.
Could they develop or redevelop an entrepreneurial streak here? I think so, and I think it starts with youth entrepreneurship. A local group is working on that, supporting entrepreneurship training in the schools. They also developed a tiny business village, so pop up businesses would have a place to start.
Another thing that might help is starting conversations around the many opportunities and unmet needs. Start online conversations, hold brainstorming events with locals and visitors, and share stories of the hustle that you see when you visit other places. Any way you can think of to get more people looking around and talking about what could be.
It’s a long process to develop an entrepreneurial culture. But it’s your best bet for a prosperous place in the future.
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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.