HOW do you grow your own small businesses?

Last week, I gave you a bunch of reasons to focus more on growing your own businesses that on trying to recruit outside businesses to your small town. Now it’s time to implement. HOW do you do it?

The best framework I’ve found is “Climate, Infrastructure, and Support” developed by the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship.
(They have a newer, more complex, model now, but I like the simplicity of this one.)

When Washington State Extension wanted an easy framework for brainstorming ways for small towns to improve their own entrepreneurial ecosystem, this is the model I chose. They broadcast my keynote to eleven different locations across the state, and they are still using videos of those presentations to work with individual towns to this day. (Not to change the subject, but every rural state ought to think about distributed conferences like this. Their survey results that show 87% of people liked the local/regional networking more than state-wide events.)

The one big idea of HOW to grow your own businesses:
Lower the barriers of entry so more business ideas will be tried at less risk. 

You want business people to be able to test their business idea and skills without losing everything they have in the process.

I borrowed a whole bunch of these ideas from a workshop lead by Dave Shideler, Oklahoma State University. Here are some of his and my ideas for growing your own local businesses:

1. Climate: Appreciate your entrepreneurs. 

  • Talk to entrepreneurs. Tell them they matter.
  • Feature them in the local paper.
  • Give entrepreneur or small business awards from the Chamber of Commerce, city or any organization.
  • Pass city council resolutions supporting entrepreneurs.
  • Integrate entrepreneurship into local economic development plans.

2. Infrastructure: Build the systems for business. 

  • Create flexible business spaces, like shared retail spaces, pop ups, co-working, or commercial kitchens.
  • Work to improve your broadband and make wifi more readily accessible all over town. 
  • Share infrastructure with neighboring communities such as sharing economic data, or extending incubators across borders.
  • Work with your city or town to streamline local business processes.
  • Leverage local resources, including the school system, library, county extension, career tech, and community colleges. 
  • Promote local investing. 

3. Support: Entrepreneurs support each other better than anyone else.

  • Establish networks and organize interest groups.
  • Use technology: publish blogs about your place, participate in social networking and list making.
  • Hold business fairs featuring local businesses.
  • Hold business tours of existing businesses.
  • Listen to your entrepreneurs and small business owners.

Of course, that’s the newsletter-length summary of something that deserves three months of your time. 

YOUR Feedback
I also want to share what you told me, when you hit reply last week.

Deb Brown, Iowa: 
“Our town has promoted home-grown technologies, encouraged expansion and talked about ‘the small guys stay, the big guys don’t care.’ We share news about local technologies (Activities Guide, newsletter, blog) and even respond to Facebook posts.”  
Deb is also the one who lead the Tour of Empty Buildings. That was a year ago, and you should see the list of new businesses now in those buildings!

Are the ideas of Climate, Infrastructure and Support only good for startups? No! Vikki reminds us to look to our existing small business as well.
Vikki Dearing, Oklahoma:

“Business retention and expansion (BR&E) is important economic development work in any community. Since at least 80% of all new jobs come from existing businesses, keeping existing businesses strong and growing is key. And, as you note, growing your own is also critical. Communities need economic development or chamber folks who understand these issues and can help businesses access resources to help them grow. My 2 cents… :)”
Vikki’s input is always worth more than 2 cents! I think everything you do to improve your business Climate, Infrastructure and Support will benefit your existing businesses as well as new ones. Growing your own isn’t just about starting new businesses.

Lila Burgess, from Washington state, brainstormed a truckload of suggestions: 
“Hi Becky
I was beginning to get swayed into the ‘attract business’  way of thinking but you may have just got me back on track. Thanks for another great article, I am a big believer in entrepreneurship, however, I don’t see much effort being made by our city to go that direction. The focus seems to be on attracting outside businesses and tourism. [I’m a big fan of tourism, too, but we’ll talk about that more another day. –Becky] We have lots of goods and services not available in our small town and lots of people that need jobs, and to me, that spells ‘opportunity’. I don’t have any great ideas but I have do have some thoughts and would love to get a group in our town to start brainstorming. 

  • Communicate with our high school and see what they are doing to foster entrepreneurship, and what suggestions they might have on how our city or community can work with them.
  • Have entrepreneur meet-ups, this could be cocktail hour or coffee time and could involve a certain topic or just socializing and networking. It should be promoted in the local paper in a business section and also the students could be made aware of it (not for cocktail hour of course). Students could get extra credit for attending. Retired business owners, want to be business owners and current business owners would be encouraged to come, as well as investors. I realize in our small town this could be a very small group to start with.
  • Workshops for the community that teach, for example: how to find funding, how to sell online, how to use QuickBooks, customer service, visual merchandising, etc.
  • Have a business section in the local paper that features articles relating to business and entrepreneurship ( like the ones you write :) with  permission, of course ).
  • Survey what goods and services our community needs and make that known to the public so we can fill gaps that cause retail leakage.
  • Have incubator spaces available to qualifying businesses, perhaps first time business owners or businesses that fill a need in the community, in both industrial locations and Main St. type spaces.
  • Have a program that will help walk people through the process of starting a business, and connect them with someone from organizations such as SCORE or a Small Business Development Center.
  • Don’t just let them fail ….. if a business is up and running the city or chamber of commerce could have a program where someone is in touch with you, asking how things are going and offering mentorship if needed. Our community is rich with retirees, some of them still enjoy getting involved in business …. it is often an untapped resource.

That’s all I’ve got….. looking forward to hearing all the other suggestions … 
That may be all Lila’s got, but she’s definitely on the right track and moving forward.

What ideas do you have? Hit reply, tell me what you are doing to support local businesses and grow your own, and I’ll share it with everyone. 

Keep making your small town better,

PS –  I thought you might really like these two art projects that can help change the way locals and visitors view your town. Art can be more than pretty; it can change perspectives.