Small Town Entrepreneurship: 7 Tips to Get Started

By Cathy Goodwin, Ph.D.

Q. We just moved to a very small town (less than ten thousand people) and I want to start an coffee shop business and also offer PC repair. How can I investigate and then promote this business?

A. In a big city, you’ll make decisions by numbers and neighborhoods. In a small town, you schmooze!

Small town, Big business
Small town, Big business

On the surface, everyone will be friendly, optimistic and positive. Your challenge: Get below the surface and learn how business really gets done. You might consider asking a lot of questions before you disclose your own intentions. When residents say, “I wish we had a certain service,” pay attention.

1. Talk to others who have opened businesses recently in this town. What challenges have they faced? What works and what doesn’t? Were others newcomers successful? If so, were they truly new or did they have deep roots in the town, such as a brother who lived here forty years? If nobody’s opened a business for awhile, dig deeper. Maybe there’s no market. Or maybe they’re just waiting for you to arrive! Sometimes a new business can generate latent demand. It’s a judgment call.

2. Make a great first impression. Promotion isn’t hard in a small town. Ten minutes after you’ve opened, everyone will know! Within 24 hours, everyone will know what you’re serving. Let one person get food poisoning from your restaurant (or think he did) and you’ll see customers staying away.

3. When you buy a business, you buy the previous owner’s reputation. When the local residents seem eager for a change of management, you’ll need a new name and image. But if a business has just closed and no replacement has come forward, you’ve got a truly unique opportunity. You’ll enjoy the goodwill created by the previous owner. When I lived in Silver City, New Mexico, a pet sitter moved away. We missed her! And a locksmith shop was up for sale: the perfect opportunity for the right person. But small towns change fast. Before I moved to New Mexico, residents told me, at least three coffee shops failed. By the time I left New Mexico, the town supported half a dozen espresso-dispensing outlets, along with a wine bar and a microbrewery. All seemed to be thriving.

4. Search the fine print of local regulations. Business people will share horror stories. One told me, “The clerk couldn’t find my business category listed so she said it was illegal.” Another discovered her license hadn’t been approved because the City Council President forgot to add an agenda item and refused to consider last-minute changes.

5. Prepare to do most of the work yourself. In a small town, you can have trouble finding help. A big city has services for everything from floor refinishing to specialized bookkeeping. Small towns have ar fewer services. The good ones will be booked far in advance — and not a lot cheaper than their big city counterparts.

6. Know your community. Will your market come from second and third generation local residents? Or are you serving those who relocated recently from urban areas? When I lived in Silver City, I met several people who were horrified that we would pay two or three dollars for a cup of coffee — even cappuccino! But those who bonded with Starbucks before moving to the small town were unfazed.

7. Build relationships. Businesses that gain support of a respected town leader will attract a following. Conversely, if you inadvertently alienate a key player, you can be blocked. And in a small town, you’ll be expected to be a super-citizen. Choose alliances and sponsorships carefully. Prepare for all sorts of friendly requests to donate time, materials and money.

Cathy Goodwin, Ph.D., is an author, speaker and career/business consultant. “Transform career breakdowns to career breakthroughs.” “Why most career change fails (and how you can write your own success story)” Contact: 206-819-0989

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