Healthy rural economies depend on small-town entrepreneurs, and both politicians and nonprofit organizations have programs to help grow rural businesses. Rural entrepreneurship appears to be on the rise. The U.S. Small Business Administration in November sponsored its first Rural Young Entrepreneur Summit — an event designed “to strengthen entrepreneurial culture in rural America.” In October, the Blackstone Charitable Foundation launched a $3 million initiative to encourage the development of innovative enterprise in rural communities in Maine.
Strategies for creating sustainable rural businesses differ from urban enterprise expansion efforts because market niches are smaller and consumers are more widely dispersed. Here are five ways to grow a rural business:
- Cultivate a barn-raising mind-set. Host local economic-development meetings and occasionally lend one of your employees to their efforts. Investments in infrastructure provide a crucial foundation for rural enterprise. Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2008 published case studies that show how one community collaboratively created rural transportation networks and how another used hog waste to produce electricity. These types of collaborations also support business owners in job creation and build relationships that can open doors to new business opportunities.
- Look for underserved markets. Offer products and services that meet the needs of minority groups in your community. A May 2010 report sponsored by the Ford Foundation noted “ethnic entrepreneurs are well integrated into certain areas of the community.” Business owners who cultivate rich community connections within these well-established networks can grow their customer bases in small towns and rural areas.
- Tap into social media. Engage your neighbors online. “A sound social-media strategy can improve the assets of your community, raise local awareness of your business, and create more revenue for your business over time,” Mark Crawford notes in Rural Telecom. Except for remote outposts, virtual collaborative communities are equally accessible to both rural and urban business owners — an example of one arena that offers rural entrepreneurs a similarly competitive position to their urban counterparts.
- Expand your reach. Grow your rural business through e-commerce. Janell Anderson-Ehrke, founder and CEO of GROW Nebraska, conceived the cooperative effort to help rural entrepreneurs become “a force to be reckoned with.” Since 1996, she has helped rural entrepreneurs connect with large corporate enterprises, such as Starbucks and Menards, to reach new markets. Check out The National e-Commerce Extension Initiative, which offers mini-grants to help rural entrepreneurs launch e-commerce strategies.
- Invest in your community. Employees of Denali State Bank in Fairbanks, Alaska, invest philanthropically in more than 100 local causes, achieving an average of one volunteer effort a day. In the October 2010 edition of Independent Banker, CEO Jyotsna Heckman credits the bank’s social capital investment for its success. She reported that the bank’s assets grew to $249 million by 2010, 14 years after it opened.
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