For the last part in our series where we examine how location impacts small business ownership, we turn to rural business owners. (Just joining us? Check out part one: "Small Business Ownership in Urban America: Where Passion Meets Resources" and part two: "Small Business Ownership in Suburban America: Where Quality of Life Is Key.")
Community is important for all businesses regardless of their location. But in small towns across the United States, business decisions can have a big ripple effect, which is why Brent Ridge, cofounder of Beekman 1802 (@Beekman1802Boys), says, "When we make a decision for growth, we always think first about how this decision can and should benefit others."
Let's look at how this reality leads to some distinct advantages and challenges for small businesses in rural America.
Rural Business Ownership Benefits: Unique Opportunities and Perspectives
For Andrew Thornton and his partner, opening a shop in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, is a dream come true.
"We dreamed of being our own bosses, setting down roots in our community, and hopefully giving back to the area we now call home," says Thornton, the creative director and co-owner of the fine art gallery and gift shop Allegory Gallery (@AllegoryGallery). "We thought this would happen one day far off into the future, but we ran into a person who had space available in their building and it just seemed like too good of an opportunity to pass up."
Some of that opportunity comes from their unique location. The famous Frank Lloyd Wright "Falling Waters" house is nearby, so many businesses in the area thrive off of tourism, says Thornton. As a result, he says he is part of a "very active and lively merchant community."
Like Thornton, Brent Ridge and his partner have found that their rural location in Sharon Springs, New York, enhances their business.
"We firmly believe that the reason we are the fastest growing lifestyle company in America is because we are located in an area that is representative of how most Americans live," says Ridge. "Companies that are centered in the city can have very limited viewpoint."
Rural Business Ownership Challenges: Small Consumer Bases and Talent Pools
Though small, tight-knit communities make rural business ownership attractive, their size can be a hurdle. For example, the limited number of potential customers is a concern for many rural entrepreneurs. Thornton, for one, worries about reaching a saturation point and not having enough customers to replace the ones that move on.
"Most successful stores like ours depend on critical mass to thrive," he says. "It's a numbers game."
Ridge notes the finite customer base can also make it difficult to keep the business community healthy.
"We realized early on that it does no good to have the same dollar circulating around the town," he says. "We need to bring in dollars from outside our community."
The smaller population can make it difficult to find the right talent and build a team.
"It can be challenging to find employees in a rural area who have had exposure to high-end retail and understand the high level of touch that is required when communicating to a customer about a premium-quality product," Ridge says.
A small population may also explain why Insureon's 2017 Small Business Outlook found rural business owners are less likely to have plans to add a new service.
As Thornton says, "To be successful in a rural area, you've got to think very frugally and only put money toward projects that can bring in a healthy return on investment."
Without a clear and sizeable need, few small-town business owners would be willing to risk adding to their offerings.
Creative Solutions for Rural Business Owners
Though rural business ownership has its challenges, creative problem solving goes a long way. For example, Ridge says that his community has created events that draw thousands from nearby cities to bring in the outside dollars they need.
"Our village is three and a half hours from New York City, four hours from Boston, and five hours from Philadelphia," he says. "A weekend trip is generally enough for most city dwellers to fulfill their bucolic fantasies, so we aim to provide the ultimate amount of charm to send them back home with a sigh of relief fueled by fresh air."
Both businesses have also addressed cash-flow problem by looking for other ways to make money – often by turning to the Internet. For example, Beekman 1802 has a physical location and an online store. Allegory Gallery offers classes and has developed online communities for creative challenges.
"Participants span the globe and allow us to continue to operate year-round without hemorrhaging too much money during our weaker months," says Thornton.
For more tips on developing a loyal following and keeping them engaged, check out "Social Media for Small Business: Do It Well in 2 Hours per Week."
About the Contributors
Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell are the founders of Beekman 1802. Beekman 1802 is an integrated media and product development company that helps its customers cultivate a better life every season of the year. You can find Beekman 1802 products at Target, Bloomingdales, Nordstrom, Bed Bath & Beyond, and at Beekman1802.com.
Andrew Thornton is a professional jewelry designer and fine artist. He was trained at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and his work can be seen in private collections around the world. He is also a regular contributor to jewelry-making books and magazines. Thornton is the creative director and co-owner of Allegory Gallery in Ligonier, PA.