When you think of small town business, you probably think about a downtown retail storefront. But businesses in small towns are testing out a wide variety of new business models, far beyond the traditional storefront.
Here are six innovative ways of building a business in a small town. As you read through these, take time to think about examples in your own town or region.
These are temporary business that may last from just one day to several months. You've seen short-term vendors setting up tents and booths around special events, and this extends the idea to all kinds of businesses. Entrepreneurs experiment and gauge demand in a small town before committing to a more permanent business. This can work for restaurants, retail stores, artists and even service businesses. It's a smart way to temporarily fill an empty building while growing a potential new business.
Example: Waynoka, Oklahoma, Chamber of Commerce hosted several pop-ups during a big local event
2. Trucks and trailers:
Food trucks are a hot trend in urban areas, and now all kinds of business from retail to service are going mobile. With a truck or trailer as a base, there's no need for a building, which is good because there is often a problem finding usable buildings in small towns. Mobile businesses can also build their market by taking advantage of neighboring small towns' special event crowds. Not enough demand for a men's clothing store in town? Use a trailer and hit three towns a week!
Example: Fashion trucks are an easier start than a full-scale clothing business.
Learn more: The West Coast Mobile Retail Association is dedicated to truck- and trailer-based businesses.
In a small town, there may not be enough demand for a single business to fill up an entire building, office or retail space. Rural innovators are now borrowing and sharing space with several different businesses under one roof. A restaurant may pop-up inside a retail space. A single retail store may include half a dozen different vendors or mini-shops inside.
Example: a temporary restaurant named EmpanadUS served Argentinean foods from inside a home decor store called Global Fusion in Homewood, Illinois.
Example: The Village in Washington, Iowa, shares a divided retail building among several tiny retail stores inside.
4. Tiny business villages:
Groups of tiny buildings or dressed-up sheds are popping up on empty lots and unused green spaces, filled with extra-small businesses. The smaller spaces encourage lower-risk experiments, and all the businesses together draw a critical mass of visitors to the village.
Example: Tionesta, Pennsylvania, turned an empty lot into a tiny business village using garden sheds. They've had a waiting list to rent them since they first took applications.
Example: Anchor Square in Pascagoula, Mississippi, features tiny houses as business spaces arranged around a common green space.
It's usually cheaper to live in a small town than an urban area. Now freelancers and specialist rural-sourcing companies use the small town cost of living as an advantage to compete for big-city contracts. Online marketplaces like Upwork let people work from anywhere and deliver services digitally.
Example: A 2011 Upwork study found digital freelancers in small towns were outperforming their big-city counterparts.
Instead of waiting for customers to walk in the front door, smart rural retailers are using the same omni-channel tactics as big retailers. The low cost of cloud-based tools allows them to reach local customers in multiple new ways. It's easier and more affordable than ever for small town business to use e-commerce to take orders online, mobile-friendly websites to connect with customers on the go, and subscription boxes to delight customers monthly.
Example: Missouri Star Quilt Company combines a robust online presence with a bricks-and-mortar destination business.
Did you think of some local examples? I'd love to hear about them.
Hit reply and tell me about them.
Keep shaping the future of your town,
PPS - If you noticed the new header image with Deb Brown and me, it's because Deb and I are working more closely on a number of upcoming projects. You'll be hearing a lot from both of us about how to make your town better and how to serve small towns. We're excited!