Much like many of the people I speak with, I come from a “Business Broken” community. The major industries in my area sell less than 1% of their goods and services locally. This transpires because there is a stigma and lack of support of local goods, brands, merchants, and service providers. Ultimately the customer chooses where to spend their dollars. This environment was not created overnight. Nor, will it be fixed overnight.
One major focus of every business incubator and accelerator is to allow a community to once again take pride in creating, nurturing, growing, and dealing with local businesses that are formed using local talent.
Our area has thousands of college graduates that leave with advanced degrees, needed skills, and agile minds that never step foot back into our county. This is because there are no innovative job creators to provide high paying careers for skilled workers. For them to start a business and try to sell locally is a death sentence. The reasoning is, “Why would I open a business here if all my customers are located somewhere else?” Rightfully so, the short answer is, nobody would.
The innovative businesses and highly skilled workers have moved further from our area and so have the jobs. As the companies move away, the slanderous attacks on remaining businesses and their owners increase. A new business will open in the area, and the parking lot is full with customers for the first 3 weeks of business. Most customers are looking for the shiniest new penny, and then they quickly lose interest.
All of a sudden, the parking lot empties and a barrage of attacks and criticism begins. It can be found on the Internet on sites like Topix, whispers on the streets from a passerby, or in the local café during the conversations of the town’s people. It is almost as if the town is taking pride in the fact that a new business owner is going broke as they sit back and peddle rumors.
Bad news travels fast. It is a product of a broken system. This is not the customer’s fault. Ultimately they decide who makes a profit, and who does not. Hostile local business environments are created by decades of having the most talented individuals move away with their ideas and skills, then never return. This creates an intellectual drain on the community and economy. The end result is a customer base eager for new ideas, and customer oriented businesses, and innovative offerings.
As I created my businesses over the past several decades I have endured similar attacks. When I shined shoes, it was not seen as a 7 year old getting up at 6 am to earn extra money. It was quickly questioned whether I should be allowed on the steps of the courthouse. If there was another shoeshine company in town I would agree with this, there was not.
During the years I ran a local taxi service I was accused of being a tax cheat. The reason was I did not have a business license in each town I offered pickups and drop offs. This issue was then resolved in my favor. Next, I was slandered and called a illegal drug running service on internet chat rooms. All the while, the local bars were filled with customers drinking every night who would rather risk a $10,000 DUI than pay $3.00 for a cab fare.
The final straw in this instance was when ETHRA came to town. It was essentially a government funded taxi service that provided the exact same service I did. Their advantage was they did not have to charge customers a fee or make a profit. This was very unfair to have to compete against the government with their endless budget and propensity to operate at a loss for years with zero consequences.
I harbor no hard feelings about this business either. The customer always has the right to choose the services they use, where they spend their money, and ultimately what businesses succeed.
Next, I created a line of local websites that focused on our areas lakes as a backbone for regional tourism. I made money hand over fist. The success quickly turned our initial investment into a 10 times what we started the company with. It was not long before our local chamber of commerce duplicated our approach and adopted “Lakeside of the Smokies” as their slogan and approach to guiding tourism to the area.
Again, this does not bother me in the slightest bit. However, the duplication of efforts forced me to take a more national approach to our website. This was opposed to following the original business plan to have our websites only focus on local traffic.
My final example happened recently. I have worked for one company over the past decade while I dabbled in startups. It is one of our county’s truly outstanding examples of entrepreneurship. We create amazing homes using heavy timbers. Initially in the 1970’s we were a small group of craftsman making repairs on 200 year old homes. Now we build new homes with lifetime warranties and spectacular architecture. Our products are coveted and shipped around the world. Literally, we have people fly in from Japan, Russia, Italy, and all 50 states just to tour our facilities and buy our products.
Guess how much product we sell to our local area? Less than 1%. Even when a local municipality builds a heavy timber pavilion they will hire an out of town architect and buy the heavy timber products in a neighboring state. This can be very frustrating to watch the process in slow motion. Especially while we build the world’s finest heavy timber products right across town.
I had always wondered why this happened. I recently gave a tour of our plant to a client from Colorado. She was buying land only one mile from our facilities. One of the main reasons for moving to the area was because our headquarters are located in a close proximity. She had always wanted one of our homes.
As we toured our plant, my client told me that her real estate agent mentioned to her that we were way too expensive. She was now thinking she should look elsewhere to find a builder and home construction material supplier. This opened my eyes to the bias all our local businesses face in the eyes of the very people who are in charge of introducing our community to others.
In reality, our prices are very fair, competitive, and reasonable as proven by our 40 plus years of doing business in all 50 states and around the globe. However, a realtor from our very town had already done their best to push business away from a local employer, taxpayer, and business before the new resident had signed the closing papers on their land.
All these examples taught me real life business lessons. Each set back allowed me to get where I am today. Ultimately, I now have the platform of writing to help fix not only mine, but many other business broken communities.