March 29th is National Mom and Pop Business Owners Day, and SCORE mentor Jim Metcalf wrote this blog in honor of the thousands of mom and pop businesses in small towns across the country.
Small towns have undergone dramatic changes, from being the central meeting place for area farms and villages to becoming isolated bedroom neighborhoods of larger cities. This change created difficulties for town governments as well as citizens. As businesses closed or moved, Main Street became a collection of empty storefronts. Since businesses were leaving, the remaining residents started shopping elsewhere: strip malls and box stores outside town or online.
What can a small town do to turn around its economy and increase citizen satisfaction? The solution lies within the small town but is often overlooked. Every small town can identify more than a hundred small, individual, agricultural and home-based businesses that form an economic foundation of the community. Every one of these small businesses has the capability of growing and employing others. Collectively, they can build the economic and social revival of the town. However, that revival will not happen without concentrated support.
Small business development efforts have found that one of the most successful support structures for business growth have been business incubators.
Small businesses have higher possibilities of survival, success and growth when incubator support is utilized.
Incubator elements usually include:
- Availability of affordable physical space to allow businesses to become established.
- Access to capital and financial assistance through planning and loan programs to reduce failures due to cash flow problems.
- Mentoring from SCORE and other small business support systems to help apply the experience of success in business growth planning and marketing assistance.
- Incubator networking with other small business entrepreneurs to reinforce success strategies.
How then could a small town provide an incubator structure?
- The community has to develop a vision of success along with a project team of entrepreneurs and leaders to keep progress focused on achievement of the vision. Importantly, a traditional committee is not needed. Instead, a community incubator needs a project team following a timeline with specific deliverable goals.
- The strategy to achieve success must be accepted by all elements of influence. Town boards often focus on positions of protection and regulation. Small and home-based businesses have often received “you cannot do that” responses from boards of health, zoning, planning and others. To achieve success, boards need to respond with, “given our laws and regulations, how can we help your business succeed?” This climate of success changes the focus to achievement of the vision.
- The elements of incubator support must be identified and made available to businesses and potential businesses.
Some of the more successful elements used in other small towns include:
Successful business leaders in the community, SCORE and other organizations who focus on achievement are the best people to help small and new businesses plan, grow and succeed.
Often home-based and small businesses are limited in their work and sales space because commercial space may be too expensive or unavailable. Space availability programs can be an effective tool for growth.
The inclusion of commercial space landlords in the incubator process can help to develop opportunities like:
Open building tours – Schedule an event date to promote the community vision at a luncheon along with a tour of available space. Assign experienced people to each space to explain the possibilities along with any available rental support programs. Some towns even charge an event fee to cover lunch and promotional costs.
Multiple users of one commercial space – Often a small business cannot fill a commercial space during early growth. In those cases, two to six small businesses can share the same space through open or compartmental configurations. This can be very effective with retail businesses by promoting the image of a full service shopping mall.
Businesses under wing – If existing businesses contribute space even as small as a card table, home-based businesses can establish a presence and benefit from the mentoring of the host business.
Popup Spaces – If some businesses are seasonable or event-driven, temporary commercial space for single or multiple businesses can be made available. This can consist of empty store fronts, farm market type tents or other temporary structures in empty lots.
Mobile businesses – Many small towns cannot support some standalone businesses like clothing, shoe stores or specialty shops. Since almost any business can be placed in a truck or trailer, small neighboring towns could support a mobile business which spends a day or two in each of multiple towns. Mobile businesses like food or farm markets are welcomed at senior housing and residential areas with limited transportation.
Maker space – Small craft, art and food businesses need room to make their products. In the case of food production, kitchens must be equipped with proper equipment and be compliant with health regulations. Industrial kitchens are expensive and often unavailable. However, one community incubator solution is to make church or organization kitchens compliant with health regulations and available for rent to food businesses when not being used for organization functions. The same idea could function with makers and available hall spaces.
Funds availability and financial management are critical for small business success. The community incubator can identify SBA lenders and other capital sources. The provision of financial education, accounting resources and tax management can assist small businesses in managing finances.
One of the most successful activities of a community incubator is linking customers to the small businesses. Coordinated activities, such as social events and festivals, are pleasant activities for residents as well as sources of customers for businesses. Most towns have historic sites and famous residents which can form a foundation for tourism destination activities. Small town marketing is really business collaboration and total community involvement in social, educational and business growth.
Today’s businesses utilize developing technology to stay in the marketplace. Small businesses can use these applications to coordinate markets, create easy links to customers and provide instant local customer-focused deliveries. Through technology and personal service, small town businesses can outperform box stores and online markets.
A small-town incubator is a coordinated community growth activity, which touches every resident and business. The cement that ties it all together is education on an individual and formal basis. Sponsored education like “How to Start a Business” to “How to Grow a Business” can keep the incubator full of startups. Youth programs for the Lemonade stand-age children are always successful in building the entrepreneurial spirit and personal achievement.
Conclusions and visions
Small towns can help support and grow the many agricultural, small and home-based businesses within their communities. The new Main Street growth and success will come from coordinated incubator activities and structure. The net result will transform small towns into growing vibrant living, social, economic and working spaces.