When you move from a Northern California city with population of over 10,000 to an upstate New York town with population just over 300, you’re bound to be in for a few shocks and surprises.
When you move your new business from one of these places to the other, those shocks and surprises quickly sprout arms, legs, and heads of upsets, joys, and happy accidents, covered with a not too small amount of improvisation.
The Adirondack park is larger than Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon and the Great Smokies National Parks combined, yet Speculator, which sits in the south of the Park, has a population of approximately 324. Remember those posters of the Milky Way with an arrow to a tiny speck that proclaimed ‘You Are Here?’ Yeah. That’s where I moved my business.
While there’s been a good amount of feeling exposed and insignificant in the vast wilderness, and like a fish out of water, and like I’d give my right foot to lay eyes on a Target or a Starbucks, the past few months have taught me some valuable lessons about starting and growing a new business in a small town, things about community, gratitude, giving, and about becoming a part of something that’s larger than life.
1. Connections and community are everything
Small towns are, understandably, insular. I was aware of this, but nonetheless, on approximately my 5th day in town, when I went to a Chamber of Commerce meeting to introduce myself, I was shocked, and slightly hurt, when one or two people physically recoiled from my extended handshake. Fast forward 2 weeks, and these same people were giving me inside scoops on where I could offer my classes for my business, as well as offering up their household restroom for me to use if I ever found myself in need (public restrooms are few and far between in Speculator). Being an independent woman, I found it rather infuriating (and weird) to have to introduce myself in connection with my fiancé (who grew up in Speculator), especially when I was introducing myself on behalf of my business. But as soon as I dropped my fiancé’s name, the skeptical glaze on people’s faces would soften, a smile creep into the corners of their mouths (although, to be fair, whenever I mention my fiancé’s name that’s the typical reaction; he’s just that charming), and I was immediately welcomed and accepted. This transformation in people’s reactions was puzzling to me, but I’ve come to understand that while the community here is guarded, once they’re given the chance to get to know you, they’ll likely give you the shirt off their back, and send you on your way with 5 more, even if it means they’ll go without. I may have to work a little harder to make personal connections here, but in our age of instant gratification, I’ve found that pursuit of the personal relationship is more rewarding, both for me, and my business.
2. Be a presence
Everything is magnified in a small town. Because there are so few people, the people who are around become magnified, their personalities peeled back to reveal only the essentials. It’s a great exercise in finding what I (and my business) are really all about, and an invitation to be the kind of presence I’ve always wanted to be.
3. Do as much as you can to get involved
For today’s entrepreneurs, the mantra seems to be DO ALL THE THINGS. Which is exhausting. Small town life has the cure for this in a few ways: #1 the wifi isn’t all that great so even if you wanted to do all the online things, you can’t. And #2, small towns are places where picking up the local news or gossip is done at the grocery store. Making connections won’t happen through Skype or Snapchats here, but by volunteering at the yearly drug free teen event. I’ve found a good balance for my business by building personal relationships through getting involved locally, and then Tweeting about it. (Once I get to the reliable wifi that’s 50 miles away).
4. Gratitude is everything
I believe that gratitude is at the heart of every successful person and business. Living in a small town has reinforced that belief. Being taken out of my element(s) has made me more aware of what I have and what I lack, and that much more appreciative of it all.
5. You get feedback (even when you don’t want it)
In a small town, if you’re not clear about who you are and what your plans are, be prepared for people to make it up for you. When the wifi and the weather aren’t great, you can’t really blame people for letting their imaginations run wild. You’ll have to think on your feet, move on the fly, and get really good at improvising unless you want your simple plan of opening a bakery becoming a tall tale of a new ammo shop in town that sells bagels on the side and has a feral fox as a (live) mascot. My small town setting has challenged me to get super clear on my business, its offerings, and my goals, and as a result, become all the things (and more) that I always wanted it to be.
6. What you’re doing makes an impact
When you’re starting a new venture, there are many moments of ‘why am I doing this?’ and ‘does this even matter?’ Finding a positive answer to those doubts is infinitely easier in a small down. You see results easier and faster when you’re reaching 300 people as opposed to 30,000. There’s no thing too small to be felt in a small community, and realizing that even the smallest connections have wide reaching implications is powerful.
7. Small but mighty is ok
America’s business culture loves numbers and I’m as guilty of the next small business owner of getting caught up in quantifying reach and engagement and analytics and all the things. While there is strength in numbers, strength doesn’t diminish even when those numbers are small. Small can be mighty; it creates more community, more camaraderie, and more meaning.
These are the lessons I’ve learned just in the past 5 months! I can only imagine what the future holds, but one thing I know for sure is that you can’t judge a book by its cover, or a town by its size. I have a feeling my big little small town life and business are primed for great things.
Did you start your business in a small town or a big town? Have you recently moved your business? Let me know if any of this resonates with you!