What It Takes to Run a Small Business in Rural America

Entrepreneurship is alive and well in the countryside, but it takes a special set of skills to thrive.
July 26, 2012

Rural areas and small towns have certain market conditions that can be challenging for a small-business owner. Customer volume may be lower. The price of their goods and services must be adjusted based upon lower costs of living. Their location may be more of hindrance, especially if their customers are forced to travel to them. Competition from big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Best Buy may affect them more.

According to Carolyn Elliott, president of Trees ‘n Bees, a Christmas tree and honey bee farm in Auburn, Wash. located halfway between Seattle and Tacoma, working in a small town brings a unique set of challenges that she has worked to overcome to become a destination for area families during the holiday season.

Embrace the Smallness

With the slogan, “Where Your Family’s Country Christmas Begins,” Elliott works to set her tree farm apart from the mass retailers selling pre-cut and artificial trees. She’s worked to make Tress ‘n Bees about the customer experience, hosting Mrs. Claus during the holiday season, opening a large Christmas store that draws shoppers and offering personal assistance for those looking for the perfect tree.

Besides word-of-mouth advertising, Elliott depends on business cards to help her market the cut-your-own experience. She estimates handing out nearly 5,000 cards a year to anyone who is willing to take one. She’s also found a unique target audience that is often missed by her competitors: military families.

Trees ‘n Bees is the only tree farm local to the military installations that offers year-round tree cutting so military families can celebrate the holidays when their loved one is home, regardless of deployment schedule.

Don’t Sacrifice Quality

Big-box retailers can provide quantity, often at a discounted price and convenient location. Small companies in small towns must show that the quality of their product coupled with the quality of service outweighs the perceived benefits offered by the competitors.

Be certain that your team understands the importance of customer service and go above and beyond to make your customers brand loyalists who seek you out for their needs instead of turning to the large corporations.

Localize Your Advertising

Elliott was able to find a niche demographic that was not being served by her competitors in the military families. Not only was she offering discounts, but she was advertising in military publications. She also sends out e-mail blasts with digital newsletters designed to help customers stay engaged throughout the year, not just during the holidays.

Additionally, rural-based businesses need to advertise where their target demographics will see their ads, even if that means hitting up the local library with flyers.

Maximize Your Work Ethic

Succeeding in a rural community takes dedication, drive and an unsurpassed work ethic. Growing up in an Amish community, Steve and Naomi Stoltzfus, owners of Caring Transitions in Bushkill, Penn., understand the value of hard work. With the same devotion, compassion and work ethic, the Stoltzfuses have transitioned their life experiences into their business venture, which provides assistance for seniors and their families as they cope with the transitions that come with aging.

Find the passion that led you to start your business and maximize it. Be prepared to work hard for your customers and don’t be afraid to put the extra effort into making your business work.

Find Your Niche

Thinking outside of the box to find a potential customer is an integral part of the marketing mix, especially when doing business in small towns. For instance, the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, who have become the country’s largest religious producers of altar breads, recognized an opportunity in the gluten-free market, as no other Vatican-approved, domestic company produces alter bread for those with wheat sensitivities.

Network, Network, Network

Joining local chambers of commerce or small-business associations allows you to further reach other business owners who may be able to offer unique perspectives on challenges you face.

Additionally, networking can provide you with opportunities to partner with businesses you may not have considered in the past. Sometimes it’s the most unexpected partnerships that can prove beneficial. Such as the Benedictine Sisters, who teamed up with the University of Arizona to provide on-the-job training for students. This business relationship helps build brand awareness, strengthens ties and offers needed training to students.

Expand Online

If you’re able to sell your wares via an online marketplace you can vastly expand your reach. And if you’re service oriented, you can establish yourself as a thought leader through regular blog posts to be shared on social networking sites. Be sure to register your business with Google Places to help optimize local searches so that your business ranks among top of the search engine result’s page.

Angela Stringfellow is a PR and MarComm Consultant and Social Media Strategist offering full-circle marketing solutions to businesses. Angela blogs via Contently.com.

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