Becky McCray runs two family businesses, a retail liquor store and a cattle ranch, in her small hometown of Alva, OK (population: 5,288). She is arguably better known online, where she hosts the popular blog Small Biz Survival and connects with other business owners via social media sites.
In this interview McCray talks about the challenges inherent to starting or running a business in a small town or rural area, and what she’s learned to overcome them. She also addresses the role of technology in this endeavor.
There has been a longstanding trend of good talent and people in general moving from rural areas to urban areas. More recently, the housing slump and economic downturn have forced people to cut discretionary spending. What can businesses in small towns and rural areas do about this?
One of the things a small town business can do with folks moving away and the general problem of losing talented employees is to be involved with the local educational system. If you’re looking for wonderful talent, the best way to do it is to try to retain people before they leave the area. Let those people know what opportunities you provide in the job market before they get the idea that they need to leave to find those opportunities.
In terms of trying to deal with the housing slump and other problems with the economy, even though our trends may be off cycle from what the national economy is doing, a lot of the same ideas apply: watching expenses and making sure you have a cash cushion. Cash cushions are extremely important for small-town businesses because we have less access to credit. There are just fewer lending institutions out here and if your entire area is going through a tight period with something that’s pulling your local economy down, it’s going to be that much harder to arrange for an emergency line of credit with your local bank.
You’re very active in social media, including LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter in addition to several blogs. What case would you make to convince businesses in small towns and rural areas to get on the bandwagon when it comes to using these resources?
There’s a lot more to social media than just trying to recruit business and to have a measurable return on investment in terms of what it does for your bottom line. There’s a larger, unmeasured element, which is your own development as a business owner. If you’re in a small town, the opportunities you have to network with your peers, to meet and exchange ideas and gather different perspectives, are limited by the number of businesses in your area – or the number of times you can get away from your business and get face to face with people.
If you’re in a small town, social media gives you a tool to do that without ever having to leave your business. So while maybe there’s not a client you can point to or an amount of revenue you can say was generated, how many wonderful ideas do you dream up because of exposure to different ways of thinking in different industries – things you couldn’t have done just from your small town?
You just released an e-book called “20 Small Business Ideas for Small Towns.” In it you say, under a strategy called “Be uniquely local,” that “Part of surviving in a small town small business is competing with the world. This is one trend that gives you an advantage. Use it!” Beyond communication technology, how can businesses do this?
Part of being uniquely local is being connected with what’s going on in your area, such as trends toward local foods and products. In the booklet I talk about local clothing, jewelry items, photography and other hyper-local things that, in a big city, come down to a small neighborhood, but which in a small town, are your town.
These are things you can promote. While a big, name brand clothing line is going to sell a certain amount, if you have a tie-in to your local area, it’s going to sell better to your local people, and to people that are visiting and want a souvenir of their visit.
Being local is a lot more than tapping into the technology. It has to do with knowing what’s unique about your local area and being consistent with that. If you’re from a cowboy area, be cowboy. If you’re from a seacoast area, play that up. But don’t try to be something that you’re not.
What three pieces of advice would you offer someone who wants to start or relocate a business to a small town or rural area?
Number one, know the town where you’re going, or base your business in a town you already know well. The second thing is to check with the state agencies, the local economic development authority and even the utility cooperatives because many of them offer incentives to small businesses starting up or relocating in those areas, such as lowered utility bills or a reduced tax base.
The third piece of advice is to be aware of local labor force issues. Probably nothing sinks more small businesses in small towns than labor issues. In the larger areas we point to financial issues, but in smaller areas these problems can frequently be traced back to problems finding, recruiting and retaining a base of quality employees.