7 Tips for Starting a New Business in a Small Town

by : Cathy Goodwin, Ph.D.

Q. I am transitioning to a new career after sixteen years to spend more time with my family. We moved to a very small town (less than ten thousand people) and I want to start an coffee shop business and also offer PC repair. How can Iinvestigate and then promote this business?

A. In a big city, you'll make decisions by numbers and neighborhoods. In a small town, you schmooze!

On the surface, everyone will be friendly, optimistic and positive.

Your challenge: Get below the surface and learn the true story. You might consider asking a lot of questions before you disclose your own intentions. Listen for, "I wish we had"

1. Talk to others who have opened businesses recently.

What challenges have they faced? What works and what doesn't? Were others newcomers successful? If so, were they truly new or did they have deep roots in the town, such as a brother who lived here forty years?

If nobody's opened a business for awhile, dig deeper. Maybe there's no market. Or maybe they're just waiting for you to arrive! Sometimes a new business can generate latent demand. It's a judgment call.

2. Make a great first impression.

Promotion isn't hard in a small town. Ten minutes after you've opened, everyone will know! Some towns resist doing business with uppity newcomers. Others welcome new blood. Regardless, your first impression will linger a long, long time. And you'll have trouble recovering from a local opinion leader with a bad experience.

3. Uncover the town's market and memory.

Considering buying a business? Take time to discover the owner's reputation. When the local residents seem eager for a change of management, you'll need a new name and image. But if someone's just moved away and everyone misses them, you've got a wonderful opportunity. Right now in Silver City we could use a few first-rate pet-sitters and dog groomers.

But be sensitive to change. Before I moved here, I'm told, at least three coffee shops failed. Now we have several, along with a wine bar and a microbrewery. All seem to be thriving.

4. Search the fine print of local regulations.

Here in Silver City, our newest businesses had to fight all kinds of red tape to get opened. One called City Hall to get help with a business that was new to the area. "It's not listed here," said the clerk, "so it's probably illegal." (The business has opened and thrives.) Another discovered his license hadn't come through because the Council forgot to add it to the agendaand they weren't interested in making last-minute changes.

Any time you serve food or drink, you know you're facing permits. Find out what's involved locally.

5. Prepare to do most of the work yourself.

In a small town, you can have trouble finding good help. The local work ethic may surprise you - in either direction.

6. Know your community.

Will your market come from second and third generation local residents? Or are you serving those who relocated recently from urban areas? Here I've met folks who think three dollars is way too much to pay for espresso drinks. But those who bonded with Starbucks will buy at least one cup a day, every day.

7. Build relationships.

If you can attract a town leader, you'll draw a following. Conversely, if you inadvertently alienate a key player, or if a local person's got an idea on the drawing board, you'll be miserable.

And in a small town, you'll be expected to be a super-citizen. Choose alliances and sponsorships carefully. Prepare for all sorts of friendly requests to donate time, materials and money.