Living in rural America comes with challenges and benefits. Many see rural areas as offering a more relaxed pace of life, or as the center of the country’s agricultural economy. But rural America can also be a place for entrepreneurial pioneers to test out ideas, and it can provide fertile ground for fast-growing startups.
Our team at BCom Solutions has learned first-hand about the ups and downs of startups in the most rural of environments, as we’ve built our tech company in rural Nebraska. We’ve assisted with the digital marketing strategy for down-ballot political campaigns in Wyoming and Nebraska and worked with clients in far-flung places — from Alaska to the Baltics in Europe.
Some of our insights were obvious to our mostly rural-born team members, while others caught us totally off guard. But it wasn’t until I moved to the East Coast for four years that I truly realized how important our company’s rural roots were to potential customers, friends, and even acquaintances on airplanes. Again and again, people were astounded to hear that a successful venture could intentionally focus on rural America.
Through our community impact center, the Rural Impact Hub, we’ve built a model for community engagement and development that relies heavily on our findings in rural communities.
Change happens from within
Rural communities themselves are self-sustaining ecosystems that must pivot with the times to better serve their members.
Sure, it’s great to receive outside counsel and motivation. But when the time comes to act, everyone in the local community must invest their own energy to get results.
The good news is that rural entrepreneurs are inherently self-starters and hard workers. An entrepreneur myself, I don’t want to be shown how something is done — I want to take action myself.
Rural communities that fail to recognize this self-starting mentality will struggle to remain relevant in the future, but those that embrace the entrepreneurial spirit can expect great things down the road.
When we established the Rural Impact Hub model, we kept this philosophy in mind. Rather than planting our team in every community — which is costly in terms of time and resources — we’ve built a baseline programming model that can be adapted by any rural community wanting to foster a more entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Government solutions are not comprehensive
President Trump’s administration recently launched a Rural Prosperity initiative led by Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. The report urges calls to action on infrastructure, access to broadband, and provisions for 21st-century jobs for the rural workforce.
Our Rural Impact Hub model builds on the idea of partnership with local, state, and national governments, but discourages dependency on local or federal government. I recently encountered a community health initiative that was shutting down because it had become too dependent on local and federal funding. The organization, which had received a sizable grant from the government for four years, had failed to identify ways to remain active without government funding. What used to be a thriving rural health initiative is now another vacant office space in the rural Southeastern United States.
Government solutions should always be explored when starting a new venture. Remember, though, that many “startup” or “economic development” programs are created by individuals who have not spent the majority of their lives in rural communities. As such, many rural businesses are penalized because of their geographic location.
Even if funding is secured, keeping your eggs in one basket comes with a sizable risk. Whether we’re talking about a customer account or a grant from the government, urban and rural ventures alike should always have a backup plan. That’s entrepreneurship.
Don’t look at the urban-rural divide as unbridgeable
For the past several years, I have heard the “rural-urban divide” spoken about with concern, and many worry that technology is straining that divide.
I believe this divide can be bridged through a series of small steps that make entrepreneurship more accessible in rural communities.
At the Rural Impact Hub, we’ve embraced this idea by building models of engagement for outsiders who are interested in supporting rural communities. Our events draw people in from the surrounding area, and our monthly events are streamed online so that people in any location can participate in the movement we’re building.
At BCom Solutions, we maintain an office in Lincoln (urban) and one in Auburn, Nebraska (rural), as well as employing remote employees in rural communities.
While this model isn’t always as convenient (or at times economical) as maintaining a single office, it is designed to expose our team members and customers to the important culture at BCom — one that straddles urban and rural lines.
In my recent travels throughout the Midwest, I stumbled upon many rural businesses that had global presences. In one instance, a local farmer had figured out a better widget design for a piece of machinery. The farmer began by selling that product to other neighboring farmers. Over time, the operation turned into a very successful venture serving people all over the world.
Entrepreneurship is universal. While many are amazed to hear the “unique” stories of rural tech companies, I’m convinced that the issues we face are not all that different from the issues affecting entrepreneurial communities across the country and, indeed, the globe.