Updated: Apr 12
When I started my first business in 2010 in my small hometown, I had NO idea what I was doing. Over the next ten years, I grew that business a single provider (me) massage therapy practice to a spa and retail store with eight employees and a long list of vendors and makers. While I ultimately closed 5 Store + Spa at the start of the COVID 19 pandemic, I learned so much about how to successfully start, scale, and market a business in a rural area.
I gathered most of that wisdom through trial and error, and a whole lot of mistakes, but luckily you can just read the guide below.
Commit to regular hours.
Consistency is key. Being open one weekend a month and following through is better than advertising open hours Tuesday-Friday, 9-5 but closing randomly due to outside circumstances. Start with limited hours if needed and grow your availability as time, staffing, and demand allows.
Events bring people together, allow you to meet and mingle with your target customers, and create a sense of belonging within your business space. Think beyond Grand Openings and Holiday Open Houses.
The Willow Tree Garden Center in Emmetsburg hosts porch pot make and take events, giving their customers a unique experience using items that the store already has on hand. Rendered Unique in Decorah regularly hosts shopping events that feature guest makers, live music, and locally curated drinks. Heart and Home in Laurens, Iowa is known for “how to” classes, including bow tying, floral arrangements, and charcuterie. Don't limit yourself, Impact Coffee in Decorah hosts drag shows, and Free Spirit Nest in Emmetsburg regularly welcomes evidential medium Kim Weaver for group readings.
Don’t wait for someone else to promote your business or community.
It may fall under someone else’s job description, but the bottom line is that no one cares about your small business and its success more than you do. Your business is much more likely to grow and succeed long term if your rural community also grows and succeeds. Be the champion your community needs.
Have an online presence.
In the post COVID era, this is non-negotiable. No worries if you don’t have the time or budget to create your own website and online sales system. Outlets such as Etsy and Spoonflower are great options for handmade goods. Shop Iowa offers a selling platform for Iowa stores and makers. Even Amazon, once considered the big bad wolf in the rural story, offers a selling platform for small businesses. My friend, Dan Bellrichard, uses Amazon to distribute family farm owned Sogo Snacks from Decorah, Iowa all around the world.
If you are in the service industry, online scheduling makes filling open appointments easy for you and convenient for your customers. And the same goes for online ordering in food service.
Tell your story.
Research shows that consumers who feel more connected to a brand spend more per purchase and are more likely to become repeat customers. One of the most effective ways to create this connection is through storytelling. Customers want to know more about you than what you are selling.
It doesn’t have to be complicated. Tell your audience who you are, what you do (and how it benefits them), and most importantly WHY you do it. And if you want to learn more about marketing your business through storytelling, join the waitlist for my upcoming course: Marketing Basics for Small Business Owners.
I started my first retail line for one simple reason: I was sick of seeing Lake Okoboji t-shirts in Emmetsburg. We have our own lake! I worked with my neighbor Judy, owner of Company Goods to create a line of Five Island Lake tees and hoodies and they were an instant hit. As the retail space grew, I reached out to other local makers and artists and began carrying their work. This allowed me to expand our retail selection with a huge investment in inventory, and more importantly provided one of a kind shopping options that our customers felt a connection to.
Local. in Denver Iowa, takes this a step further, acting as a small business incubator for Denver based brands and makers. And thankfully Blossoming Creations in Emmetsburg creates fully customizable goods related to all things local, including my favorite lake.
Collaborate with other businesses.
Some businesses are just better together. Floral shops and candy stores. Coffee shops and bakeries. Breweries and pizzerias. Collaborating with complimentary businesses is a win for everyone. This can be a one time event, a Valentine’s Day promotion for example, or an ongoing partnership throughout the year. It can even work with “competing” businesses. The Iowa Antique Network maps out regional road trips leading customers to stores along the route. The overall mission of supporting local small businesses outweighs any competition between stores with similar offerings.
Competition makes us better. I’ve been lucky over the years to have great relationships with other massage therapists in our community. When my friend Mandy Long opened her massage therapy practice (Relaxation and Rejuvenation), my first thought was congratulatory. And my second thought was, “I better get to work!” Mandy’s space was brand new and she was a talented massage therapist. Her opening inspired me to update our space to feel clean and fresh, and increase marketing to stay relevant.
My wise friend Kyle once said, “It’s not the community’s job to support us just because we are here. It is our job to create a product or service that makes them want to buy from us.” If you’re not selling, be honest with yourself, is your offering the best that it can be? Review the list above, take inventory of your strengths and challenges, ask your customers for feedback and make necessary changes.
My name is Kelly and I'm a speaker, coach, and serial entrepreneur with a passion for small business. My goal is to help you create the resources, support, and mindset to bring your small business dreams to life!