TEDxGrandJunction is this weekend (March 7) at the Avalon Theatre. Two years ago, MySalesButler’s Bryan Wachs took to the TEDx stage to talk about how rural areas have traditionally lagged behind in economic growth. But as he noted in his presentation, opportunities for diversifying the economy in rural communities abound. And with it come people who are willing to build and grow.
In this post, Wachs revisits his 2018 Ted Talk and delves into more of the specifics of how entrepreneurship can solve community problems. He also explains how western Colorado, as an example, is a mostly-rural region that is changing in subtle ways to think about economic diversity.
The Challenges of Rural Sustainability
Rural communities are lagging in economic growth. Cities such as Denver attract large groups of entrepreneurs and investors, creating vibrant ecosystems for economic diversity. But what of the rural areas? Resort towns such as Vail have become largely populated by wealthy second-home owners, while agricultural communities are seeing their workforce age into retirement.
But change is happening.
What is Rural Sustainability
What can be done to increase sustainability and entrepreneurship in such places, to ensure they – and the people that move there to start businesses – can thrive?
Bryan Wachs, a serial entrepreneur and CEO/Co-founder of MySalesButler, thinks a lot about this. He believes as new models for growth take hold in rural markets, people will arrive with a willingness to build on it and grow.
For Wachs, it starts with the belief that rural entrepreneurship becomes sustainable when a business environment is created to return profits to the community. Instead of having it stay within the hands of the few.
“When money is hoarded, it’s not spread out,” he explains. “By not spreading it out, other businesses can’t be as healthy. Then you have a decline in society because you’re literally taking cash out of the pool and putting it into a bucket.”
To be clear, Wachs isn’t suggesting a new model of collectivist profit. He advocates for a different paradigm of capitalism where the money stays within the community and circulates to its members.
“One of the problems with consolidation and mergers and acquisitions,” says Wachs. “is that the people who make the deals make all of the money instead of the people who actually do things and produce things.”
He also believes that business sustainability is tied to environmental sustainability. He cites plastics as an example. In his TED Talk, he mentions his opposition to plastic drinking straws, which came from his having participated in beach cleanups along the Atlantic coast and the Philippines.
“If you know that plastics are a problem, then stop producing them. Figure out as fast as you can to get out of that space and pivot to a new model. Go back to glass if it’s better for us all. Don’t keep producing it just because you need to make money because all you’re doing is polluting the environment for your kids and your grandkids.”
Wachs points out that there are different kinds of economic sustainability at the rural level. The ecosystem, as he refers to it, must include access to robust mentorship, capital, education, peer networking, reliable broadband, and marketing stack tools. If some of those things are missing, the ecosystem of rural entrepreneurship will not flourish.
According to Wachs, “There’s a lot of different pieces that have to fall into place.” That’s where organizations like Startup Colorado and CO.STARTERS come in. “They’re addressing those different stacks that we need to have.”
The Differences in Rural Markets: Not All Small Communities Are the Same
In Colorado, there is a lot of difference in rural communities. Although Wachs is based in Grand Junction, a city of about 60,000 people, he works with entrepreneurs and community leaders in towns of only a few thousand people. Some – like the ski town Telluride, are resort-based economies. Others, such as Rifle, have a fading agricultural past. Still others, such as Norwood or Nucla, were built on moribund industries such as uranium mining. Though unique, each is navigating the present and future in similar ways. But challenges such as the cost of living and housing still loom large, especially for the resort towns.
“They have a problem because they are second-homeowner economies,” Wachs says. “The second homeowner or retiree who moves there spends a lot more money than a tourist. There have been economic studies about that. They can afford the real estate prices and they push the locals out.”
The Airbnb market taking housing inventory away from potential entrepreneurs has a ripple effect, Wachs says, because “you’re not having companies that import money and export products growing in those environments.”
Other rural communities are still reeling from the decline of legacy industries such as mining. But Wachs notes that federal money exists to help with retraining. Fiber-optic networks have made reliable broadband accessible in places like Rifle and Norwood. That flattening of technology opens up new opportunities for entrepreneurs to network. Wachs has talked to community members about setting up Facebook entrepreneur groups in Nucla, a western Colorado town that had its economy hollowed out by the failure of the uranium industry.
“With easily accessible high-speed internet and federal retraining dollars,” says Wachs, “we now have the availability to bring ‘lifestyle’ people to these towns.”
Rural Communities for ‘Lifestyle People’
By ‘lifestyle’ people, Wachs means those who are looking to build a business and a lifestyle away from the big cities. Even if it means sacrificing the large base of network connections and other resources found in more populous metropolitan areas. He quotes entrepreneur and author Brian Watson: “When I’m online, I’ve got the whole world in front of me.”
He adds “There’s nothing like being in the same room with people and working. But if you have a company or a business or you do laptop work, you can go anywhere. So why not go where you want to be?”
Western Colorado: A Region in Transition
The rural West is full of communities that have had to diversify their economies. The old industries are no longer viable in many of them. Examples abound – uranium and coal mining in Nucla, Colorado and Moab, Utah. The fallout has been enormous for some. Workers that once made upper-middle-class incomes found themselves struggling to get by on near-minimum wage retail jobs when the mines closed. On Colorado’s Western Slope, Wachs pointed to Halliburton’s Grand Junction layoffs and candy manufacturer Russell Stover leaving Montrose. But in both cases, community leaders are actively working to diversify the economy and lessen the impact of such corporate moves.
“Between Colorado Mesa University and laptop workers, there’s a concerted effort to create an environment for that diversification,” explains Wachs.
And part of that diversification is relying on smaller companies, Wachs adds.
“The problem with big companies is that they make big moves,” he continues. “The advantage of small companies is that they make bold moves. If a small company goes out of business, it can be absorbed in the local economy easier than a large company. Large companies make moves and suddenly 5,000 people lose their jobs.”
Other towns are seeing innovative companies choose to call their rural communities home, realizing that they can run a successful business model from what, on the surface, might seem like an unlikely place.
One example is backpack manufacturer Osprey, which has chosen the remote Four Corners town of Cortez as its headquarters. Cortez, far removed from ski resorts and interstates, seems an unlikely place for the home of a popular maker of outdoor gear. But its high desert location, long popular with off-road cyclists, has an added attraction: it’s inexpensive, particularly for Colorado.
Another example is Alpacka Raft in Mancos, Colorado, about 18 miles east of Cortez. The town of less than 2,000 isn’t immediately near any major waterways. Mancos Creek is barely navigable even during the spring runoff. Yet they’ve deliberately chosen to incorporate in a rural community.
“There’s no reason for not having the company there as long as you can get a workforce,” says Wachs. Which isn’t to say that isn’t a challenge. “Companies like Alpacka and Osprey sometimes have to hire from outside the community and a prospective employee might visit and say ‘whoa, I can’t live here.’ That’s okay.”
For Wachs, the most important aspect of rural entrepreneurship is that you build products and services for communities of people. Vibrant communities of place naturally follow.
“You don’t build them for yourself, you build them for the people outside of where you are. And that’s why my purpose is ‘building community through commerce.’ You can’t have a community without commerce.”
Wachs sees a bright future for rural towns that are thinking this way. He sees western Colorado as a perfect example of a region that is thinking about the future. They’re doing things to welcome small business owners and prospective startups. Part of it is embedded in an almost frontier-like ‘can do’ attitude.
“What I’ve learned about being in western Colorado,” says Wachs, “is that almost everybody is entrepreneurial. It’s not about this sexy word ‘entrepreneur.’ It’s about getting stuff done.”