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Small Town Rules: How Three Major Shifts Created a Small Town Environment for All Business

This chapter explains the concept behind and contents of the book Small Town Rules.
This chapter is from the book

The customers of every company now behave like they live in a small town. As a result, companies now need to play by a new set of rules: small town rules. These new rules apply to small businesses and big brands alike, no matter how big or how urban. Not surprisingly, few people know about these small town rules. However, it is possible to look at what has made small town entrepreneurs successful and apply those rules to every company. For the first time, this book connects the three major shifts that create a small town environment for all business and then teaches the small town rules that help people and companies thrive in this new environment.

Small town doesn’t just mean small business or small numbers. Many familiar big brands started in small towns, including Viking Range, L.L. Bean, Sonic Drive-Ins, Longaberger Baskets, Ditch Witch trenching equipment, and Grasshopper lawnmowers. Walmart may be the single most powerful brand to come from a small town and remake the world, affecting both small businesses and huge national brands.

To understand why the small town awareness is especially relevant today, it is important to go back a few years to get perspective on these three major shifts. Remember the economy before 2008? It felt like the stock market always went up, investments always increased in value, and the price of homes always went higher. Back then, there were commercials on TV telling people to mortgage their house, cash out some equity, jump on a hot stock, or join a country club. But, all that has changed.

Economic carnage rocked the financial stability of society with high unemployment rates, tight credit, lower consumer demand, and fewer available resources. At the same time, technology has continued to advance, allowing people to collaborate effectively and instantaneously over great distances and not be tied to a single geographic area. This compounds the effect on society, and shifts people’s attention and trust away from multinational corporations toward small and local companies.

Why Look to Small Towns Now?

As a result of these three shifts—society, technology, and the economy—all businesses now face circumstances that feel much like a small town. Small towns have been making parallel shifts over the last century. Innumerable small business people have tried everything they could to survive and thrive within the limits of small towns. The best ones have a reputation for knowing every customer personally and for catering to their customers. That’s the public part of successful small-town businesses, but there are many more strategies and tactics behind the scenes: managing multiple lines of income, thinking long term, maintaining frugality, creating community, and building local connections. All seven of these small town rules are included in the seven chapters in this book.

Because small towns are commonly seen as sleepy, slow-moving, and behind the times, few business experts have looked to small town entrepreneurs for lessons. That makes Becky and Barry the exceptions. Barry spoke often in small cities and towns, and he learned that savvy business people exist all over. Becky grew up in a family of small town entrepreneurs, and her work has brought her in contact with hundreds of others. She knows the secrets of small town entrepreneurs inside and out.

Looking closely at small town business and at big city business, this book describes three tectonic shifts: the economy, technology, and society. Each chapter explains one aspect of the change and explains why rural business has relevant insight into that change. The small town rule is explained and adapted to work with any business, and examples are pulled from both rural and urban businesses. The applications for big brands are highlighted, along with some special brand examples. Each chapter concludes with a discussion about whether the change is a permanent shift.

Chapters 1–3: The Change in the Economy

The economic shift was felt like a physical blow. There are big parallels in the national economic transition and the transitions in the rural economy over the last 100 years. Small towns have dealt with limited resources, tight lending, and scarce jobs for a long time. Chapter 1, “Surviving Difficult Economic Times for the Big and Small,” deals with surviving difficult economic times by planning for times when income or growth is zero. Rural regions have turned disasters into opportunities, or at least they have learned to prepare for them and take a long-term perspective. Chapter 2, “The New Normal: Profiting When Resources Are Limited,” shows that profiting when resources are limited requires spending brainpower before spending dollars. Those limited resources lead to more creative and resilient businesses. Chapter 3, “Adapting to the New Economic Realities of Self-Reliance,” teaches businesses and professionals how to adapt to the new economic realities of self-reliance by multiplying lines of income. Brands have to think about brand extension versus brand dilution.

Chapters 4–5: The Change in Technology

The transition in technology also pushes businesses toward small town rules. Chapter 4, “Adapting to the ‘Anywhere, Anywhen’ Business World,” explains geographic advantage and how it disappeared. Working remotely continues to gain ground, even in the largest corporations. The cost of the technology to work anywhere has dropped, until almost any business can use it. Chapter 5, “Forget Advertising: Learn Customer-Driven Communication,” deals with community, whether the local community around a small town business or the online community around a major national brand. Online reviews of anything from motels and books to doctors and churches mean that brands can’t ignore customer voices.

Chapters 6–7: The Change in Society

The local movement is pushing a transition in society, one that looks a lot like a small town. The renewed interest in healthy neighborhoods, in shopping local, and in small businesses brings every company back to a small town environment. In Chapter 6, “How Big Brands and Small Businesses Are Thinking and Acting Small,” small is beautiful. The public trusts small businesses more than large corporations. Economies of scale are called into question by stresses on global supply chains. Some businesses have found ways to successfully stay small while still growing big. Chapter 7, “Going Local, Even When You Are Big,” explains why local matters in a global environment. With the new emphasis on all things local, what does it mean to be local as a brand? Small towns are the starting place for shop local campaigns. Every business has a chance to reconnect with its story and where it came from.

With all three of these shifts, the climate for business has been permanently changed. Just like you can never go home again, business can never go back to the way things used to be. Now, every business has to play by small town rules if it wants to thrive and prosper. And this is the only place to learn the rules.

Appendixes: Resource List and Business Ideas Inspired by Small Town Rules

Reading is easy; implementation is not. To help businesses implement the Small Town Rules, Appendix A, “Resources for Implementing the Small Town Rules,” includes resources for going more in-depth on each rule. Some resources are specifically for big brands, others for small business. All the resources relate directly to the three major shifts and the seven rules.

Appendix B, “Business Ideas Inspired by the Small Town Rules,” includes business ideas that were inspired by the small town rules. The ideas can be used by existing businesses for improvement, innovation, expansion or to change the game.

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