Optimistic mall-town Main Street entrepreneurs from the Pacific to the Atlantic pour their heart and energy into starting and running companies to pursue personal passions rather than to achieve financial return, a team of consultants was surprised to learn this summer.
It was an unanticipated finding, differing – a lot – from familiar media portrayals of entrepreneurship that depict difficult-to-understand ideas, endless rounds of fundraising, “Shark Tank” deal-making, breakneck growth, and hopes of cashing out and moving on.
That stereotype exists, but it is not the reality on most of America’s Main Streets, including the Kentucky towns visited during a unique research project.
“Not one of the more than 100 entrepreneurs we talked to said their primary reason for getting into business was to make money,” said Shawn Sadowski, cofounder and CEO of Salt Lake City-based My New Enterprise (mynewenterprise.com). “Very few ever borrowed money. They figured out ways to start with other resources and very little money. It was simply a matter of doing what they knew how to do and what the community needed. It was much more organic and less about looking to investors. There was real purpose behind what they were doing.”
Sadowsky and two colleagues bicycled across America this summer. Their 54-day My New Enterprise tour began June 2 at the Pacific Coast in Florence, Ore., and rolled 4,005 miles to the Atlantic beach at Yorktown, Va. The three-man team’s mission was to visit 100 American small towns and survey 100 small-business operators to create a realistic portrait of U.S. entrepreneurship in 2014.
The tour spent part or all of July 12 to July 19 traversing Kentucky, entering across the Ohio River near the Illinois-Indiana line and departing from Pike County just east of Elkhorn City.
Four of the 100 entrepreneurs they interviewed and videotaped were: Mike Wheeler of Wheeler Antiques in Marion; Patrick Hayden of Kentucky Gun Co. in Bardstown; Mary DeLima of DeLima Stables in Harrodsburg; and Andy and Rene Riley of Goose Hill Downs Bed and Breakfast in Berea.
Joining Sadowski were Mike Glauser, fellow co-founder and chairman of My New Enterprise, and Jay Glauser, the chief creative officer. A Kickstarter campaign raised $28,435 to pay for their cross-country bicycle exploration of the small-business landscape.
Dream come true for research team
“We’re all avid cyclists, and we love to ride,” Sadowski said. “The thought of riding our bikes across the country was a dream.
Riding a bike by default lends itself to careful observation and immersion into the surrounding culture, so the team of entrepreneurship specialists learned a lot about the state of business in the United States.
A support and video crew accompanied them in a motorized vehicle to film and document the stories, which will be made into a book titled “Living the Dream on Main Street America.” The mynewenterprise.com website includes videos of the dialogue with many of the entrepreneurs.
“But the reason we did (the business assessment) biking as opposed to driving was it did really allow us to slow down and observe the landscape,” he said. “It was absolutely beautiful, but the ability to roll into a city and not be in a hurry to leave and take our time and learn about the culture of the area and learn about what small businesses are doing gave us liberty and freedom to slow down and enjoy the landscape of the towns.”
They pedaled into small towns with their crew, eager to hear from local entrepreneurs. And what their 100 subjects revealed about their businesses often was outside the typical issues presented in the news media or reflected in popular culture. There was a sense of optimism usually absent in the news cycle.
The team heard lots about private action and little of public programs, said Mike Glauser, who is also executive director of the Jeffrey D. Clark Center for Entrepreneurship at Utah State University’s Jon M. Huntsman School of Business in Logan, Utah.
“All the entrepreneurs we interviewed all across the country felt they got excellent support from community members and customers,” Glauser said. “Not much was said about the support of governments or organizations like the chamber. Mostly, the entrepreneurs were very passionate and ambitious and did whatever they had to do to make their businesses work, in a location they wanted to live. They were definitely the ones that made it happen.”
Berea couple ‘retire’ into their interests
The trio found a typical example when they spoke to Andy and Rene Riley, owners of Goose Hill Downs Bed & Breakfast Farm in Berea. The Rileys created a unique bed and breakfast experience on their own property by simply showcasing what they are passionate about.
“I was just really, really impressed with that couple and what they had done on that property,” Sadowski said. “They had basically turned their home into a B&B, as a way to settle down and retire and leave their 9-to-5 jobs.”
Enthusiasts themselves, the Rileys run a motorcycle friendly B&B. It incorporates other passions of theirs such as history, farming, taxidermy and conservation. Goose Hill Downs operates its own biodiesel processor and offers guests demonstrations. Translating their own interests into a first-class experience for customers is a business model the cyclists saw elsewhere across the country.
She and her husband kept their full-time jobs, Rene Riley said, so they would not have to take out bank loans while building their business. Soon, though, they will “retire” into running Goose Hill Downs full time. Nothing excites her more than hosting people and showing them first-class hospitality, Riley said.
“Last Friday we had a group of 17 counties’ extension offices here,” she told The Lane Report during an interview later in the summer. “We did breakfast, lunch and snack, and I worked my behind off because hospitality is what it’s all about in this type of service. That’s my passion. That’s what I love to do. If I just made $10, I would still rather do that.”
Local services whose mission is to support small business were extremely helpful when the Rileys were launching Goose Hills Downs, she told the My New Enterprise team. The Rileys utilized free services in Richmond and Lexington that specifically help new entrepreneurs launch their companies.
“If we had to pay for those services, like hiring lawyers to set up our LLC and learning how to build our website and use social media, we probably would have struggled a little bit,” Rene Riley said.
Lines blur between work and lifestyle
“I was really struck by the ingenuity of people, and people’s ability to take the freedom they have as Americans and look at their lives and say, ‘I can do something unique and interesting, and I can do something that no one else has done’,” Sadowski said.
“In big cities, people view entrepreneurship as a ‘great idea,’ and then finding an investor and then finding a bunch of customers,” he said. “We’ve never really believed that to be true, and we’ve validated that it’s not true. People in communities all over the country are asking what they can do to make a living. It’s much more organic and intuitive.”
In many small towns, jobs are scarce, so entrepreneurs are not aiming to build multimillion-dollar businesses. They are simply surviving and utilizing their own passions, skills and interests.
The bike tour passed through Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky and Virginia. In all of those states there was a “very blurred line between work and lifestyle,” Sadowski said. “People managed to grow businesses interweaved with their lifestyle and their friends and families were involved.”
DeLima Stables in Harrodsburg, another Kentucky business featured in the My New Enterprise tour, was cited as another great example of ingenuity and hard work in a small town.
“The owner, Mary DeLima, I was blown away by her creativity,” Sadowski said. “She was a professional equestrian and now raises horses, built a stable, does boarding, teaches kids how to ride and compete. It started as a small dream ad grew into something much bigger. And being a woman on top of that is just inspiring.”
In fact, he cited DeLima as an example of a national trend of women outpacing men on the entrepreneurial scene all over the country. She also reflects the trend of Kentucky’s rising standing compared to other states.
Kentucky is in the nation’s top five for entrepreneurship activity as ranked in a recently released assessment by University of Nebraska-Lincoln economists. The commonwealth experienced a big increase in number of business establishments. It had a 13 percent gain in number of patents per 1,000 people. And income levels for non-farm proprietors grew 6 percent from 2012 to 2013.
Rural areas are very resourceful
“A lot of Kentucky is very rural, and (new business) is born out of necessity, since a lot of people have no other options,” Sadowski said. “They are creating jobs for themselves. We found that a lot in areas that were very rural.”
But overall, he said, people in Kentucky weren’t very different from the rest of the nation. And that’s a good thing.
“We found just as many people in Kentucky as other places – the ingenuity of people and resourcefulness of people is alive and well in Kentucky, and there are great businesses being built there,” Sadowski said.
He and Glauser also noted the state’s natural beauty and rolling green hills.
“Kentucky was absolutely beautiful, one of the prettiest states we visited,” Glauser said. “The people were also extremely friendly. Many wanted to chat with us and offered to help in anyway they could. The entrepreneurs we interviewed felt they received great support from their customers and communities. Not much was mentioned about the support of the local or state governments.”
The team even took some time to go horseback riding, and Sadowski laughed while mentioning that Kentucky has more dogs than any other state they passed through.
It also has a lot of antique shops.
“I was kind of astonished by the whole antique market in Kentucky,” Sadowski said. “I’ve always had a perception that antiques are rare and hard to find, but I can’t tell you how many antique markets we passed in Kentucky.”
One of those was Wheeler Antiques in Marion, in far western Kentucky. Owner Mike Wheeler was one of the trio’s 100 interviewees on the trip.
At eight points along the way in the 54-day tour were predesignated as major “meet-up sites” where the My New Enterprise group convened with multiple business. One of the eight was Berea in south Madison County, which they chose because it is on the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail created during the 1976 U.S. bicentennial with an intention to avoid big cities.
“Berea was really interesting,” Sadowski said. “It was fun. I think because it was a college town, it was a cool town. It was beautiful and well kept. It seemed like there was a lot of good energy in Berea.”
The nation’s “Main Street” businesses as a whole may have energy, but starting a new business is still very difficult.
“Some of the challenges are the very things can allow people to take advantage of new opportunities,” Sadowski said. “We’re facing a looming employment crisis in the country right now. Companies are becoming more efficient and need fewer employees, and employees are being replaced by computers and machines in almost every industry under the sun. Those jobs are not coming back. Middle-skilled jobs have decreased, and there is evidence of our increased efficiency.”
But Americans are “very, very creative,” he said, and have survived other major shifts in the economy and workforce. He pointed out that the majority of the nation was agrarian until about a century ago.
“Many more of us used to be farmers, and we’ve adapted,” he said. “We’ve gone through this before and have evolved our workforces.”
The My New Enterprise team sees the rapid advancement of technology as a challenge that Americans will rise to meet – they will find new ways to think about how to fulfill the needs of themselves and their fellow community member customers. Being forced to adjust out of necessity makes entrepreneurship stronger.
“This country was built on entrepreneurs and small businesses,” he said, few of which need to be the next Netflix or Apple or Facebook. “Small business owners really are the vast majority of entrepreneurs, and even though we hear a lot about the huge ones, there are real advantages to running them in smaller towns versus big cities.”
However, starting a small business is scary, he admits, and owners need to be willing to fail.
“Both Mike (Glauser) and I have started other companies and sold them off and have been experienced as entrepreneurs,” Sadowski said. “We both were getting requests for our time to help small businesses and evaluate ideas.”
At My New Enterprise, the team strives to help businesses succeed with their consulting work. Clients now include entrepreneurial programs in academia, corporate consulting, training, working with authors and speakers, structural design, online training and more.
Their advice often runs counter to the media entrepreneurship stereotype. Rather than getting a big loan, creating a product and finding people to sell it to, they recommend listening with intention first, getting the green light from potential customers and eliminating as much risk as possible.
But risk can never be eliminated.
“Be willing to fail and fail early and as cheaply as possible,” Sadowski said.
Abby Laub is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]