Small Businesses, Big Opportunities In America’s Heartland

Betsy Dougert is VP of External Relations at SCORE, resource partner to SBA and mentors to America’s small businesses. Connect with Betsy.

In Q1 of 2023, all eyes are on the economy as entrepreneurs across the U.S. take stock of their businesses’ preparedness to weather a period of financial downturn. The excruciating decisions that business owners are sometimes forced to make when operating on thinner margins—where to cut costs, what operations to scale back, whose roles are expendable—are even more pronounced for rural business owners who already face a host of difficulties, even in strong economic conditions.

Strategies and resources do exist (though there aren’t nearly enough) to help the hard-working, creative, and resilient entrepreneurs who operate in remote parts of America. But, in order to develop long-term solutions for rural business owners, we need to better understand the circumstances they face.

A Primer on Rural Entrepreneurship

Rural America is losing population. In our 2022 report “The Small Business Rural/Urban Divide,” we found that rural entrepreneurs were much more likely to report population changes negatively impacting their business. In particular, they struggled to find both qualified workers and customers.

There is also a pronounced technology gap between rural and urban America. Our survey showed that rural entrepreneurs are twice as likely to report problems accessing broadband or high-speed internet. Not only does that diminish their ability to reach customers, but it also impedes their ability to effectively operate their businesses. For instance, we serve one business owner who owns a brewery in middle America. When their internet goes down, they are actually unable to brew their beer because the brewing process is IoT-controlled.

Rural entrepreneurs are already feeling the impact of economic slowdown: Expenses are going up, and customer spending is going down. Issues such as rising fuel costs impact rural America disproportionately, given that people are more geographically dispersed. Rural business owners have also reported struggling with tighter marketing budgets, a shrinking local customer base, and general cash-flow issues.

A Patchwork Quilt of Solutions

The government is seeking to address some of these issues through debt relief programs, funding for certain types of energy-efficient improvements, infrastructure bills, and access to capital. However, rural entrepreneurs, as a group, are difficult and expensive to assist, in part because the most obvious ideas tend to involve digital resources (for which there is limited infrastructure), and also because the population is so dispersed.

There are some private ventures that seek to address the issues rural entrepreneurs face, but the net result is a patchwork quilt of various government and private interest groups’ efforts, leaving many concerning gaps. Rural entrepreneurs also suffer from a problem of misunderstanding, with rural businesses unrelated to farming or coal struggling for their share of resources, aid, and attention. This inability to accurately envision the business owners and communities impacted is yet another factor leading to a dearth of targeted solutions.

The Way Forward For Rural Entrepreneurs

When we speak to business owners in rural America as they stare down a possible recession, the first thing we tell them is not to panic. Yes, we are experiencing economic slowdown—but many of these business owners have already spent a long time dealing with lower-than-desirable client demand and higher costs of doing business. While none of it is optimal, it’s also not new. Business owners have already been handling these issues, and new branding around the issue—such as calling it a recession—won’t change their day-to-day reality.

What does matter is taking care of employees. We’re seeing big impacts on staffing right now, with many businesses having trouble hiring or retaining workers. It’s a great time for business owners to ask employees what is important to them, and when possible, to take action to show their staff they matter. Obviously, higher wages are what most employees want—but they may also value flexible scheduling, telework (depending on the industry), or more vacation time. Listening to what these employees value supports retention, which ultimately benefits the bottom line.

Creating an Adaptable Business Plan

Now is a critical time for entrepreneurs to update and adapt their business plans based on what challenges and opportunities they’re experiencing and where the market is leading. What if costs continue to rise and customer demand continues to fall? How can you reduce expenses? How can you stand out to your customers? The answers might be different for every business, but asking these questions enables entrepreneurs to formulate best practices and maintain plans of action for different situations.

In the same vein, it’s important to keep a close eye on your financial bottom line. Don’t take on more debt than you can handle and look for additional sources of capital, such as grants and loans. Carefully manage your inventory and be creative in order to sell faster, because holding onto products for too longer squeezes your cash flow.

Part of making a strong business plan involves looking for ways to reduce spending and increase income. For instance, does the business need a brick-and-mortar office? Can telework suffice for daily operations? On the flip side, are there ways to bring in more revenue? Business owners need to deeply understand customer needs and buying habits, especially now, so they can offer impeccable service that inspires repeat business.

No One Should Go Alone

Rural business owners are used to wearing many hats, but shouldn’t fall into the trap of doing everything alone. We recommend finding an experienced, impartial mentor who can help to think things through, and participating in peer-to-peer networking groups that are offered locally or online for your particular industries. It can be helpful to connect with others who are going through similar challenges, and who may be able to share helpful solutions or workarounds.

For non-rural entrepreneurs and consumers, we urge you to consider the impact you’re having on your community and whom you’re supporting with each purchasing dollar. We vote with our dollars and can all make the choice to utilize services from small and rural businesses.

In addition, many of us can think of a business that we’ve walked into recently that has a sign in the window saying, “We’re hiring.” Please be patient with these small businesses, shops, and restaurants, and recognize that they are doing the absolute best that they can in a challenging climate. By demonstrating a little more thoughtfulness, we can show America’s rural small businesses how much we believe in them.

Forbes Communications Council is an invitation-only community for executives in successful public relations, media strategy, creative and advertising agencies. Do I qualify?

Leave a Reply