Thursday, March 31, 2011


Here are some thoughts about a Community Improvement Visioning process. This is a different approach from what I normally see done. Make a chart of your key metrics, and describe the before and after situation (current vs. five years from now.)

This is super simple. As it should be.

You could add other elements, or replace the above with other elements.

  - stakeholders
  - community relationships
  - industry development
  - publicity
  - demographics
  - shopping, convenience, etc.

   1) Don't try to do too much. Visioning processes that fail
       were usually too ambitious. Or too weak.
   2) Get agreement on this vision early, and get unassailable
        commitment to those agreements, before you create strategies
        to reach the vision. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Our Neighbors

Your town has two types of residents: (1) those who cannot leave, and (2) those who choose to be there because they like it.

(We usually think that conservatives are the ones who want change, but they might be the original residents who can't leave. They want to make the town better. Those who resist change are often those considered to be more liberal: they moved to the town because they liked it. Why change what we like into something we don't like? So many of them fight change. The point: don't pigeonhole people. The ultimate show-stoppers might be people you never suspected.) 

To create positive change, you need a strong, motivated coalition of people who will not give up when facing protracted opposition. You can't avoid the opposition. If the person who challenges progress the most were to suddenly die, another person would rise up to replace the deceased challenger. 

One hint: stick with a few goals you can accomplish--low-hanging fruit--and thrash early. 

Thrashing is the term Seth Godin uses to describe the “apparently productive brainstorming and tweaking we do for a project as it develops.” You have to so this during the conceptualization stage. Projects that allow tweaking at the end are never completed. You can tweak forever. You need to force agreement on that one issue: after we agree at the beginning, no one is allowed to derail the project by opposing it at the end. (That is much easier in a company than in a community. But without following that rule, you cannot succeed.)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Quality of Life

I haven't ben researching this, but the question just popped into my mind: what elements or conditions improve quality of life in a community?

The popularity of professional spectator sports has been declining for thirty years conversely with a rise in the popularity of the arts (consider who advertises during sports matches: mostly beer and Dorritos.) Spectator athletics are still very much alive, but they are now one of many entertainment options. Yet municipalities continue to fund the construction of arenas, using the term "economic growth" to justify it. That is not growth, but wealth transfer from the taxpayer to the players (economists have done plenty of research in this area.) It might improve the fun leisure options for a few people, but does it increase the overall quality of life for all residents? No one can answer "yes" with a straight face.

The issue is irrelevant for rural municipalities anyway. The original question remains unanswered: what can you do to improve the quality of life for taxpayers?

- upgrading transportation infrastructure
- improving elderly care facilities
- creating outdoor recreation facilities
- developing leisure options

Another note: what CAN you do and what SHOULD you do are two different questions. Rarely are either of those questions answered correctly, hence we have unfinished projects (no CAN do) and unused facilities (no SHOULD do). 

Monday, March 28, 2011

Government spending in rural areas

What you've been told is wrong.

Government spending in rural areas is not only lower, but lower per capita. That squares with what I've seeing in my county, where we pay exorbitant property taxes, but little of the money stays in our community.

Check out this story with the details.

That doesn't necessarily mean we need to demand more, it just means we are doing better by ourselves than we thought we were. 

Sunday, March 27, 2011


I've been following the education industry for several years. The issue affects both rural and urban dwellers, and yes, it is an industry.

I'm afraid that higher education is headed for a crisis. In the U.S., schools have gradually shifted focus away from academics to athletics. (NCAA Section IX didn't solve the problem: it shifted emphasis to women athletes, rather than away from sports.) Athletics can help build character etc., but that is not what inter-mural programs are designed to do. They are PR programs. Schools are forgetting their original purpose, which is academic training.

Another problem is that declining youth populations have decreased demand, leaving schools with empty seats. They have compensated by aggressively recruiting foreign students, but overseas schools are starting to catch up in academic quality. They still have a long way to go, but they are pouring resources into the classroom instead of the stadium, so watch for them in the future.

When the auto industry focused on side businesses such as finance and on union problems, foreign firms were able to catch up by focusing on manufacturing automobiles.

Your local public schools could be training tomorrow's innovators. Are they doing that, or are they chatting about next Friday's game with a rival, another tiny school?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Products vs. Services

I don't agree with the tradition in economic discussions of separating service and manufacturing into distinct categories within the economy.

A service is a product. And a product is increasingly becoming a service, as superior service is often the only way manufacturers and distributors differentiate themselves. I have said for years that the two are merging, so are really the same thing. (Computer manufacturers sell computer consulting, for example.)

But the two are different in one significant way: lifestyle.

Tangible products can be held in inventory, but services cannot. So you can work really hard during the morning and afternoon, then spend the evening resting and building personal relationships. Services, by contrast, require employees to be available whenever the customer needs to use the product.

This situation is not new, but two trends make it more significant.

 1) Larger portion of population involved in service industries. When most of the 
     economy was engaged in manufacturing, then relatively few people were 
     affected by service.

 2) Service levels are upgrading. The benchmarks are higher.
     When I traveled in Switzerland a few years ago, the shops all closed at 5:00 
     so that people could spend time with their families. In the U.S., I expect 24/7 
     fulfillment. If I am watching television at 3:00 am and want to eat some 
     Dorritos, I can visit a large grocery store and choose from 100 varieties of chips.
    Good news for me, bad news for the mother who must operate the cash register 
    and sleep during the day so I can satisfy my MSG craving.

PROGRESS comes at a cost to individuals.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Rural Jobs

Building a nuclear power plant might not be feasible for the home business owner or the family startup.

But the idea has huge potential for rural development. You can create safe, non-polluting energy and sell it to your city cousins.

Do recent events in Japan make you nervous about nuclear power? Just make sure you have a back up plan, and some leadership skills on hand, and you will be fine. The death per watt rate is a tiny, tiny fraction of oil and an almost microscopic number compared to coal. This is not total deaths, but per TWh produced. And that doesn't even include deaths from climate change or oil-related wars. (See the charts here.)

If the facts don't convince you, then what about in building wind mills or investing in solar energy farms?

Your location is a strength, not a weakness.

The Guilded Age

During the Middle Ages, guilds provided a way for craftsmen and tradesmen to assist each other. They protected each other's interests, trade secrets, and families.

The guilds were a formidable force, acting as a power base to compete with kings and the church. The competition made society more pluralistic and free.

Perhaps we are moving back into another age of guilds. The backlash against the work culture of large organizations, the entrepreneurial and home office movements, and the need for artistic expression combine to make the conditions rights.

Whether or not this becomes a macro-trend, it could be the right strategy for your community. A co-op or guild can help you in mentoring and marketing together. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Freedom of Choice

The Long Tail is a famous book by Chris Anderson that changes the way we think about markets. It really is a watershed book. It has many, many vital concepts, but here is one.

How many choices should you give your customers? Here at the Nauvoo Commuter, we usually recommend fewer choices. Too many choices overwhelms people.

But if you have a good process for helping people make choices without overwhelming them, then you should offer more choices.

As we've said in this space before, you don't need to sell to everyone. You only need to identify and sell to yoga enthusiasts with April birthdays, or Kung Fu instructors who love maple-flavored ice cream, or 53-year-old Methodists with a disdain for European-style cell phones. You need to find "one of a city, two of a family." You can aggregate each one with the one in each city across the world. That can add up to a large customer base.

With the internet, you can do this. This is really, really good news for rural entrepreneurs.

My wife does this in her shop, Her taste in fabrics is a combination of 1840s pioneer reproduction and Asian color influence. Some people think it is quirky, but thousands of people love the style.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

More on multi-use kitchens

A great man once told me: "Survey large fields, but cultivate small ones."

It might not sound exciting, this idea of building a kitchen to incubate small businesses. But imagine your community full of new cottage industries. 

Households which have been yearning to engage in commerce, creating artisan food products, is happening across North America. Several families in your town could do the same. If you really want to help home-based businesses launch and thrive, this might be the way forward. 

We are here to feed you ideas as well as encourage your implementation. Please stay tuned.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The world's most basic industry

This is something your community can do.

You can start up a kitchen for people to rent so they can start a food business without the initial investment of a commercial kitchen. The cost could be US$150,000. That's where you can help: you build it and they share it. That would satisfy the Nauvoo Commuter's philosophy of bootstrapping until the business concept is proven. Also, we encourage food-related entrepreneurship.

Ten years ago, 30 multi-use kitchens--or Shared-Food Processors--existed in the United States. Now the number is over 100 and growing. These shared-use kitchens are operated by faith groups, universities, non-profits, and for-profits.

Mary Pat Carlson, a super star in the field, has created a food-business incubator in Wisconsin. The non-profit helps individuals start food-related businesses, which includes allowing use of their commercial kitchen on an hourly basis. The system has been so successful that she is now traveling the U.S., helping others develop the same type of incubators.

I met Mary at a conference last week and can verify that she also a very nice person. She really seems to like helping people.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Are you stupid?

If you say "our town has experienced brain drain," then you are saying "the people in our town are stupid. The smart people left, and only us idiots are left to breed, creating a downward spiral of stupid offspring."

When you verbalize the unspoken meaning, it sounds ridiculous. But we still say it.

From the 1840s until the 1950s, many of the smartest Germans immigrated to the United States. Thousands. Entrepreneurs, scientists, teachers. If you could look at the ship manifests, you would be surprised if any smart people stayed.

Yet Germany is still a first string player on the exclusive Economic All-Star Team.

So please stop using the term "brain drain." Take the people you have, and move forward. If you create an innovative community, the smart people and their capital will flood back to your region.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Generosity and Innovation

In this space we extensively discuss the idea of fostering entrepreneurship. But what if you are already an entrepreneur? Why should you direct energy away from your own business to help someone else compete with you?

We're not asking you to put your own expansion plans on hold, to make big sacrifices, or to create direct competitors. Having other entrepreneurs, especially in other industries, helps you.

  - they increase the tax base, so you're not covering municipal needs
   by yourself
  - they create customers--people who can afford to buy your stuff
  - it improves the "vibe,"the innovative spirit

So please, dear successful entrepreneur, be generous.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Resources for Communities

Community leaders and developers are not the only people interested in this topic. Professionals and politicians are also seeking to encourage entrepreneurship in their communities.

What can communities do to encourage entrepreneurship? Here are six things you can do as a community leader:

 1) Attract smart people (through publicity and lifestyle improvement)
 2) Remove barriers (many of the licensing and regulations you have in 
     place probably seem so vital, but might not in reality be worth the real cost)
 3) Provide entrepreneurship education, ideally for both adults and youth 
 4) Compile information resources
 5) Help potential entrepreneurs to network
 6) Improve infrastructure (not a first step, but a long-term goal)
See what Barb Fails is doing in Michigan: Land Policy Institute.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Curiosity can kill cats but can save you

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”

I like curious people. The really curious ones. I appreciate people who "like" my Facebook comments, but they make zero effort. A really curious person works hard and keeps asking questions. 

Do you think you can find a great solution for a problem? Do you think that the answer can be found by asking the right question? Then keep asking. Ask questions about questions. Question your own motives for asking the questions. Then ask more questions. 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Apologies from Bangalore

Someone in another country took your job. But he didn't do it to be cruel. He wanted to buy food and to pay rent, just like you do.

Please forgive him: you can get your job back. Or your customers back.

If your product, service, special combination of product and service, or delivery style are truly unique and compelling, then you don't have to compete on price. From where you sit, you can more easily engage with your customers.

Let Walmart compete on price. You should compete on trustworthiness, personal connection, and extraordinary user experience. 

We interrupt tonight's show to bring you the following news

The Nauvoo Commuter is excited to report finding from the IIRA conference, but can do nothing until the situation in Japan stabilizes.

One of my best friends has lost his home, and I still cannot confirm the situation for others. When the situation becomes clear, we will return to business as usual.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Your Town's Assets

"Why wouldn't you want to move here?" should be the appropriate question you ask everyone about your town. 

Asset Mapping is a popular tool for community development. You start by listing all the assets your town has. Go ahead, give it a try. 

You may not possess all of the following advantages, but here are some possibilities to help prime the pump on your brainstorming session (most are plagiarized from a session I was involved with today):

Volunteer organizations
Family ties
Work ethic
Revolving loan organizations
Development grant programs in place
Empty office space (glass is half full)
Strong ministerial associations
Food pantries
Natural environment and/or outdoor recreational options
Transportation and logistics facilities left from the smoke stack era
Adequate health care facilities
Low crime rate
Broadband Internet access
Reasonable access to an urban area
Child care availability
Trade schools
Entertainment options
Basic food sourcing options

Go ahead and try to make your own list.

Reminder to check out: 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Economic Gardening

Economic Gardening is a concept we've mentioned in this space before. But today the Nauvoo Commuter attended a conference dealing with the issue.

The idea is that instead of futile recruiting of companies (to build factories or call centers), communities should build local talent. If the people are amazing, they will do amazing things.

Governments would often try to support certain businesses. They would pick a promising sector and support it. But can government people choose the next winner? Can anyone?

So you build the capacity of the people, and let them take risks. Some will succeed and create jobs.

Communities seeking to develop their economies should study the work of Chris Gibbons.

See for more details.  

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Forgetting Business Cycles

I remember when the recession of 1981 ended. A year later, my town emerged from the recession. (Two years after that, my family had climbed out of the recession. Some families never did.) Even now, we hear on the news that the recession in the U.S. has ended, but 16 percent of Americans still cannot find employment.

This is one reason that following business cycles to time your business creation is a dumb idea. Unless your business involves selling stocks and bonds to institutional investors, you shouldn't make decisions based on cyclical timing. By the time we reach unemployment rates below 5 percent again, the next recession might be on its way.

Start now, selling things people want and can buy now. When they have more money, they'll probably buy more. Your business will be viable at any part of the cycle.

A business that forms at the top of the curve, in contrast, may not be needed at the trough. Don't be that business.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Creating an overall strategy

Are you ready to plan your business? Here is the four-step strategy proposed by management consultants Paul B. Carroll and Chunka Mui:

Think big, start small, fail quickly, scale fast.

Think about the big companies that have failed to think big and missed the next economic shift.
On the other hand, most would-be entrepreneurs never actually get started because they keep thinking big. They plan and plan, subconsciously hoping to avoid actually doing anything. All you need to do is to plan enough to be conversant with trends and potential threats. Then start small, hopefully with no investment. 
If you fail, you fail quickly. (New information may become available as a result of starting, and that new info indicates the idea will not work. But don't give up and call it inevitable failing. Being honest with yourself in the failing process is a HUGE challenge.)
When it starts working, then scale up quickly and become big, before competitors take your ideas. 
In case you are interested, here is thWhole ArticleThanks to Dan Pink for pointing it out!

Monday, March 7, 2011

More threatening weaknesses

Here are three other weaknesses that can prevent entrepreneurial success.

  •  Introversion tendencies that takes away your ability to deal with multiple people. You need to continually negotiate with employees, customers, suppliers, regulators, realtors, investors, bankers, and contractors. Not everyone can do that. Want to start a business so you can be your own boss? Business owners still have bosses: each of their customers. And sometimes those customers are not friendly people. 

(Note: Our definition of introvert is not someone who is shy or is afraid of people or cannot communicate with others. An introvert is someone who needs alone time. An extrovert needs to party with friends to relax, and introvert needs to sit home to relax.)

  • Fear of success: some people torpedo their own success because of subconscious fear that success will make them selfish (like that mean old man you knew when you were younger), it will make you forget your roots, or because it will make you proud and uppity. Please release the fear. 
  • An unnatural relationship with money. Some people are unable to spend money, some people are unable to not spend money. They don't understand what money really is. The issue probably comes from the way our parents raised us. 

"Following your passion," as self-help gurus love to advise (as though that idea was revolutionary) is in fact insufficient. You might blow up your business, or never even get started, if you don't remove a major weakness.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Your "To Don't" List

In the this forum we have discussed the necessary attributes for success as an entrepreneur. Here we list some of the traits you do NOT want. This is the list of characteristics to avoid or to release.

Top Three Habits of Highly Ineffective Entrepreneurs:

  • Inability to handle criticism from multiple bosses:  you remain emotional, angry, or defiant after a customer is hostile and might even remain that way for the rest of the day. As an entrepreneur, each customer is your boss, but you can't let them get under your skin.
  • Preference for stability and predictability:  if you need to know the answers before beginning, you might be better off working as a civil servant. 
  • Fear of disappointing people:  if you fail, you might disappoint investors, lenders, your mother-in-law (who knew you would fail at everything), and yourself. That fear restricts some people's ability to succeed. 

We will deal with this topic more later. In the meantime, please take some time to analyze yourself. 

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Is rural living a huge disadvantage to entrepreneurship?

Our simple answer, given out of principle, is that it does not matter. We live in the country because we love the lifestyle, or it is where we are connected to those we love, or because other circumstances keep us here. So we don't run off to the bright lights of the city. We bloom where we are planted. 

Previously we have addressed the disadvantages of conducting business from a rural area. 

  - Fewer variables in our business plans: we know what we are dealing 
    with in our home markets. Risk, opportunities, customer profiles, etc.
    are easier to analyze. 

  - A longer time to discovery by competitors: we can stay under the radar, 
    hide from copy cats longer.  We are in tiny laboratories, laboring obscurely
    but diligently.

  - A real, connected life: living in a large city is spiritually draining. Being jostled 
    and imposed upon all day can make you "people weary." But where you live, 
    out in the hinterlands, people are genuine and life is real. You are connected 
    to the basic roots of life. You are connected to basic human needs, protected 
    from weird psychological office games. You receive less customer feedback, 
    but you can understand consumers better because you affiliate with people in 
    real ways. 

In the future, you will be a mogul. Someday your business will be important enough that your location will not be relevant. People will travel to speak with you.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Purpose of this Blog (Review)

Here is a review of the main purposes of this blog:
1) encourage rural residents to start businesses instead of wallowing in self-directed grief
2) encourage rural business owners to rev up their businesses
3) encourage communities to support entrepreneurs
The response has been warm. 

Here is our Manifesto:

Agrarian life hones people. In general, rural citizens are smart, industrious, and prudent. 
They can use those traits to create exceptional customer experiences for local or global markets. 
People in the countryside should support and encourage each other. 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Drop the Shipping

Occasionally we mention things here at the Nauvoo Commuter that you might know, but some readers might not know.

If you run an internet site that sells stuff, you don't need to actually take possession and ship it. You can advertise a product on your site, and it can be mailed to your customers from Amazon, another back-office provider, or directly from the manufacturer.

I normally recommend that rural internet retailers sell things that are unique to themselves or their region: local beverages, their own hand-knit mittens, regionally-grown plants, heritage items... something unique. But you might be able to find an alternative to doing the shipping yourself. Just a reminder.

And if you have to do the shipping yourself, don't be intimidated. If your idea is good enough to sell, it is worth the time to research postal regulations.