I met Judy Dunn when we both guest posted for The Marketing Guy Jay Ehret. We’ve been Twitter friends ever since, and I’m so excited she finally shares her small town business story.
There are small towns. There are rural areas. And then there are islands. Islands that have no bridges, only ferries.
Ferries that blow their horns on foggy days. That break down at the worst possible moment, usually when you have an important meeting with a new client. Ferries that will take you back home if you show up in line before the last one leaves the dock, at 7:30pm sharp.
If you arrive 10 seconds late, the ferry workers in their bright orange vests are already pulling the thick ropes in and locking the gate. And you are stuck in a hotel room on the mainland, cursing that “careful” (substitute another word here) driver who chugged along at 17 miles an hour all the way along the tree-lined road that leads to the ferry landing.
You would have made it if not for her.
We found this little piece of heaven called Anderson Island, Washington five years ago. A 7.7-square mile piece of land in south Puget Sound, with 1,200 residents year-round, 4,000 in the summer. On a whim, and with only a faint promise of high-speed Internet (“sometime soon,” the telephone company said), we bought a house overlooking the water.
We settled into an idyllic life. A mama deer who visited us each spring to show off her fawns. Raccoons, squirrels and birds. A bald eagle that made its nest in the towering fir tree across the street and taught its babies to fly as we watched, amazed.
But there was a tradeoff. For a marketing firm with graphic design files as big as 250 megs to upload to clients, there were times when I said to Bob, my husband and biz partner, “What were we thinking?”
When the switch from dial-up to fiber-optic Internet finally happened, we were ecstatic.
There were other things we learned. Even if you are not on an island, if you are a small business in a little town or rural spot, you probably know what I’m talking about.
5 Things I Learned When I Moved My Business to an Island
If your clients and customers are not your neighbors, the success of your business depends even more on getting what you need to stay afloat (no island pun intended). Five things I learned:
- Get to know your providers and vendors. You will recognize them because it’s always the same person. But how well you get to know them—and how you treat them—will impact on your business in very real ways. The woman in the post office, who answers your questions about her son in Iraq, adds the extra postage when your deadline-sensitive package to a client comes up short. Her voice mail message says, “Just drop by the change next time you are in.” Jack, the FedEx driver, who loves fishing, hand delivers your package when it’s pouring outside. Tony, the Internet repair guy, whose wife needs advice on starting an online jewelry store, works overtime to find your problem. And before he leaves, he gets on the phone to the finance office because he thinks he can get you a better phone rate. (And he did.) It doesn’t take much effort. Just be nice. Engage them.
- Rethink your ideal client. This took a little time—and some courage. Most of our clients handled the change to working by phone and email without missing a beat. But we found that some of our “old school” clients, who frequently insisted on face-to-face meetings, were eating up the time disproportionately. Since traveling to Seattle turns an hour meeting into 4-5 hours, depending on the ferry schedules, we decided to gradually weed out those clients and replace them with ones who work comfortably over distances and in digital environments. It was scary at first, but it was the best move we could have made.
- Don’t make your location an issue. There are times when it is important to sit down with a client. When a huge project involves several decision-makers in a company, I offer a range of open times and suck up the time loss. Whining about a situation I have chosen to put myself in is the best way to make a client think twice about passing another assignment on to me. So I smile and say, “Sure, I’d be happy to stop by. Let me take a look at my calendar.”
- Develop an online support network and make friends with social media. This continues to be one of my best strategies. I have replaced some of my physical networking with clients and colleagues with involvement on social media platforms. My writer friends stay in touch by email. We are scattered over three counties, but we share resources—and job referrals—regularly. My marketing colleagues on Twitter are there to help with problem solving. And I have met talented and generous people who have invited me to guest post on their blogs or be a podcast guest.
- Don’t shortchange your in-person networking. Create a face-to-face networking plan that works for you.Bob and I choose 2-4 real time networking events a month. One or more is usually an evening event that requires an overnight stay. One social networking site in particular, biznik.com, allows us to build relationships online and nurture them with offline workshops and networking events we schedule in the Seattle area. It’s the best of both worlds.
What about you? What have you done to develop a support system for succeeding in a small town or rural setting?
Judy Dunn is co-owner of Cat’s Eye Marketing near Seattle, Washington. She has a passion for helping her clients develop a unique online presence with websites, blogs and social media profiles. Judy writes about online marketing for small businesses at catseyemarketingblog.com.
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Urs E. Gattiker says
Thanks for this post – and yes it rings a few bells.
Because of your US example I thought I add a Swiss angle to this issue.
Our head office is in Zurich but we also work out of Bosco Gurin a remote mountain village in the south of the country (see image of the village here:
It takes me more than one day to go and meet clients in Zurich before I can be back home. For Switzerland this means being in a really remote location. Of course, for the US and Canada this is probably not that far :-)
But what is important is that the client needs to accept that you are ‘far’ away. As well, to simplify things he or she must be comfortable using all kinds of Internet tools including but not limited to Voice over IP, Internet chat, e-mail, etc.
Unfortunately, sometimes the client may feel uncomfortable not having the possibility for setting up a meeting in the late morning for early afternoon. Although there might never be the need to set-up a meeting within such a short time period, just having the possibility to do so may give the client a certain degree of security. Not having it may make him feel uneasy.
Another challenge is that people may have a hard time to believe that world-class talent is willing to work in a remote location. So he or she might wonder if the product or service one is getting is as good as it will get or even better – or could it be worse?
My experience has been that it is easier to succeed in getting jobs from fellow entrepreneurs. Fellow entrepreneurs seem to be less risk-averse and more comfortable in purchasing goods and/or services from people they trust, regardless if they fit the general mold or not. They also remember that they themselves once started out small, even though today their company might employee 500 people.
Of course, I understand that what I describe above may not apply in the U.S. We have more clients using our tools for benchmarking software (e.g., http://My.ComMetrics.com) in California than in Switzerland or Germany for that matter. If that is not long-distance, what is?
Judy, thanks so much for sharing your insights and making me smile and feel better at the same time — realising I am not the only one having to cope with these challenges. Merci.
Rock Langston says
Judy, I think you addressed some of the core issues faced when working from rural and remote areas. Providing great, friendly, and personal service is crucial, and I see that at the center of your comments.
I’m a graphic designer, with clients located everywhere from the big, big city of London to small town Texas. When I started my business I was living in a remote corner of Colorado, so fully appreciate your observations and guidelines. Even though I’m now in a small city, I still actively solicit and provide design services to clients in small towns where there are not designers available. I find them the best printing services for their products, easily offering concept to delivery service.
Location is no longer a factor in a business finding quality work. The work I’ve done for my small town Tennessee clients will be featured in an upcoming book on graphic design, a benefit to both of us when it’s available internationally. Familiarity with the Internet has allowed people to get more comfortable using professionals located at a distance from their businesses. There are many ways we can make the process easy, and most people are eager to share in the information we give them to make that possible. Our little tricks and tidbits are value-added for them!
Reaching out to create a network and community is important to me, as there is not an active design community where we now live. Social media allows me to tap into a source of experience and resources (and fun) that is truly unfathomable, providing a community for me. It’s a lifeline!
Thanks for this post!
John McLachlan says
Thank you so much for posting this. I expect to be moving from my current (home-office base) in Vancouver, BC to Hornby Island in about two years so will face many of the things you pointed out.
I feel “late” to social media, but one of the reasons I’m finding it compelling is that I thought it may be very handy to have a good network when I’m more isolated.
I found your comments about clients who demand a lot of face-to-face time interesting. I’ve wondered about that. It’s occurred to me that I may have to let a couple go when I make the shift.
Becky McCray says
This is exactly why we are here: to connect each other, to know that we are not alone, and to share ideas that help, no matter where your small town is.
Deborah Drake says
Remember months back when you wrote me saying you felt like you knew me already, though we’d not yet met face to face?
Well, as for my experiences of building new relationships be they near or far and for personal or professional reasons–they can be cultivated inside-out or outside-in…and I promise to explain!
For years I have been doing enrollment into professional development and continuing education programs and have spent YEARS working with local, regional, national and even international people.
I’ve been assured I am easy to work with, to open up to and get to know even with great physical distance a challenge. Always curious as to why, year after year.
Perhaps it was my responsiveness? OR my genuine enthusiasm? OR my flexibility with making calls at odd hours sometimes that contributed to my successes? I’d like to think so. These are some of my best business practices and for that matter how I “Friend” colleagues of all kinds.
Outside-In: What I mean by Outside-In is we may for example meet a new colleague at a conference or event that may be local or that we travelled far to experience. We click, then we have the convenience of quality time and “bond” at the event itself. The key to cultivating business or friendship in these cases involves the simple act of staying in touch and watering the seeds planted at that first meeting. And not disappearing after a time. Being consistently and authentically in touch fortifies things. My network is a global one for this reason as clients I have enrolled have come from as short a drive as Seattle to as long a distance as Israel and Japan to attend courses I registered them for.
Inside-Out: So what about the Inside-Out origins of that now global network of mine? Well, I’ve made contacts via online communities before I have travelled abroad that ended up being my hosts when I arrived. I’ve connected professionals from entirely different countries with people I have gotten to know better offline by phone and email, all because of initial inquiries and online introductions to one another.
It works both ways I find when my intention is to be a good resource, be of service, and even when I am not the right or best resource, connect the two who are meant to be working together. Working this way, I believe I can work where I want to and how I want to and know that we will also be meeting the ideal clients we are intending too!
Great post and thank you!
Diane Easley says
Great ideas to remember for business everywhere. Thanks for a lovely post.
Rusty Lee says
In times past–prior to the internet–successful people and companies were built upon trust and quality relationships. The handshake and our word was our bond. It was a time when networking wasn’t a commonly used word.
One key component to your five; and I think the foundation of all five, is the power of a quality relationship. Your business is on an island now and isolated physically. Because you understand the power of networking and the relationship, because your values and belief in people shines through your work, because you are able to communicate it through your writing — that island hasn’t held you back.
You’ve taken the power of the internet/social networking and brought your business full circle. You’ve been able to capture that old fashioned quality of trust, built on strong relationships, even though your business is very modern and internet based.
Thanks for clearly identifying specific things we can do that are based on sound values. Thanks for reminding us all, that we need good people and quality relationships in our business. Even more so when we happen to live on an island!
Have a Great Day,
Brian Crouch says
Great insights… I admire your discipline in committing to driving up to Seattle to maintain the face-to-face. Hope you guys can buy a boat one day so you don’t have to wait for the ferry! :)
As I read it I thought about the way an urban environment can lead to some self-selected isolation.
In Bob and your remote location, you could have chosen to be insular and “provincial,” but you are connected to a larger social sphere that is wide-ranging in viewpoints.
Some people in the urban oasis live an even more ‘insular’ life than you do: by surrounding themselves with identical viewpoints, socio-economics, never encountering a challenging or contrasting perspective on a friendly basis, but an inimical one. (Obviously not everyone in the city is like that but you know what I mean.) Maybe that’s why gangs form in cities but not in rural communities.
Judy Dunn says
@Urs: Yes, those same-day calls in the morning with the expectation to meet a few hours later do not work well. But how many biz owners who are approached in such a scenario have their calendars free on such short notice anyway, even if logistically they would be able to make such an appointment? Not many, I think. Your comments about the increasingly global nature of business is a valid one. Now, the world is our customer! I need to go and take a look at your village. Thanks for the link—and for the insightful comments.
@Rock: What great examples and a wonderful comment on people looking for quality services and products, not just the closest ones. And, yes, the Internet has been a driving force in that phenomenon. I agree on the importance of social media. It’s how I stay connected, learn from my colleagues and grow.
@ John: So you are just starting that thinking around the relocation process, I imagine. You are on the right track to be considering social media as one of your tools, in my opinion. It has been my lifeline.
@ Deborah: We still; haven’t met face-t-face. How funny. What great thoughts you have shared. The outside-in and inside-out (love those terms) have worked well for me on biznik.com. I either meet people online and strengthen the relationship at events and coffees, or I’ll meet someone at a biznik workshop and continue the relationship online between face-to-face meetings: in the forums, through discussions related to biznik articles I’ve written, in emails, etc. And I love the philosophy you have described in your last paragraph. I’m the same way. :-)
@Diane: How perceptive, your comment. It really is the same for successful businesses everywhere, isn’t it?
@Rusty: I’m smiling here. Don’t quite know what to say. You are very kind. ;-) And it is so true that it’s still all about relationship. That is really the thread that connects us all. Well said.
@Brian: Leave it to you to take the discussion to a new level. I am not surprised. Bob and have talked at length about “urban isolation.” We have noticed that some big city (Seattle) folks (not you!) don’t or
can’t look beyond their city, and sometimes not even beyond their own neighborhoods. And your comment on why gangs might form? Never thought about it quite that way. Thanks for making me think. (Again.)
And to Becky: Thanks for giving us this safe forum to talk about our challenges, to learn and to grow.
‘t or don’t want to look beyond their city, and sometimes
WOW can I identify with this. Living in a small city I’ve found one of the greatest habits to cultivate is to smile at everyone in the grocery checkout line no matter your mood. They WILL remember your face later.
ALL excellent points Judy!
Paul Simon says
Love the post, Judy, including the underlying humor.
Excellent points, of course, but I’d say they apply pretty much regardless of where you live (well, except, perhaps for using a good chunk of a day for a short face-to-face meeting). Generosity, gratitude, responsiveness and other similar traits are essential in today’s high-tech environment. So many of us are working in virtual worlds and building wonderful relationships.
Of course, now that you’ve brought Puget Sound island living to the front of my mind, it may be time to come visit! I do so love that area.
Judy Dunn says
@Susan: I know that where you live, you deal with some of the same issues. And extending the practice out into the community—the grocery store, for instance—is a very god idea. Because, like the post office in a small town, it’s probably a “first-name-basis” kind of thing. Thanks for reading and commenting.
@Paul: Yes, these “lessons” apply to all businesses but it’s just so much more crucial yo your survival when you are remote. If you burn your bridges, you don’t get another chance. On Puget Sound island living, Bob and I hosted a biznik event on the island summer before last. People carpooled and took the ferry over. It was an incredibly fun day. Looking forward to meeting you in person someday!
Invoice factoring blog says
I like #2 a lot- Rethink your ideal client.
I was scared when I did that for the first time some years ago, we were growing and needed the revenues.
Now that we are “established” we are comfortable saying “no” to clients that would not be a good fit for whatever reason. I find this to be a huge time saver that ultimately increased the enjoyment of owning a company.
Judy Dunn says
Yes, it can be scary turning down clients and work. There’s that little inner voice that says, “How will you survive?”
Same thing happened with us when we moved to our online marketing niche. But the results were amazing. The right people found US, the people we were meant to be working with.
Thanks for sharing your story about saying “no” to clients.
Tammy Redmon says
Judy your writing always provides such great imagery. I could see you waiting at that dock at 4 seconds past 7:30 pm only to watch the cones be put in place and the chains drawn.
The things that you have learned can actually be applied to those that work in their home office, anywhere.
Getting out of the office (or self imposed Silo) and networking strategically is key to success. You do that because of the location of your home, others don’t do it when they can drive 5 minutes to the local event. I admire your dedication to staying connected.
Not making your location an issue is also key. For someone working at a home office, this can be a potential derailment if we aren’t careful. I have started inviting people into my home and comforting them with good old fashioned hospitality – removing perceived barriers is what it takes.
And getting to rethink that ideal client is always a good component to visit. As our services change and expand, so do our target people. Going after the right TP is critical for growth and keeping the fun alive in business too (I believe).
Thank you for your wisdom and insight and teaching.
Judy Dunn says
What great insights. Applying it to home office environments in general makes so much sense. And as you and Brian pointed out, people in the city with only a 5-10-minutes drive to an event can fail to take advantage of events and networking opportunities.
I have been to your “home office” and been treated to your amazing hospitality so I can confirm that you actual make a business meeting a special experience.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts.