Are Small-Town Businesses Taking Over Big Cities?

Are we entering the Golden Age of the “global small town”?

More of us are living in cities than ever before. We humans are officially an urban species now — but that doesn’t mean we’ve lost touch with our small-town selves. In fact, there are three major trends colliding that will make you ask, “Are small-town businesses taking over big cities?”

In short, yes.
big city
Image by ShashiBellamkonda

Let’s look at the three mega-trends that are making this unexpected reality happen, and see how your business can benefit.Even though your business cards may say Staunton, Virginia, you’re no longer confined to that town to do business. The reality is, you’re part of the global small town.

City Population Exploding As Connectivity Is Increasing

First, there is the overall rise in urban populations around the planet. The United Nations estimates that we became an “urban” planet in 2008. That was the first year in human history that more people (3.3 billion) lived in cities and towns instead of the countryside. City growth continues at a rapid rate, too. Cities and urban areas are gaining an estimated 60 million people per year — over 1 million people every week.

Meanwhile, the “pastoral idyll” is a parallel trend happening simultaneously in art, design, and literature. It’s as if our cities cannot get enough of the countryside. This trend is seemingly moving in lockstep with our species moving out of nature and into the city, and our greater awareness of environmental urgency.

internet cafe in a small city
Image by Lee Jordan

“It is a trend whose tendrils are wrapping around the walls of our homes with flora and fauna-themed wallpaper, rustic furniture and apparently endless bird ornaments, so you can celebrate the pastoral while stuck in front of the box [computer] –- that’s the box that’s overrun with nature programming, of course,” writes Paula Cocozza in The Guardian.

Let’s not forgot we’re all connected like never before, too. It is now possible to do business with people in another country and time zone almost as easily as it is to do business with someone down the street.

Virtual goods, services, and online businesses are booming. Global Internet traffic is expected to quadruple by 2015 because so many more people are gaining Internet access. To put that in perspective: “Internet traffic is projected to approach 1 zettabyte per year in 2015 — that’s equivalent of all the digital data in existence in 2010,” wrote Lauren Indvik in 2011.

“Suddenly, your customers can talk to everyone else across the nation, and people listen to them, not your carefully crafted advertising or branding. It’s just like doing business in a small town, where ‘reputation is forever,'” says Becky McCray, author of Small Town Rules: How Big Brands and Small Businesses Can Prosper in a Connected Economy.

Business opportunities are blooming, so to speak, for those who are making the transition to city living easier or more environmentally sustainable.

Localism Is Booming Alongside Artisan, Craft, and Maker Businesses

The Great Recession at home and abroad is still teaching us lessons about our economic survival and stability in a connected, competitive world. To cope, more cities and communities are focusing their attention inward for economic development and security. In this way, business-building is swinging back to the past with a focus on the hyperlocal.

“It’s not only in the classic aesthetic (bushy beards, suspenders, tattoos), but also in the values (artisan handcrafts; anti-corporate sentiment; a reliance on local, cooperative businesses and social-purpose ventures),” explains Sara Horowitz in The Atlantic.

local artist
Image by pedrosimoes7

Witness the rise in “eat local,” “drink local,” “shop local,” and other similar sentiments near you. In particular, there is a rise in handmade/ artisan/craft/maker items — perhaps as a reaction to mass-produced, impersonal expressions of corporate culture.

It is no coincidence this “past” is a small town past, either. My business, a neighborhood grocery, is part of this trend. My business and others like it wouldn’t be possible without a growing interest in and support of local businesses that defy the ubiquity of “Generica.” Businesses that support this rise in the re-localization of economy and urban social fabric have a competitive advantage.

Rise of Entrepreneurship

The third major trend that’s happening is the overall rise in entrepreneurship and project-based, “free agent” economy. Both contribute to a changing concept of entrepreneurship.

First, there is a growing and significant rise in “micro-entrepreneurship” thanks to technology that allows individuals to monetize their assets and knowledge. For example, individuals can host a walking tour of their city, or offer their foldout bed or parking space for extra cash. Sites like Vayable provide a platform for individuals to sell previously underutilized assets.

“And it’s not just the artists and under-employed flocking to these platforms, but professionals who seek a higher quality of life, greater flexibility, and more time with their families,” writes Jamie Wong in Fast Company. Wong is the co-founder and CEO of Vayable.

At the same time, more professionals — by choice or by circumstance — are beginning to view their careers as project-based. These workers are offering skills to the highest bidder or those with the best perks.

Some refer to this as “Jobless Entrepreneurship,” because the individual contractor is finding a job for himself or herself only. “Changing companies was once considered taboo, now it is a viable strategy to accelerate career development,” notes David Jardin in the Philadelphia Business Journal.

Small towns have historically relied upon similar trends out of necessity. It is common that small town residents engage in multi-faceted economic involvement — for example, the farmer doubles as night-class instructor. This was a necessary approach to ensure the viability of the local economy and spark the resurrection of deserted downtowns.

Today, many cities have shifted focus from attracting big business as a growth strategy to “economic gardening,” the idea that talent retention and local growth development is preferred. This is a small-town idea gaining traction and presenting an opportunity for enterprising individuals.

All of these mega trends indicate that small-town ethos is an emerging big-city trend. Where does your business fit into these trends? How can you benefit from these large-scale economic changes? Welcome to the global small town.

About the Author: Katie McCaskey is co-owner of George Bowers Grocery, a neighborhood grocery, café, and beer garden in Staunton, Virginia. Katie is also a freelance journalist who covers small business news and trends for Vistaprint.