Short answer? It’s simply more needed.
When I drove into Rome, Georgia twelve years ago, I was at a crossroads. I had come off a few years as a spokesperson of sorts for a national non-profit. For a year, I travelled the country and worked with really big organizations seeking to better collaborate with community volunteer efforts. I served on steering committees and advisory boards for national initiatives with substantial budgets. I got to read books about the disruption of organizational leadership and navigating seismic change. I observed and participated in the creation of top-down strategies for community engagement. I received first-class training in planning, group facilitation, and communications. But something was missing.
I longed for the real work of building community — the grassroots,on-the ground work, or in other words, real relationship. I felt lost in theory and abstract, constantly questioning the meaning of my work. Eventually, I longed for school again, and that’s how I wound up back in Rome, Georgia with a persistent fantasy of reading great books under a tree within the world’s largest campus. But, it was this drive into Rome, up the winding hills of a six-story cemetery and a few hours spent watching cars navigate the river-shaped roadways, that caused me to make a choice to stay, to commit, to throw myself headlong into being a citizen.
Rome is a small town, with about 35,000 within a county of about 95,000. One of the best and bigger than many, but it is a small, somewhat rural town nonetheless. It contains the best and worst of small town life, and on most days, the Bests far outweigh the Worsts. The people are more relaxed, and the map of work and personal connections, albeit small, is dense with overlap. There is a tangible spirit of generosity, abundance of energy to tackle a myriad of charitable causes, and a willingness to commit to the minutia of community work that cuts across gender, age, and industry. Seriously, we were just profiled as “The Small Town Capital of Nice”.
Though we may be 25 miles from any interstate, our small town is not isolated. Because information is ubiquitous, connections made easily across geographic boundaries, and marketplaces abundant, cities anywhere can be the home to the next bit thing. Or hundreds of small, sustainable things. And this is my hope for my city: to be the birthplace of homegrown world-class companies and hundreds of “companies of one” creating goods, services, and technologies that benefit others and sustain economic and cultural growth.
Our biggest struggle as a community is our acceptance of risk. The pervading attitude is simply, “wait and see”. For many, this is just a sense of reasonable cautiousness; in others, it’s a downright skeptical attitude of anything new or novel. This cautiousness is usually waived when the entrepreneur possesses great wealth (and it’s known), or when it is a second venture. Whatever the case, it means that when it comes to taking risks, first time entrepreneurs and community “starters” of any kind are usually alone. However, as they keep showing up and doing what they do — whether it’s start a company or start a parade — the community starts to rally around them.
Second, this initial intolerance of risk brings with it some boundaries. Anything but a “business is great” answer given by an entrepreneur might cause concern, so one rarely sees when a new idea or company is struggling. And we don’t often see any of the heroic things they might be doing to keep it together and moving forward. Businesses may fail, and it’s hard to know what came of its founder after the dust settles. Even successes (and exits) are held close to the chest for fear that others might pile on.
At the same time, there are dozens of remote workers, programmers for companies far away, and creatives growing artisan businesses all tinkering away in coffee shops and in their homes, isolated from one another save for the occasional run-in, art market, or happenstance. This silo approach to business has been banished in the places where startups are big business, and it’s integral that it be banished here.
Ultimately, there is a disconnect that must be bridged within my small town, and probably many of them. The spirit of generosity, of cause-driven thinking, and dense relationships inherent in this community must be extended into the realm of business creation.
We need the same rally around Ideas and Talent and Capital as we have around infrastructure improvement, provision of health, human, or animal services, or creating more parks. Not because either is more or less important, but because growing startup and creative businesses necessarily impacts other areas of the community. People who create things are, well, people who create things. There is a net positive gain for the community economically and psychologically when 100 jobs comes not just from one employer, but from 10 or 20 or 50. In densely populated places, this long tail is easier to accept theoretically and rally around, but in a small town the long tail effects will be easier to see.
I have a vision of thriving entrepreneurial community within my small town that does precisely this. Our job will be to reward risk taking, mourn failure when appropriate, and then make room for someone to try again. We will need to do this over and over and over amidst scoffers and skeptics until it becomes normalized.
In order to accommodate growth-driven modern or creative businesses, we will need a pipeline of talent to include well-trained designers, artisans, and programmers who are rural by choice, who want to create their future right here. So, I’m starting a code school that draws on the insights of all of the combined computer science expertise from our regional schools, plus a practical twist. Our students will build MVP software products in conjunction with enterprise companies and industry partners. They will be able to graduate to accelerator program & startup space, or to employment. Again, our numbers will be vastly different than our urban counterparts, but the impact easier to identify.
We need the infrastructure of abundant connection so that our artisans can sell anywhere and utilize next generation tools to run our businesses. So, we are fiber-connected, and will be equipped with marketing lab and shipping center. We need the capital of micro-finance, angel investment, and venture capital. So, we are experimenting with microloans and have bank leaders and investors as our advisors. We need a place where ideas are honored — where action is encouraged and failure and success can be shared, trust built, and magic possible. So, we are remodeling a downtown warehouse with every detail meant to create an inspiring place to work, connect with others, and learn.
I’ve been instructed by thoughtful experience of Brad Feld in Startup Communities and the intense study of Victor Hwang in The Rainforest, among others. These are required reading for our advisors and board members. Thanks to these doers and researchers, we know the most essential cultural requirement to create sustainable ecosystem where businesses are born, reassemble if they fail, and eventually boom: trust.
This is where us small town folk have an advantage. If the roots of trust are in shared affiliations and awareness of how one’s actions may impact another, then our soil is perhaps more fertile than a sprawling city with more strangers than friends. By establishing this co-working and startup place, we can start being more intentional in cultivating shared use of space and providing opportunities to connect more authentically, to build camaraderie.
In the same way that any cause requires self-sacrifice, creating a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem requires a #givefirst attitude. Small towns are not accustomed to thinking of business as a cause, except when it means really, really big businesses relocating or building new buildings to put jobs. I believe that really big businesses can be grown in a small town. And I believe it’s worth making the step, giving first, and taking a risk in rolling out the red carpet to ideas and startups. I’m committing several years worth of financing to the proposition. And we’ll spend the next decade cultivating a #givefirst approach to nurturing ideas and supporting startups.
We’ve modeled risk-taking with a crowdfunding campaign to identify first members and community sponsors. We see and hear the “wait and see” attitude that wants to see success before joining. And that’s ok. We’ve had others willing to immediately take an action following a tour, and we’ve heard from dozens and dozens about the overwhelming need for this project. Our process is part of our contribution. Showing the struggle and satisfaction of taking a risk is the way that we start to normalize the entrepreneurial experience.
In my observation, working for a cause is what small towns do best. This is my cause — grow the types of business unique to this place but with the eye to what’s possible. And I will keep showing up day after day, joining others who care about this cause, and working in the weeds until the possible becomes reality.