Entrepreneurship Out Here

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There’s the Iraqi war veteran who converted an Amish dairy farm into a craft distillery. There’s the bowling-alley operator who streams live performances by local songwriters from a barn. There’s the retiree from California who initially intended to open a senior-care facility but instead sources furnished, month-to-month rentals for corporate travelers. There’s the couple who produces both TV commercials and feature-length horror movies with local actors. There’s the former private gourmet chef who moved back to the family farm and now operates an all-organic, community-supported agriculture service.

And there are dozens more. It might surprise you – it surprises me, and I live here – just how many innovative entrepreneurs there are making a go of it here in my sparsely populated area of Kentucky.

Many of them get together 7:30 every Wednesday morning at a barbecue restaurant in Madisonville, a town of about 20,000 in the coalfields situated between Kentucky’s far-western tobacco farms and center-of-the-state horse country. Business cards are often exchanged, but this really is not a standard mixer at which to identify potential customers or partners. It’s one of the 50-plus local programs of 1 Million Cups, a Kauffman Foundation initiative to “engage entrepreneurs in communities around the world.

“Presenters prepare a six-minute educational presentation and engage in twenty minutes of feedback and questioning after they present. Entrepreneurs gain insight into possible ways they can improve their businesses, gather real-time feedback, connect with a community that cares about their progress, and walk away feeling like they have advanced their business.”1

It’s likely that Madisonville is the smallest town hosting a regular 1 Million Cups event, but the gathering here is approaching a year old and it keeps on percolating with interesting stories of local businesses invented/re-invented/re-inventing.

Maybe it’s because I’ve gotten to work with so many startups through Interprose, but one thing that strikes me most every Wednesday is just how many challenges are commonly shared across businesses of vastly different industries and size. Finding the right personalities and skill sets to build out a team…understanding regulatory challenges…knowing when to expand staff or evolve offerings…the provider of point-of-sale software for retail businesses and the nearly 150-year-old supplier of concrete block often basically confront the same issues and speak the same language.

It’s fun, too, to learn the variety of things people are doing in a little town like mine. In some cases, the story of how a person came to the decision to start a business in this particular place and at this particular time do not feel particular to here and now at all – it’s some version of, Company X struck the iron on a fast-developing market opportunity when Company Y quit servicing this area. In several others, though, precisely right here and precisely right now seem absolutely central to the story. The Internet and all of its associated innovation are frequently key players in these stories – a given company could not do here what it does now without the capabilities that broadband connectivity affords and undergirds.

One of the intriguing themes of giant innovations like the Internet, and now the smart grid, cloud computing, Internet of Things (IoT), and big data is how whole new businesses and industries are enabled by their proliferation. I grew up in a little rural town where my parents often agonized over the need to potentially “move where the work is.” It’s especially intriguing to see this paradigm shift playing out, given that I’m a middle-aged parent in a similar town today.

Technology innovation is altering the very foundations on which business is conducted and life is lived around the world. The factors that influence how real people make some of the big choices in their lives – what am I called to do with my life, and where will I do it? – are amid a historic shift. I hear the anecdotal evidence of this when I listen to the entrepreneurs trade lessons learned over coffee at 1 Million Cups each week, and I see suggestions of the same in various business news releases:

  • “Entrepreneurship is at an all-time high in the state …”2
  • “(T)he Cabinet for Economic Development has created the Office of Entrepreneurship … a concerted effort to enhance the vital role small businesses and entrepreneurs play in Kentucky’s economic growth.”3
  • “Last year, Kentucky announced more than 350 new location and expansion projects, which are projected to create nearly 15,000 jobs and more than $3.7 billion in new investment. That is the most business investment in Kentucky since the state started recording investment data nearly 30 years ago.”4

It’s simply getting easier for people to do what they want to do where they want to do it, and it’s exciting to see what the people in my little town are doing with that huge liberating fact.

Tweet.Me – Byte-sized bits for your tweeting pleasure:

  1. http://www.kauffman.org/what-we-do/programs/entrepreneurship/1-million-cups
  2. http://kyinnovation.com/kentuckys-office-entrepreneurship-helps-small-businesses
  3. http://www.thinkkentucky.com/newsroom/NewsPage.aspx?x=07222013_OEC.html
  4. http://www.thinkkentucky.com/newsroom/NewsPage.aspx?x=03032015_govCup.html