Every business, regardless of the size of both the company or the community it is in, faces a certain amount of struggles and adversity. The key in overcoming them is to concentrate on what your strengths and advantages are and use those to leverage success. You need to stand out from your competition, whether you are one of 300 or only 3 of a particular business in your community.
A common assumption is that big businesses and corporations have the upper hand over small businesses, and certainly those in very small, rural communities. How could the little guys possibly compete with the big guys, right? Wrong. In the world of technology – and certainly social media – no one is limited solely by their geographical area.
Becky McCray doesn’t just talk about small business and rural living, she actually lives it. As the owner of two businesses in a community of only 30 residents, her experience and practical perspective make her an authority on how small, rural businesses can grow while shaping and greatly impacting their communities
Rich: Becky McCray is a small town business owner. She and her husband Joe own a retail liquor store and a cattle ranch. She shares insights from this real world experience at her highly ranked website, smallbizsurvivial.com, and in her award winning book, Small Town Rules.
Her practical perspective is often featured in a wide range of media from the New York Times to the High Plains Journal. She makes her home in Hopeton, Oklahoma, a community of 30 people. Her goal is to deliver practical steps that you can put into action right away to shape the future of your town. Becky, welcome to the show.
Becky: Thank you very much, I’m excited to be here.
Rich: So 30 people, that’s crazy. That is definitely a small town. How did you go from running a small business – or actually 2 – in a rural setting, to become the voice for rural businesses in small towns?
Becky: Well, thank you. I hope that I’m “a” voice anyway, for rural businesses and small towns. It started in 2006, my husband and I bought the liquor store that we now own, I had been working a 50-60 hour a week job as a small town city administrator, and went from that to running the store. I found that I had a little bit of time on my hands, it was not nearly as demanding as 50-60 hours a week had been.
There are dead times that you have some time on your hands at the liquor store and I decided to take the information I was still receiving by email. I was subscribed to all sorts of economic development stuff and community development things and business development and everything that you can think of about rural. And I was sharing that with a few friends and realized that must be really annoying for people to be constantly getting emails from me, so I said there are 10-12 people that are interested in this stuff so I’ll just put it online.
So I started the blog, Small Biz Survival, and started putting these things online. Then it turns out there’s more than 12 people. There’s not millions, but there are a several hundred – I think we have 1,200 subscribers – and then lots of people who come by every week that are just searching to something related to small town business and find their answer there.
And come to think of it, there’s 1,700 people that subscribe to the email once a week as well where we talk about ways that you can shape the future of your town. So how it happened was I found I had more time and decided to share it with more people and have found that more people are very interested in that.
Rich: I love that story, I love how you just created something that you though a few people would find valuable and share it, and then all of a sudden built this community around it. Even though the community may be from big towns and small towns scattered around the world, you just shared something and it brought people to you. That’s very cool. Just out of curiosity, did you grow up in a similar size town?
Becky: I kind of grew up around Texas and Oklahoma. My parents were following the oil boom around Texas and Oklahoma through the 70’s and 80’s, so I always spent my summers in this neighborhood. Hopeton is my town of 30 people, and 8 miles away where there is nothing in between, there is the big town of about 5,000 people called Alva, Oklahoma. I spend my summers here with my grandparents every single summer. I felt like that was a treat for us but later found out that was because my parents wanted the summers off, too.
We had a great time growing up and we got to spend every summer here in the small town and I think that really influenced a lot of my perspective on the world. So even though I lived in Oklahoma City with my parents and near Dallas – in one of the Dallas suburbs – I had that kind of experience as well. The small town experience turned out to be the one that I really connected with and that I’ve stayed with in the rest of my life.
Rich: That’s cool. Now I’m sure that there are a lot of rural businesses out there in very small towns that feel like the cards are stacked against them and there’s no way that they can succeed. What advice would you give them?
Becky: If you feel like things are stacked against you, I would say to turn that around and start looking for your advantages because W. Clement Stone says “that for every disadvantage, there is a corresponding advantage.” Being based in a small town – especially if you grew up in a small town – you have characteristics, part of the culture that you grew up with, and this is now part of your makeup. It makes you a stronger and better business person.
You know to plan for zero, you know there will be years when there is no income, you plan for that. You know that you can’t rely on one single line of income and that you probably have more than one kind of thing going on – like a liquor store and a cattle ranch – whatever it is in your case. You’re smart enough to know that technology is a tool and that you’re not limited by your geographic area, that you can reach out beyond that. You know customer service at a deep level in your character.
This is something that big city companies – especially very large companies – spend untold amounts of money trying to train people how to train other people like human beings. If you grew up in a small town, then you have that built in to you.
These are all things that are part of your make up, so no matter how the deck may be stacked against you, there are ways that you have advantages that no one can ever take away from you.
Rich: Alright, that’s good advice, Becky. So along those same lines – because you talked about some of the characteristics that go into a small town person or a rural town person in terms of the business – what do you think are some of the challenges and opportunities these same businesses face when it comes to things like digital marketing and social media, or maybe even the web in general?
Becky: Oh definitely I think that. Let’s start with some of our advantages because the ability of knowing how to treat people becomes an enormous advantage when we go online. When we go online we know how to be friendly, we know how to reply to everybody that speaks to us, we know how to give a feeling of community, how to build a community, because we use those skills all the time in our everyday life. We know to treat people like everyone depends on each other, and that interdependence is an important characteristic of being online and doing business online. Knowing that every single customer can talk to every customer and that everyone that you meet is an important person.
Those characteristics that are part of you definitely become huge advantages online. We have opportunities in that we are dealing in, if you are a business that works locally and you are looking for customers locally, you don’t have as many competitors for those local dollars. I am one of two liquor stores – although there’s a third one that’s in process and is going to open up – that still only leaves three liquor stores in my immediate market. So it’s not a matter of trying to stand out in a listing of 30 stores or 300 stores in the greater metropolitan area, there are 3.
So that makes it easier to get on page one of the results if there’s only 3. That’s an advantage that we have over large urban and suburban businesses. We don’t have to worry as much about what do we call our town because we know the name of our town. But if you’re in a big city, then do people use the city name or the metropolitan area name, do they think in terms of the suburb they’re in or the smaller area, are they going to think neighborhood, how will they search for me. If people are searching for a liquor store in Alva, Oklahoma, they’re going to put in “Alva, Oklahoma”, where that’s not the same if you’re in a metropolitan area made up of a lot of geographic names.
So there’s a number of things just like that that we have big advantages that we just don’t think about that nobody brings up in this frame, that actually, there are huge advantages to being in a small town.
Rich: I like the idea of the customer service aspect, too, because you’re absolutely right. When you know everybody in your town, you’re used to treating them in a certain way and that kind of shapes the way you are. Even in Portland, Maine – which may seem much bigger compared to a town of 30 – but I walk into the same people walking down the street when I go out for lunch every day. That’s not necessarily going to happen in New York City by any stretch. And then knowing that these people are also going to talk to eachother like they do online. The online version is just a scaled up version of that, so that is something that they might see as an advantage.
Now obviously one of the things that’s going on with technology is the fact that – a liquor store may not be the case – there will be some businesses where you suddenly may be competing with global brands or national brands suddenly because they ship anywhere. But at the same time, you may have opportunities that weren’t there before.
Have you seen a shift in a lot of your rural neighbors able to make that shift and be able to kind of take their business outside of their own town?
Becky: Absolutely. I think that a great example of this would be like fabric, because there’s a good news story at the end of this that makes a great payoff. If you think about it, you could buy fabric to do quilting with anywhere. And quilting is actually quite a popular hobby, it’s one of those things that people are taking up more and more. Also, the people who make quilts will drive any distance to go to a really great quilt shop, so there’s a certain amount of loyalty and interest in people that like a good quilt shop. Basically they sell fabric, the same kind of sheet fabric that you could buy at any large discounter and are available in numerous more places online.
So it’s something that could be seen as a commodity, but how could you differentiate it. There’s a wonderful company called the Missouri Star Quilt Company and they’ve gotten a lot of attention because they’ve done such a great job online. They have a YouTube channel and Jenny Doan is the name of the woman that does all of the demonstrations and it’s her children that started the business. And she goes on YouTube and does these great quilting demonstrations and people buy hundreds of packages of fabric that leave the store in Hamilton, Missouri which has a population of under 2,000 people. Hundreds of packages of fabric a day leave there and go all over the United States, they go all over the world. They’ve had tourists show up who came all the way from Australia, flew to the United States, drove all the way out to Hamilton, Missouri to experience it in real life.
It’s a wonderful cross/side story, its the whole integrated media question of they have online and then they have the offline experience as well. That store is now employing 125 people and that makes them the largest private employer in their county, which is an enormous economic difference for their community. And, the small business administration just named them the business people of the year.
So it’s a great sense of a store that was started as a bricks and mortar store with an online component to market how much they’ve reached globally and how many of those online contacts have now come full circle and want to come experience the bricks and mortar store and meet Jenny and have the in-person experience as well. It’s part of integrating the technology and going across all the channels that you can to reach people in a truly human, important way.
Rich: That’s awesome. It’s almost like, first of all they’ve got this great story, but they also have something that’s very unique and it’s definitely the kind of thing that never before the internet ever would have been spread around all that much. But now there’s that opportunity to kind of go and meet this person you’ve seen on YouTube, to purchase from them, to support their store.
And it’s definitely an aspect where you can see where this ability to tell your story can really be scaled up and suddenly no matter where you are in the world – even if it feels remote – that you can do business anywhere in the world. In this case they’ve done an amazing job getting people who have flown over from Australia, so that’s a very cool story.
So I was reading on your blog something about a “Tweet Folk Tour,” can you talk a little about that?
Becky: I love the Tweet Folk Tours, they’re so awesome. There’s a great county called Norfolk County, Ontario and I had an opportunity to go up and speak there a couple of times and met some wonderful people up there. And Gregg McLachlan is one of the people I met and he was one of the people that helped co-found the Tweet Folk Tours. The other people are Amy Van Kessel and Mike McArthur. They decided what they needed was a way to bring together the amazing local businesses that they have within their entire county and the people online who would like to talk with them.
So what they do is the businesses get together and pick one business a week, that business puts together some kind of exciting experience. Like the winery gave them a back room tour and let them taste from barrels and helped them understand the maturing and aging process of wine. So the business comes up with that experience and then local people can sign up – only on Twitter – you have to sign up on Twitter specifically because if you attend this event, you’re expected to blab about it online. You must talk about this online. So the idea is you’re going to get the tour, get in the back room of the winery and taste the wine. But you need to post photos, you need to talk about it and you need to share it to Instagram and Twitter and put some stuff on Facebook. The idea is it becomes a Twitter chat that happens right there in that business at that time.
It drives a number of huge and wonderfully beneficial results. First, it increases among businesses an awareness of how much online tools can get the word out. So instead of going and trying to drag your business owners by the scruff of the neck and make them understand how important being online is, this activity does that for them because other businesses see what an amazing thing it was.
The second thing is it gets more local people who want to be online and learn the online tools by using them, and they get an opportunity to experience something wonderful – and they share about it online so they’re building up the digital tools within your population at least in a lightweight format.
And then it’s increasing awareness of what local businesses exist in the communities. So maybe you knew there was a winery, but did you know that there’s a group doing ecotours out on the lake. So more people are finding out about more businesses that exist within the community. And then, as is true of online conversations, the conversation is going on between the people experiencing the event and other locals that are talking about it at the same time. But there’s the people that are overhearing the conversation which includes people like me that had been to Norfolk one time and I’m dying to go back on a night when they’re doing a Tweet Folk Tour just so I can be part of it.
But we talk about it and we go, “That’s really cool. I didn’t know you had that ecotourism thing out on the lake.” So I learned more about more businesses in Norfolk County than anybody because I watch the Tweet Folk Tours. I’ve only been in Norfolk County a couple of times but I feel like a local because I’ve been able to watch this conversation go on. So I have a whole bunch of former locals that miss it and talk about it online, there are other people that are interested and they talk about it online and all the locals talk about it online. What an enormous driver, it creates a ton of content at the time of the event, but a lot of interaction and a lot of awareness across this huge group of people that otherwise might not have ever heard of Norfolk County.
So I think that it’s a great example that any town can take this idea – any one business can take this idea – grab one group of people locally and you can make this work in your community as well. You find a new name for it, you pick your hashtag and you hold these events where people get an insider experience, they share about it online and everybody benefits.
Rich: That’s brilliant, and I’m glad you said that anybody can take it, because as I’m listening to it right now I can think of so many places here in Maine that I can think of doing it. It doesn’t even make a difference how small or large your community is, it’s just a brilliant idea.
I have a friend that’s opening a distillery in the next couple months and I definitely have to share this show with him because I think he would love to have a tweet tour go through his brand new distillery and show off what he’s doing in his corner of the world.
Becky: Definitely. And it promotes the online skills of the businesses, the attendees, the community, so you’re building up this bank of talent of people that can promote your place online. It’s just such a brilliant idea and credit goes to Gregg McLachlan, he’s the one that told me all about it. And if you search “Tweet Folk Tours,” then you’ll find information on them, they’re all over online.
Rich: Very cool. And we do a full transcript for this, so we’ll make sure that we have links out to that in the show. I want to come back to your blog for a minute., Small Biz Survival. Now you told that interesting story about how this was something you had been emailing out and then you just figured you’d just put it out there so you weren’t constantly emailing these people. And you must have realized that you were on to something. Like you said, it’s not the world’s biggest blog ever, but it is highly ranked and it is successful. What other tactics have you started to use to get the word out about small biz survival?
Becky: Oh gosh, I started it in 2006 so over those 8 years I have used quite a few tactics. The first thing I did way back in 2006 when I started it, I did email those 12 people and tell them I was going to quit sending you articles, if you’re interested you can go here. Which is still a perfectly valid thing. If your friend with the distillery emails his friends and says he’s going to quit bothering them with updates, they can find it online. That’s still a perfectly valid way to draw people to your site is to let the people know that you know – directly by email – they can come to the site. Encourage them to spread it around.
So that was one of the first tactics I used. I also used a tactic of going to people that I knew were smart people, that I respected their opinion, and I asked them to write a guest post. These were people that were not necessarily online, but that I knew were smart people and would raise the smartness level of the stuff that was being written.
So I got some guest posts from people I highly respected, and I felt like first of all that made them aware that I was doing this, and second of all, that I was giving them a stake in what was going on and they did a certain amount of promotion. These were not people who were influential online, so I don’t think they did a lot of promotion for me in that sense, but I felt that it was a good exercise because of those reasons that I mentioned.
I’ve done podcasting off and on since 2006 and we do a weekly newsletter now that is focused on shaping the future of your community. Once you have 8 years of back issues, then 10,000 – 15,000 people a week will find you and their answer by searching something that you’ve written about. Or that’s what I have found. Other tactics I have used, everything you can think of I’ve probably used at one point or another.
Rich: So do you do a lot with social media, do you push it out through social media? I saw there were social share buttons on the blog post.
Becky: There are share buttons on the blog posts. I’m currently using AddThis app to handle my share buttons because I like the way that they work. After somebody shares it thanks them and then gives them a chance to follow our social accounts. There is a Twitter account that is dedicated to my site, that’s @SBSurvival. It tweets out each post as they come out and I also use that account to share a lot of links and news. And then I have my personal account on Twitter that I’ve had since 2006 – before there were hashtags – like, a long time ago.
Rich: Before there were hashtags?!
Becky: Before we had @ names. So on 2006 I got on Twitter and that account, @BeckyMcCray, that’s where I get chatty and converse with people. So I have the separate account for the blog if people want that kind of news and links in an automated feed, that’s that account. If they want to hear about it from me they can follow me directly and that’s much more conversational.
Rich: I was going to ask where we could find out more about you online, I’m sure a lot of people are interested. You shared your Twitter account, where else would you like people to check you out?
Becky: Well smallbizsurvival.com is a great place to see everything about small town business. And then beckymccray.com is where you can find out about me as a speaker. I’m always on Twitter, @BeckyMcCray.
Rich: Excellent. I want to thank you for your time. I definitely took a lot away in terms of how rural businesses can market and promote themselves, and then some of those aspects that we can bring into our own marketing no matter the size of our business or the size of our town. So Becky, for that I want to thank you very much for your time and expertise.
Becky: Thank you very much, Rich.
- Interested in learning more about Becky and her tips & advice that she shares as a small town, rural business owner? Check out her website!
- Looking for a great read about “small town entrepreneur” secrets and their impact on larger businesses and companies? Check out Becky’s book on that exact subject!
- Becky is active on Twitter! She enjoys interacting with others on her personal account – or – for automated tweets of rural business related news, you can follow her business account.
- Learn more about the popular and successful Tweet Folk Tours.
- Learn more about Rippleffect.
- Have you purchased your tickets to the Agents Of Change Digital Marketing Conference yet? Discounts end on 7.31.15. It’s not too late, get them here!