Friday, November 07, 2008

Why Community Matters...

It is easy to forget how important a community is to an entrepreneur, when you are heads down in a project and trying to launch a company. Most entrepreneurs (especially ones in the Internet business) may not consider their community an asset at all.
Just like the old days, when communities were built around the local steel plant and everyone supported local businesses because the knew that it would benefit their neighbor - the 21st century community needs to embrace some of the basic principals in building strong cities. Our businesses may be evolving - becoming global and selling to customers thousands of miles away - but I think there are some key principles that we need to continue to embrace in order to build strong communities and thus stronger businesses.
First lets talk about the basics - what does a startup business need?
Simple - 1) Help and 2) Customers.
Help can come in different forms - perhaps a local incubator or small business guidance program to help entrepreneurs find the right resources to solve their problems. Help can also be other entrepreneurs in the local community providing their services, or a local newspaper giving the new business some exposure by writing an article. Sometimes, an entrepreneur just needs a couple of breaks to get their business on track. Who better to offer this help, but the local community who has a vested interest in their success (e.g. economic development).
What if a business needs a few hands to help them do some work? How about a more aggressive internship program with local high schools or colleges as a way to help businesses.
And customers? Every business (and consumer) can be a potential customer for a new business in their community. If a company is spending the money on a product or service anyway - why not buy from a local company instead? Why not promote business-to-business transactions in local communities. Perhaps they will get better service - and even if its the same - they are supporting a local business which in turn can support them.
If any community wants to prosper in the 21st century, when the global economy allows for a worker in India to compete with a worker in Sarasota, Florida for a job - and when a product built in Orlando competes with a similar product built for half the money in China - then we need to go back to what made the American economy strong - the local community.
By supporting local businesses, you support your own business. By buying products and services from your community - you strengthen the local economy and more importantly you strengthen your community.
Here are my final thoughts:
1. If you are a business and buy technology or services from outside your community - reconsider buying from local businesses that offer the same service. Try them out. If they are the same or better - than why not buy local?
2. If you are a media company (newspaper, cable, etc) and you survive on advertising dollars - then perhaps take more time in talking about local businesses that are new - give them a boost when they need it the most. Perhaps down the road, when they have the money they will become an advertiser.
3. If you are a local school (college or high school) - integrate with the local business community. Provide internship credits to your students and give help to new businesses in the area. This helps startups grow when they don't have money to hire full time staff. The best lesson any student could learn is what it is like starting a new business.
4. If you are a local entrepreneur - take time to help other entrepreneurs by offering advice, resources or open your network of professionals to them to help connect them to the right people. Perhaps you can introduce them to their first big customer, or the key investor they need to launch their company.
In summary, the Community Matters. This idea that businesses can grow in a silo, and that the "global economy" eliminates the need to be local is wrong. Never in the history of our economy, has it been more important for businesses to find strength locally so that they can compete and prosper globally.