Making it Big in a Small Town

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BY MICK HARPER | GUEST WRITER NORTHERN BC

Many entrepreneurs and small business owners are accustomed to doing everything themselves. A few are even unable to delegate. But if you want to scale your business, you need to learn how to collaborate.

Take a look at Amy Quarry, for example. A serial entrepreneur whose first business was making handbags and sewing children’s clothing, she branched into a graphic design and marketing company that focused on creating a public washroom ad network in her hometown of Quesnel, a resource-based community located in British Columbia’s Central Interior. It was during this period that she met “a lot of amazing entrepreneurs who were doing great things in our community,” she says, “and I wanted to find a way to tell their stories that went deeper than just an advertisement.”

Quarry felt that sharing compelling and engaging stories of local entrepreneurs would help the community get to know them better, and subsequently create more support for their businesses. When customers choose to make local purchases, those same businesses are able to support the community, which makes the eco-system of a small town healthier, and everyone benefits. The idea for “Small Town Love” was born.

Small Town Love” started in 2011 with a guidebook of business profiles and coupons for local stores, and was well received by over 50 businesses who worked collaboratively on the buy-local initiative. It proved to be very successful, selling out 2500 copies in only a few months — in a town of only 10,000. Today, 1 in 5 Quesnel residents own a copy of the first issue. STL is anchored by a strongly branded website, high quality photography and features many independently owned local businesses.

Buying local isn’t a earth-shatteringly new idea.

Countless communities in many countries have each put their own spin on the concept. But unlike some other approaches that make it about ‘a race to the bottom’ by slashing prices to entice people to spend locally, STL is about building human connections between local stores and their customers, and on a deeper level between neighbours, families and shop owners. It’s about creating a voice for the heart of the community.

According to her website, Quarry says that of every $100 you spend locally, $75 of it stays local. Whereas if you spend the same amount at a big box or a chain store, only $13 is kept in the community. When you shop local, you build relationships in the community. You give independent businesses an opportunity to serve and thrive. You are investing in the economic development and growth of your area.

It didn’t take long for other communities in the region to sit up and take notice. “From the beginning we were approached by other towns wanting us to expand,” Quarry explains, “but I had a hard time conceptualizing how to scale it without massive capital or manpower that I just didn’t have at the time.” She struggled with how to take a successful grass-roots, fiercely local idea and scale it. “I worked on different ideas of how to grow the business for almost a year without really hitting anything solid,” she admits.

That’s where the collaboration part comes in.

An organization that was working on a similar buy-local campaign approached STL and threw their resources behind it, forming an effective partnership. Northern Development Initiative Trust is an independent, non-profit corporation to stimulate economic growth by investing in community-led projects.

“There is solid evidence that successful buy-local campaigns in smaller communities help the economy thrive,” says Evan Saugstad, Chair, Northern Development Initiative Trust. “The Trust exists to serve communities throughout central and northern BC, and we believe this pilot program celebrates and supports the growth of fantastic home-grown businesses throughout the region.”

“This opened up huge possibilities for my company,” Quarry explains, “and we revisited all of our ideas to figure out how it could work to expand in the context of a partnership with Northern Development.” Together, STL and NDIT are creating a pilot project that launches this fall in six communities throughout the Northern BC region: Logan Lake, Fort St. James, 100 Mile House, Vanderhoof, Valemount and Burns Lake each have a population of less than 5,000 people.

A little collaboration can go a long way in taking your business to the next level. “It has given us everything we needed to expand, and it’s even better than I could have envisioned, “ says Quarry, “because it is a partnership and I have support and resources that I could not have created on my own, making the chances for success so much better.”

“Our hope is that Small Town Love can serve as a powerful reminder that BC’s small towns are worth visiting, living in — and investing in. Supporting local independent businesses means putting your money where your heart is.”