Fostering Small Town Innovation and Local Entrepreneurship by Copying Google


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By Joanne Steele

I have spent 40 years living, working and volunteering in small towns. As a marketing specialist, I have been professionally focused on the unique marketing needs of rural communities and towns with populations well under 10,000. As a former teacher, I relish the challenge of translating complex marketing concepts into simple, doable steps that can be tackled by the busy business owners and volunteers who are the engines of small towns.

Presently, many declining rural communities are staking their futures on the creation of a robust entrepreneurial social structure. Let’s look at some simple, doable steps to achieving that goal.

Realizing that survival is at stake, small towns and rural communities all over the United States are looking for ways to reinvent themselves. They are searching for grant funding to build the deus ex machina that will save the town. They are hiring experts from afar to tell them what to do. They are begging their youth not to leave. Exhausted town leaders are scrapping among themselves about how to spend their limited resources to “create jobs.”

It’s time to take a breath and look for a successful model to copy that uses available resources, that doesn’t require monumental change within a rural community and that can lead to immediate, visible indications of future success.

What company is more worthy of this role than Google, one of the most successful businesses in the history of the world?

Google encourages innovation and entrepreneurship.

They understand the value of their human capital, their workers, and go out of their way to respect and serve those creative people. They look and feel more like a small town packed with individual entrepreneurs on a common mission than a typical corporation.

Here’s how every small town and rural community can copy Google’s success:

1. Have a Mission

At Google, the mission imbues everything everyone does. Their mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Nothing in that mission talks about the how or why, which had led Googlers, as their workers are fondly called, to invent all sorts of ways to access everything from email to the night sky.

Your town needs a mission. Not a brand or a cute little slogan. You need a mission. By definition a mission is “A written declaration of an organization’s core purpose and focus that normally remains unchanged over time” ( If you look at what passes for a mission in most small towns today, it might read something like “keeping kids from leaving” or “not dying.” Does a town truly want to remain “not dying” over time?

Looking deeper, you’ll probably discover that there is a positive mission that could be guiding your town if you extract the fear that masks it. What is the positive statement of what townspeople want for the future? Ask them.

This is a great project for a chamber of commerce, town council or service organization. You don’t need or want a community forum that ends up representing a small fraction of the town. You can get everyone’s ideas by distributing a questionnaire around town with one question, “What is the core purpose of our town that will carry us into the future?”

2. Collaborate

Google understands that individual innovation and entrepreneurship doesn’t exist and grow in a vacuum. Google has systems in place that allow Googlers to share ideas, information, ask for help and keep up on what everyone else in the company is working on. They use their own high-tech tools: a robust intranet, searchable databases and email.

Small towns and rural communities have their own effective social networks. We meet and talk at church, the grocery store, at club meetings and on the street. These are networks every bit as valuable as the Internet’s social media examples, Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

Looking at the work of network-weaving experts, Valdis Krebs and June Holley, we see that many small towns have seriously fragmented social networks. The old label for this is cliques. Townspeople communicate with, volunteer with, club with and share ideas with a limited number of other individuals.

These little clusters of likeminded people are effective. Because of them the town festival happens every year. Christmas baskets are distributed to the needy. Money is found for community projects near and dear to a specific club or service organization.

But the huge undertaking of helping a town to survive takes the input and work of everyone. And the town-wide fragmented network cannot respond to this need.

How to Foster a Small Town Social Network that Can Rise to the Task of Saving a Small Town and Fostering Entrepreneurship

A simple physical social network that functions similarly to Google’s sophisticated intranet is essential. A small town council or chamber of commerce could easily call quarterly networking sessions that include representatives from every committee, club and organization in town. These sessions would allow for networkers to answer three important questions, and everyone in town to learn:

1. What is your organization doing?
2. What is working?
3. What is missing?

Results can and should be distributed using the most efficient tools available for reaching all participants. Remember Google’s “universally accessible” rule.

3. Foster Innovation

Here is where we get into fostering entrepreneurship.

What entrepreneur wouldn’t be attracted to a town with a clear, positive mission they could measure their own goals and aspirations against? Conversely, what entrepreneur would want to set up shop in a community whose mission is to “not die”!

What budding entrepreneur wouldn’t relish the idea of a town-wide network to use to address their own “what’s missing” dilemmas?

Innovation is a process of creating something better and more effective out of things and ideas already in existence. A community intent on growing entrepreneurs must be ready to provide “what’s missing,” be it better broadband access or, in the case of our little town, consistent access to restaurants for workshop participants.

A well-networked town, with an organized system for sharing activities and needs (as described above) functioning like Google’s intranet, provides an opportunity for innovators and entrepreneurs to connect with a small town’s resources.

The simple and doable steps outlined above can create the climate for a vibrant turnaround for a small town. Instead of continuing to spiral downward, a community will see that spiral turn around and begin to circle upward.


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