During a recent conversation with an investment banker, I was confronted with a challenge. It went like this; "Chris I really like what you are doing with your business. I think you can really grow your company and I would like to help you, but the only way I am willing to do that is if you move your business to a more populated and appropriate location (over 100 miles away). I really do not understand why you would live where you do. There is no future there. I understand that you are a community guy, and you want to do the right thing, but you are in the wrong place. You can keep on doing what your doing, but you will get nowhere continuing to do business where you are." Keep in mind, I live and do business on the western entrance to Yellowstone National Park. My choice to live where I do has more to do with lifestyle than potential profits. My inspiration was to be able to make a living in a beautiful place, while producing something that made people happy. I was fortunate to work in the coffee industry for ten years from tree to cup before moving back to Montana. My choice of business was based on passion and experience and was not motivated by quick return.
Creating, sustaining and growing a small business in a rural community brings with it a special set of challenges. When a community is a dependent on seasonal tourism as the base of it's economy, it is even more challenging. The chances for success and growth are slim, under the best of circumstances. When you add small town politics, antiquated policies toward new business, massive swings in seasonal visitation and a remote location, the odds of survival are questionable at best. There have been many days over the last ten years of business that I have questioned whether I am in the right place. But it is my love for Montana, Yellowstone, and my belief that we need strong rural communities that tells me that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.
Our rural communities, especially those dependent upon travel and tourism are in need of an economic boost and innovative ideas to sustain and build on their seasonal economies. Efforts need to be made to soften the blow of off seasons. We need to support year round businesses that make products, that can take advantage of year round sales, via wholesale distribution and online opportunities. Businesses need to work more closely with each other, purchasing from and supporting each other with local dollars where they can.
Local governments need to step up and create incentives to attract new business while growing and maintaining existing business. These efforts need to be local in focus with long term goals and planning.
Small business, in a town like West Yellowstone, Montana, is a long term bet that banks will not fully embrace. Banks and investors are very keen on startups and small business at the moment, but the game they are playing is for short term gains. I have been told that rural business is too big of a risk and too slow of a return in the current economy. I would argue that to abandon investment in small towns is to lose sight of an important piece of the overall economic puzzle. Rural communities can and should be examples for innovative and efficient growth. Local government policy along with private investment, focused on long term outcomes can help create an environment for rural America to flourish. The need for communities outside of urban and suburban areas to provide manufactured products, high tech operations, and services for tourism and travel should not be underestimated. Rural communities can do these things just as well as larger communities. They can do it efficiently and in environmentally friendly and innovative ways. We are doing it with our company, but we need more businesses to see the advantage of working in our small community, if we are going to see growth of our local economy into the future.
Our business has survived and grown during ten years of a very seasonal economy, a government shutdown that closed Yellowstone, record raw coffee prices, a terrible recession, and a cancer diagnosis with multiple health issues for my wife and business partner. All of these things resulted in great achievements and huge challenges at the same time. Hopefully in the process, our little mom and pop business has contributed to making our small rural community on the edge of Yellowstone National Park a better place. Every day is still an inspiration to innovate, improve and grow our business. I would much rather contribute to a rural community, with all of it's challenges than to move and become another cog in the urban wheel. There are no achievements without challenges and I am proud to live and do business in rural America.