Entrepreneurs of America: Get ready for your close-ups.
On Monday, Michael Glauser, executive director of the Clark Center for Entrepreneurship at Utah State University, will embark on a two-month bike journey from Florence, Oregon, to Yorktown, Virginia. Along that 4,000-mile route, he will encounter glorious scenery; struggling main streets; and--most important--successful small businesses. His goal is to promote American entrepreneurship by chronicling its rich variety: the stories, strategies, and personalities of unsung people running unsung companies in largely unsung places. "These are people who can teach us how to create a job for yourself in areas where there are no jobs," says Glauser. "Some of these small-town entrepreneurs have been doing this for decades. And they are going to be phenomenal role models." (Here are the details on the ride.)
Two areas of research inspired Glauser's trip--on which he will be accompanied by three colleagues from his training company, My New Enterprise; students and well-wishers; and a film crew on a tour bus. The first demonstrates the declining need for human labor, caused chiefly by technology. The second suggests that while hordes are abandoning suburbs for cities, as many as half of Americans would prefer to live in smaller towns or even rural areas. By starting their own businesses, Glauser says "people can provide themselves a livelihood, and they can do it in places that have the quality of life they desire."
So Glauser and his crew will visit entrepreneurs like Dave Tibbitts, who owns a river-running service in Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Vicki Stobbe, co-founder of a three design-related retail companies in Newton, Kansas; and Hank Viccellio, founder of an eponymous jewelry business in York, Virginia. "We're going to visit some Amish companies in Kenucky, which have extraordinary survival rates," says Glauser. "We're going to a ghost town in Mitchell, Oregon to interview the owner of the only hotel and café."
Glauser identified companies by scouring web sites and local newspapers, watching business-related programs, and reaching out to other academics and chambers of commerce around the country. All of the companies he is visiting are at least five years old and located along the TransAmerica cycling trail. "We are talking to people that can teach us something about growth and sustainability, but we're not trying to be real academic about it," says Glauser, who plans to produce a series of videos and a book documenting the experience. "We're not going to say these are the best companies and here is what best companies do. We want to show people what doing this is really like. And we want to tell good stories."
Interestingly, Glauser isn't the only academic having a Kerouac moment. In the new book, Roadside MBA: Back Road Lessons for Entrepreneurs, Executives, and Small Business Owners, three management professors uncover a bounty of business wisdom in places like Jonesboro, Arkansas; Hickory, North Carolina; and Council Bluffs, Iowa. The Roadside authors traveled by car and without an entourage; and their focus is more on strategy than on story. But as they drop in on funeral homes and community banks, fitness centers and small manufacturers, their adventure--like Glauser's-- is rich with the spirit of discovery.
There's no way of knowing whether these two ventures signal a renewed interest in the kinds of bedrock, bootstrapped businesses that people used to associate with entrepreneurship before Silicon Valley coopted that word. The founders of such companies don't turn up on magazine covers or drive around with license plates that read "INOV8TN," but many have stories that are every bit as dramatic and experiences that are every bit as instructive as their coastal peers. If companies like these become the subjects of case studies, documentaries and business books, so much the better. The so-called flyover states are full of fascinating businesses. It's time for a layover.