In 1905, the Aberdeen, South Dakota area was a global leader in telephone technology.
Thanks to visionary entrepreneur John Zeitlow, the Hub City area had America’s first automatic dialing service, superior voice technology, and more telephones per person than any other city on the planet. With innovation, hard work, and community support, Zeitlow’s scrappy Dakota Central Telephone Company successfully beat telephone giants Bell and AT&T at their own game.
In the 1970s and 80s, however, the global tech revolution changed the game for small towns across America. With so much innovation happening in major cities, many smart, creative people left small towns, feeling they had to go elsewhere to achieve their dreams. As the brain drain continued, Aberdeen and surrounding communities slowly shrank for the next several decades.
Now the game is changing once again.
Recent advances in broadband access, virtual workspaces and transportation have made it possible to build and manage a successful global company from anywhere, while still enjoying the great quality of life a small town provides. Thanks to COVID and other recent events, more and more people across the country are waking up to this fact, and a new migration back to rural areas is already beginning.
As a digital marketing strategist, I get to meet and work with lots of entrepreneurs who are building new, innovative businesses in their hometowns. They’re in industries like online retail, value added ag, 3D printing, biotech, journalism, robotics, app development, and more.
I believe the next generation of rural innovators like Zeitlow will be the main drivers of sustainable economic growth for small towns. By building new companies, creating jobs, investing in their hometowns, and inspiring others to do the same, entrepreneurs have an outsized impact on the future of their local communities, and they need all the support they can get.
For this future to happen, business leaders, Chambers of Commerce, development groups, and local governments must work together to create the best possible environment for new entrepreneurs to flourish. This requires new ways of thinking. Traditional economic development efforts are important, but are usually designed to help established companies, not innovators and startups. Nurturing an entrepreneurial ecosystem is hard work, but as we have already seen in places like Fargo and Sioux Falls, it pays off in spades.
When smart, creative people believe they have the support they need to achieve their dreams right in their community, the future of small towns is bright. I’m on #teamrural, and that’s the future I’m aiming for. Are you with me?