NEW HAMPTON - As large employers continue their exodus from rural America, a rising tide of small business owners has sprouted in its wake, with varying degrees of success.
The trend is not new, but the sheer numbers of people pushed to self-employment out of economic necessity is reaching a critical mass. According to several estimates, 20 to 30 percent of rural Americans will be self-employed by 2015.
"It's huge," said Maureen Collins-Williams, director of University of Northern Iowa Regional Business Center.
Even as global forces have pushed employers away, technology offers geographically and socially isolated entrepreneurs hope that they can compete in a global marketplace.
The regional center started the nationally recognized MyEntre.net several years ago as a traveling business incubator to train and network small business owners across Iowa.
In the past month, it re-launched its Web site to focus on social networking, a kind of Facebook for Iowa's small businesses. They can learn about each other, connect and collaborate.
In practice, it can mean reducing costs by partnering with other small businesses to share freight costs - something Janey Lynn's Designs in New Hampton recently pursued - or immediately sharing lessons learned through a new venture.
"All data and research I see keeps pointing to networking as an increasingly important part of entrepreneurial success. What is needed and what is important, is their ability to learn from one another," Collins-Williams said.
Rural entrepreneurs who have used MyEntre.net call the service invaluable. For Robert and Helen Lee, who own a stained glass production company in Traer, Dreamland Productions, they learned what precise bookkeeping actually means. They hired a bookkeeper and can now accurately price products to account for insurance and building maintenance costs.
The center helped Janey Lynn's Designs build a plan as it moved into wedding decorations and wholesale distribution of a home furnishings line.
Jane Sheckleton, who owns the design business with her husband, said the center's staff helped them crunch the numbers and determine how many wedding license applications come in each year within a 30 to 40 mile radius.
"Twenty years ago, you went out and got a natural feel for if the area could handle it, if there was a demand. Today you can find the stats to see if it will really work," she said.
The results have garnered national attention. In the past year, UNI Regional Business Center has worked to build versions of its program in Texas, Illinois, Michigan and Nevada.
Frank Beck, director of Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development at Illinois State University, said states see MyEntre.net has a possible solution to a century-long pattern of rural flight.
"The hottest thing in the market is MyEntre.net. As far as I can tell, it's cutting edge," he said. "It's certainly going to be more successful than communities out there chasing smokestacks, trying to attract a major employer."