Summer Entrepreneurial Experiences

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Week 9: To the yard sales we go!

Sunday, August 5, 2012 12:43 am

A few weeks ago, I noticed the prevalence of yard sales within Alexander County and the amount of underground economic activity that was occurring as the result of these activities. There is an intricacy to yard sale culture, an intricacy that is highly entrepreneurial, resourceful, and down-right novel. To further explore the entrepreneurial nuances of yard sales, I dove in head-first by hunting and gathering at my first yard sale excursion this past weekend.

The barriers to entry in the yard sale market are extremely low, all one needs is merchandise gathered from around the house or storage shed, a few tables, a yard (or abandoned parking lot) and the sale is open for business. While the barriers to enter and exit the market are low, there are many decisions to be made concerning the sale itself. Pricing structures should be determined, marketing in local newspapers and radio stations must be handled, and the retail display should be considered. Yard sale entrepreneurs may decide to add other products to accompany the traditional items, such as soda and food items. The decision to organize a yard sale is rather dynamic in terms of entrepreneurial thought patterns, as the business opens and closes within a day or two.

One primary observation from the excursion was the clustering effect of yard sales. There tended to be one sale, then another, or an entire neighborhood engaging in the yard sale action. One yard sale host noted how she began her sale on Friday, only to cause the rest of the neighborhood to start a sale on Saturday, at her expense for advertising! When one person entered into this field, the others in the area gained easier access to the field, while the originator of the actions provided a sense of stimulation for others.

Through my discussions with residents, one local yard-sale-pro recounted her endeavors to bring her yard sale online via Facebook groups. After serving as the go-between for friends and family and their quest for items, this yard-sale-pro created a Facebook group for Alexander County residents to exchange goods and services within the online forum. Other than occasionally selling items, this individual does not profit from her efforts, but only finds reward in obtaining higher prices in selling her items via Facebook. However, combining technology in this manner, to me, seems highly creative.

Most of the yard sales I visited had typical merchandise, gathered from around the house. However there were two yard sales that had considerable amounts of storefront ready merchandise–nothing that was pulled from the storage shed. While using the “yard sale” or “garage sale” name for promotion, these entrepreneurs are capitalizing on the physical and mental space that yard sales create. Smart, perhaps, but it adds dimension to the dynamics and motives for entering into the yard sale market.

Literature promotes the notion that yard sales serve a greater role than just being a marketplace for goods to be exchanged; they are dynamic centers of cultural exchange. People hosting yard sales are varied and so are the attendees. Attendees may be shopping out of necessity or simply there to find a deal. Residents across class, race, gender, and age inhabit the sales. A resident noted the stimulation of the objects around her at the sales and how they provide insight into her domain. This resident was using yard sales as a means to engage in creative projection, using random stimuli in found objects to trigger useful novelty. When novel stimulation is a commodity in rural communities, yard sales provide some sense of novelty to people across fields and domains.

According to my yard sale informants that took me along for the trip, I was not truly a seasoned member of the yard sale community until I made a purchase. So, I returned home with three items: some light reading by Freud, Flatland (novella about life in a two-dimensional world), and a Moleskine notebook-all for $1.50! No too bad for the sake of research.

Yard Sale Tip: Make note of the color, size, and lettering of yard sale signs. If you find a yard sale that does not have the same type of signs, odds are, there is an additional yard sale past the first.

-Jonathan

 

Week 8: Hope & Support-Seeking Behaviors

Friday, July 27, 2012 4:03 pm

“I know I can’t possibly be alone in saying I want to see Alexander County thrive again and not be the empty shell I see around me every day.”

This comment was from a rural resident in Alexander County in a recent Letter to the Editor in the Taylorsville Times. In his editorial, there is a certain sense of desperation in his tone, realizing the decline around him. However, he wants to see something change in a positive way-to return to the ‘good days’ of the past. Returning to the past is not the answer, but citizens do have hope for a better future. It’s from comments like these that I’m interested in researching rural entrepreneurship, to awaken and invigorate rural communities.

Switching gears and back to the research:

Where do rural entrepreneurs go to get support and advice for business issues? A typical response, and also my first assumption, is that entrepreneurs may visit resources that include the local community college, chamber of commerce, or economic development board. Yet, from my research, this does not seem to be the case. Information is sought from lawyers, accountants, website designers, and other people they know within the community-all of which are not institutionally based.

These institutionally based resources are designed to be sources of entrepreneurial engagement within the community. Yet, rural entrepreneurs are not engaging these resources in an informational sense. Access to information is not the primary reason that an entrepreneur reaches out to these organizations, it is in hopes of gaining access to monetary resources to enable them to gain access to the field they are working in. Yet, entrepreneurs do not leave accomplishing their goals, because these organizations have limited monetary resources. Traditional business incubating organizations are not necessarily on the front line of providing entrepreneurial information.

This trend is peculiar, but it is insightful in solution-based outcomes of this research. Perhaps this indicates that rural, entrepreneurial resources should engage entrepreneurs in a way that breaks down the institutionalized identity. Forums that are facilitated by rural entrepreneurial institutions that include entrepreneurs with their preferred resources (lawyers, accountants, etc.) could serve as a launching spot for collaboration and growth.

-Jonathan

 

Week 6/7: So little time, so much to research!

Sunday, July 22, 2012 1:23 am

These past two weeks have been super busy! Between two board meetings, several informal interviews with local entrepreneurial stakeholders, and a tour/visit of a section of Alexander County-I have been busy. Not only do these forms of interaction take time, they also require extensive reflection. I have a handy notebook that I keep with me at all times for jotting down notes from all of my discussions and observations. Then I type them to add in detail, that my pencil didn’t catch and to make sure the notes are understandable for later. I’m trying to be thorough in the information that I’m collecting. Lesson learned: research is time-intensive.

Here is a brief recap of a few important points (with some discussion) that have emerged from my research:

Information, access to the field, and novel stimulation are a mixed bag for rural entrepreneurs.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi outlined three points that contribute to a creative environment: information, access to the field, and novel stimulation. Entrepreneurs in rural areas have access to information, the fields that they operate in, and novel stimulation, but not necessarily on the local level. This connection can be local in some instances, but if not local, it has been outsourced or facilitated by technology and connectivity to the internet. Access to the field is not necessarily supported by the rural location and neither is novel stimulation. One entrepreneur I talked with, when I ask, “what stimulates you [in terms of business thinking] in Alexander County,” he replied, “nothing.” This response startled me, because his response was clear and direct, unlike the rest of our conversation. Though rural areas can’t necessarily provide the stimulation of large urban centers, novel stimulation exists; it is just not correctly channeled. There are many entrepreneurs that are doing novel things in Alexander County; there is just no way that this energy builds upon itself. However, there are holes in the rural environment in the creative environment, which can be a roadblock for entrepreneurs. Though, novel stimulation appears to be the hardest to obtain in a rural area.

The rural understanding of entrepreneurship is focused on “retail and restaurants.”

What is entrepreneurship? It’s a great question that academics still debate over. Yet, for rural people, what is entrepreneurship? In short “retail and restaurants,” describe what entrepreneurship is thought of. From comments at a local board meeting, the business landscape of Alexander County needs “retail and restaurants” and “industry.” “Industry” eludes to the need for traditional economic development activities, where large companies setup shop in an area, adding an influx of jobs and opportunities. Economic development strategies represent a sense of hope for a better tomorrow, that the town or county is just one step away from landing a huge manufacturing firm or the like. On the opposite end of this statement, “retail and restaurants” are the small businesses that rural residents come into contact with on a daily basis, becoming the façade of rural entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, some residents adapt a limited view of small business and entrepreneurship, since entrepreneurship if far more expansive than “retail and restaurants.”

The underground economy is full of entrepreneurial actions and novel innovations.

The underground economy is in full operation in rural America and the participants happen to be quite entrepreneurial. I observed this through the prevalence of yard sales in Alexander County. Yard sales serve many functions in the rural community: economic exchange of goods, serve as social venues, help to form identity around a place, etc. Yet, they are also, micro-entrepreneurial enterprises! With yard sales, there is retailing of products, working with customers to make sales, publicizing the event-it sounds like a business plan in the making. I was recently informed by a local resident of a new “Facebook yard sale page” that connected local residents with items to sell in an online forum. I thought this was very clever and an innovative use of technology -not to mention that the size of the group was 1000+ members. Though not contributing to the formal tax base, innovation and entrepreneurship are thriving.

A mismatched skillset exist between rural populations and local businesses.

Unemployment is most certainly a prevalent issue on federal, state, and local levels. However, rural manufacturing companies are hiring. In fact, they have been hiring for the last 6 to 10 months, but they can’t hire employees that are skilled. Sewers, upholsters, and a variety of positions are vacant, but companies cannot find people with the right skills to fill the jobs. Though manufacturing firms are not necessarily entrepreneurial, the low skillset is important to note. With limited skills and limited resources to obtain necessary skills, this dampens the entrepreneurial environment. In reference to Csikszentmihalyi, this mismatch can be attributed to a lack of information and a lack of access to the field. Without skilled labor, entrepreneurs cannot access the field because of unequipped labor, while there currently is no directed focus in training residents, indicating a lack of information for the laborers.

-Jonathan

Week 5: Dimensions of Place in Creativity

Friday, July 6, 2012 5:25 pm

Just when I thought I was going to take a small break for the 4th, I have discovered great information that can provide solid framework from here on out in my research.

Creativity is foundational to entrepreneurial expression. And, as I have referenced in previous blog post, the environment that creativity occurs in is very important. In 1961, Mel Rhodes published a four part definition of creativity, which has become known as the 4 P’s of creativity: process, product, person, press. Each component is very important, but all come together to create creativity. Creative press or the creative environment is one of the dimensions of creativity. Without a positive creative press (i.e. an environment supportive of creativity), the creative process cannot fully function; the creative person feels suppressed and the creative product cannot be fully realized. The environment truly matters! This echoes findings in my rural research that “place matters” and that creativity is needed to solve rural problems, especially in a place-based approach.

But, I’ve been struggling with how to qualify parameters of creativity within a place. Gauging parameters of creativity is tricky. Sure, it is easy to say, “Rural areas are receptive to creativity and creativity resides here” or vice-versa, but why? Gut feelings are always a great start, but they have no academic merit.

In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, he talks about creative surroundings and how they impact the occurrence of creativity. He gives three clear and qualifying factors that contribute to the creation of a creative environment, and how these parameters are not evenly distributed in all areas:

– “Information is not distributed evenly in space but is clumped in different geographical nodes. (128)”

– “novel stimulation is not evenly distributed (129)”

– “access to the field is not evenly distributed in space (130)”

An ideal creative environment would have 1) information, 2) novel stimulation, and 3) access to the field. Csikszentmihalyi talks in terms of creative domains (an artist, a shopkeeper, a mathematician all operate in different fields, area of expertise, or domains), so a rural area could be home to many domains and the creative landscape could be different for each domain. However, the three qualifiers give me focus. Do entrepreneurs have information that they need in rural areas? Do entrepreneurs have novel stimulation? Do entrepreneurs have access to their fields?

Answering these will help me to reach my ultimate goal of understanding entrepreneurs in a rural context, by first understanding the dimension of place and space in entrepreneurial creativity. These three dimensions are so simple and sophisticated, but really encompass much of what I’ve researched while providing deeper extension.

My thoughts are already going! Thanks to CPSI, I am deliberately introducing creativity into my research on entrepreneurial creativity and it seems to be producing results that are useful (and vibrant too!).

-Jonathan

Week Four: Stakeholders and Bluetooth

Saturday, June 30, 2012 9:23 pm

Stakeholders:

Who holds the power? Who are the stakeholders? These are the questions that my advisor, Dr. Clark, has pressed me to answer from the very beginning of my research. Where does the power reside in rural entrepreneurship and who are the key players in this system?

To answer this, I broke out the sticky notes, some yarn, and started mapping relationships.

Initially, I assumed that organizations/business resources were the stakeholders for rural entrepreneurs. They are, however, this mapping technique helped me to view organizations/business resources as a group of people, rather than one, singular body. Stakeholder organizations are the product of their members and directors. Each group of sticky notes represents an organization that would be considered a stakeholder organization. The individual sticky notes contain the names of key players in that organization, while the yarn connects the same people that serve in multiple roles across organizations. The more strings coming from a name indicates a greater presence in determining the entrepreneurial landscape of Alexander County.

Some of the results of “key players” were not surprising; however two or three more names immerged that I otherwise would have overlooked. Also, interesting enough, only one organization had no overlap by sharing members. I am not sure if that was deliberate or coincidence, but is peculiar.

Percent overlap was then measured by counting the total strings in each grouping divided by the total number of members.

Organization Alpha: 80%
Organization Beta: 25%
Organization Gamma: 15%
Organization Delta: 0%

Leadership Board Epsilon: 28.5%
Leadership Board Zeta: 14.3%

Just because overlap is high or low does not mean that one is necessarily better than the other. High overlap can represent a group that isrepresentativeof leaders coming together across organizational boundaries, while low overlap can represent an innovative organization seeking to do things differently.

Bluetooth:

The Alexander County Commissioners keep giving me great insight during their meetings. The local police force recently requested funding to purchase Bluetooth technology for those on staff. This is the first vote from the commissioners that has not been unanimous since I began researching and it hinged around a technological innovation. Funding was not granted for Bluetooth because the commissioners did not feel as if the officers would adapt and use the technology. In a different light, the way of the past will prevail in the face of innovation. While cost was a concern too, the vote to approve or deny was a vote for accepting innovation. And, innovation was denied.

From an academic perspective on creativity, creative products must be fully realized, actualized, and brought to the public domain. Creativity is needed, but is perhaps hindered by being stopped short of becoming fully realized through the workings of the creative environment. The commissioners’ vote reflected this.

-Jonathan

 

Week Three: CPSI 2012

Saturday, June 23, 2012 8:44 pm

This past week, I had the privilege of attending the Creative Problem Solving Institute, an international conference on creativity and innovation in Atlanta, GA. It was such a great week! My week was certainly busy, as I dove into business model innovation, jumped off the springboard into creative problem solving, among other insightful events.

Creativity is often thought of as being distant from our everyday life, however it is a core component of our human existence. In conjunction with my research on rural entrepreneurship, there were several prevalent themes from my week that stood out in relation to rurality:

Creative culture matters.

Ginger Hardage, the Senior Vice President of Culture & Communications at Southwest Airlines, was one of many speakers during the Innovation Insights speaker series. Hardage talked about many of the reasons why Southwest Airlines is different from their competition, which essentially was a difference in culture. Structurally, Hardage was talking about how creativity operates in a system or how creativity happens within context. It is the culture surrounding the organization that enables great outcomes.

I feel that the same can be said for rural areas, that the culture surrounding creativity is very important. I feel that this notion of “creative receptivity” is something I want to further explore in the coming weeks, since creativity is a driving force in new entrepreneurial ventures.

You are responsible for your own creativity.

Being able to deliberately apply creative thinking when needed is the gold standard. We engage in creativity on a daily basis, engaging in the creative process through many of our daily actions. We are practicing creativity without realizing it, yet when we are able to call upon creativity and use it when it is needed–that becomes powerful.

Throughout the week, the phrase, “You are responsible for your own creativity,” was persistent. It is a personal responsibility to be able to apply creativity when needed. The responsibility is upon my shoulders, your shoulders, and everyone’s shoulders.

Rural spaces have a need for creativity, as I identified in my last blog post, but it is ultimately the responsibility of every individual to harness their own creativity. Thus, rural communities cannot really point a finger to someone else for their lack of creative solutions. Creativity is intrinsically organic within the individual, body, or system.

Limitations and constraints are opportunities.

Often, there is never enough of something (resources, time, effort, etc.) when trying to produce a creative outcome. However, these limitations and constraints force outcomes that are more creative. The concept of using what you have, not looking for what you do not have, is critical to producing great results.

Rural areas have their own set of limitations and constraints. Therefore, the solutions to rural issues should be, in theory, more creative. I think this might necessitate a shift in thought in rural areas, where one phrases limitations and constraints as opportunities.

-Jonathan

Week Two: Rural space, place, and (creativity!)

Friday, June 15, 2012 3:32 pm

Rural America is not homogenous in terms of rural identity; rural landscapes are varied. Just as we would expect one city to be different from the next, rural places are varied and diverse too. So, can we really have one definition of “rural” that is all-encapsulating? Perhaps not. However, the spatial concept of place is important in viewing rural America.

To get a glimpse of space and place in Alexander County in relation to economic activity, below are two maps. The first map shows available commercial properties that are currently for lease or sale. The second shows the locations of businesses operating in Alexander County.


Photo Credit: Charlotte Regional Partnership

Alexander County has a few primary clusters of economic activity. The first of these clusters occurs in the county center, Taylorsville, and the second in the southwest corner of the county in the Bethlehem community. The Taylorsville cluster is strongest at its center, and then trails down Highway 64-90, a major highway that is flanked by railroad tracks. The Bethlehem community is close to Catawba County, which has more economic activity than Alexander County. This helps to understand where entrepreneurial activity is primarily taking place, or what “space or place” gives rise to economic activity in Alexander County.

I also complied a map of business incubating resources located in Alexander County. These resources include county supported agencies, business education centers, public development initiatives, etc. This map reflects the clusters in the above map, showing a correlation between resources and increased economic (and entrepreneurial) activity.

Photo Credit: Google Maps

This finding is not necessarily surprising, as it makes sense for businesses to develop where there are resources. However, there are a number of businesses that are not located in one of these clusters. As a next step, it will be interesting to see if and how businesses located within these clusters actually use these resources. Yet, even if these resources are not used by these businesses, the resources help to create an environment (i.e. space and place) that is supportive of economic growth and development. And further, if a business is not in one of these clusters, why did they locate in an area that would be considered more-so on the rural periphery?

In the Carsey Institute’s report, Place Matters: Challenges and Opportunites in Four Rural Americas, the conceptual notion of place is impactful in one’s understanding of rurality. Rural areas face many challenges across the spectrum, all of which contribute to an entrepreneurial environment (or lack thereof). Interestingly enough, in the report, the authors state the need for creativity in rural areas: “Effective development and change requires research, analysis, and creative thinking” (5). Does this necessitate a need for creativity in rural areas? If so, how would rural areas respond to creativity? How would creativity operate in a rural environment? Creativity, too, is influenced by the space around the creative action. Creative press, or the creative environment, can help, hinder, and promote creative engagement. What becomes of creativity in light of rural America?

-Jonathan

 

Week One: A Return to Rural

Friday, June 8, 2012 1:05 am

From Winston-Salem, NC to Taylorsville, NC, I traversed from the city to the countryside to begin my summer. Why would I want to spend my summer in the country, far away from an urban surround? It’s because rural entrepreneurship is alive all across rural America. Rural entrepreneurs are farmers, local shopkeepers, crafters, etc. They may be operating in a location 40 miles from the nearest interstate, down a side street in a sleepy town, but their presence speaks to the power of entrepreneurial behavior to flourish across many different boundaries.

I too am among this group of rural entrepreneurs. My current entrepreneurial venture, Delightfully Daisy, was founded and continues to operate in rural, Taylorsville, NC. From my perspective, something feels different about rural entrepreneurship. Do rural entrepreneurs have different motives for being entrepreneurial? Is it how local policy impacts entrepreneurial expression? Is it cultural factors that promote or hinder entrepreneurship? In general, the question becomes: what differentiates rural entrepreneurship from entrepreneurship?

This question is where I started this week and will be the focus of my summer, as I work to produce scholarly insight into rural entrepreneurship.

A huge thank you goes out to the Alexander County Economic Development Corporation for providing me space in their office to actively research. Being at the Alexander EDC will give me perspective on policy, government actions, and local issues that impact entrepreneurs. My “home base” is in the middle of rural entrepreneurial action in Alexander County!

This week I have been doing secondary research, reading scholarly articles, looking at Census data, and looking at meeting minutes from local board meetings. What I have found, is that public hearings concerning zoning provide great insight into rural attitudes around entrepreneurship. Rezoning often involves a commercial interest, which is most often countered by concerned citizens. Rezoning creates change and shifting ideas of rural identity. The understanding of how rural identity is constructed is key to understanding how entrepreneurs are received and validated in their respective rural communities.

On Monday night (June 4th), I got my first opportunity to attend a commissioner’s meeting. A conditional-use permit was on the agenda. This case was interesting, as the applicant was conducting commercial-like motorcycle riding on his property in an area not zoned for such activity. The applicant was holding invitation only events on his property that were funded through donations. This case was brought up, due to a complaint of a similar, licensed motorcycle riding facility in the county. The applicant for the permit claimed to be holding these events for fun, but to what extent was his activity considered commercial activity and not simply for fun? Due to the applicant’s lack of legal framework around his operation, there is little regulation in terms of reporting taxes on the “donations” or for his sake, the liability of what he is doing. However, the outcome of this decision will be insightful into the commissioners’ vantage point on what may be considered underground entrepreneurial behavior. Will they pass the permit as-is, demand modification, or deny the request in its entirety? And, to what extent will they consider the fact that this complaint was filed by an existing small business? The results will be interesting.

Until next week, I’ll be observing my rural surroundings.

-Jonathan


A quilt hangs on a clothesline in Taylorsville, NC.
Photo Credit: Kelly Bumgarner

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