As most entrepreneurs know, starting a business isn’t all that glamorous. The reality is much scrappier — and it often starts with “ugly” reasons, according to serial entrepreneur Meredith Gernigin.
Gernigin developed commercial properties in small towns, started and operated three ecommerce businesses, and crowdfunded a small town coffee shop — which she operated for five years — before launching Big Start Business, where she helps small to mid-cap businesses in predominantly rural areas reach more customers.
Gernigin’s ugly reason?
“I graduated right in the middle of the last housing crash,” she said on the Rural Business Show. Gernigin was laid off six months into her first corporate gig and struggled to make ends meet with part time work. Twelve months later, she’d had enough and was ready to do something bigger.
“People are attracted to small businesses, and in rural communities in general, because they feel they’re not just a cog in the machine, they’re making a difference in people’s lives,” she said. On the podcast, Gernigin shared her story: Why she became an entrepreneur, how she landed on marketing, and her advice for rural businesses looking for more leads, based on some of her most successful marketing campaigns at Big Start Business.
A Schoolhouse for Business
Armed with her savings and the bravado of a 21-year-old, Gernigin bought a foreclosed 85,000 square-foot schoolhouse in Alton, Illinois (population: 27,000). While Gernigin says she “wouldn’t really recommend the path I took to anyone,” she found many others willing to join her along the way. Gernigin began fixing up the schoolhouse and renting the space out to other new entrepreneurs who were suddenly finding their way in the recession.
“We just started making small businesses happen,” she said.
The turning point came when Gernigin finished renovating one entire wing of the schoolhouse. That’s when she realized her retail tenants needed more foot traffic, since the building wasn’t on Main Street or near any big box stores. She decided Alton needed its first coffee shop. After Maeva’s Coffee opened its doors, it became a hub for business classes and networking.
“It became a learning process, together, with other people — learning how to start small businesses in a community that didn’t have a lot of income or resources,” she said.
The Power of Storytelling
A decade into her entrepreneurship journey, Gernigin realized she had become an expert in helping businesses find, connect with and grow their audiences. So she sold the coffee shop and the incubator and started fresh once again with Big Start Business. Now, as a lead generation strategist and marketing professional, Gernigin has helped organize and implement multichannel marketing campaigns with 20-fold returns on investment and helped rural businesses connect with customers around the world.
For example, one of her clients, a general contractor based in rural Pennsylvania, was looking to refocus its business around exterior projects like roofing, rather than interior remodels. The company spent tens of thousands of dollars on marketing and SEO specialists but wasn’t getting much traction due to the specific challenges of the rural market.
Gernigin knew her client needed to reach an older demographic that was less online and less concentrated than the typical urban population. She started with the website, turning it into a destination for valuable information. Vern, the business owner, took questions from homeowners for a regular series called “Ask Vern,” and they began publishing regular content about the unique conditions homeowners faced in their county, such as heavy rain, ice and snow.
“It’s important for people to be able to find your site, but it’s also important for your site to be more than a business card parking out on the internet,” Gernigin said. “It’s important that when people find your site, they can coach themselves through the sales process, because that way when they pick up the phone to call you, it’s pretty much a done deal,” she added.
Slowly building a web presence helped establish the business as a leader in the market, while also optimizing the website for search, which can be a challenge for rural businesses that serve many communities and zip codes.
Gernigin combined this with a clever direct mail strategy that helped tell the story behind Vern’s business and create genuine connections with potential customers.
“When it shows up in the mail to these older clients, they’re immediately brought back to why they’re living in the country to begin with — it’s so their family has a place to play, to gather,” she said.
Gernigin left listeners with several pieces of advice:
1. “When it comes to a small business … hiring people that are better than you at something or smarter than you at something is just essential to making it work.” When Gernigin opened Maeve’s coffee, she wasn’t even a coffee drinker. She connected with other passionate people with complementary talents to make the business a success.
2. “Giving staff autonomy is a huge boon to small business owners.” Speaking from her 10-plus years of experience working with small businesses, Gernigan noted the value of building relationships with other mission-driven people.
3. “Listen to your gut, not necessarily your family or friends if you’re in a rural setting, about what you should be doing and how you should be pricing things.” Gernigin spoke about helping a furniture maker in rural Pennsylvania connect online with customers from New York to Los Angeles. She found the broader market was willing — and expected — to pay higher prices for his high-end, live-edge pieces.
4. “Does this reflect the message I would say to my neighbor?” Gernigin underscored the importance of creating content and messaging with a genuine voice.
5. “A great marketing professional is someone you should contact from the beginning. At least to set out a good strategy.” Lastly, while there’s a lot businesses can do on their own to increase leads, she recommended tapping a marketing professional to set out a roadmap for success.