The numbers concerned Mike Glauser, a successful entrepreneur, business consultant, and university professor. As executive director of the Clark Center for Entrepreneurship at Utah State University, Glauser and his fellow professors are charged with helping students create their own jobs and businesses.
Glauser points to a number of viable studies, including a January 2013 series from the Associated Press that found technology is replacing middle-class employees at an alarming rate.
He sees a future of shorter-term work, contract projects, and a greater need for self-employment. Wanting to get ahead of this trend, and in an effort to better prepare students for the upcoming employment shift, Glauser, an avid cyclist, embarked on a cross-country search to discover who’s creating jobs and how they’re doing it.
In true entrepreneurial fashion, Glauser raised money for the ride via Kickstarter, offering incentives ranging from acknowledgements and stickers to sponsorship opportunities. The team reached its goal of $28,000 at the end of May 2014.
On June 2, 2014, the team–comprised of Glauser, young entrepreneurs, and a film crew–embarked on a 100 city, eight-week cross-country bike ride from Florence, Oregon, to Yorktown, Virginia, to interview 100 entrepreneurs in a variety of industries.
The team spent six months plotting its route based on the TransAmerica Trail, selecting 40 cities with thriving businesses. For example, Sisters, Oregon, and Chester, Illinois, have 120% and 66% growth, respectively. To make the cut, each business had to be at least five years old. Fast Company spoke with Glauser after he recovered from his trip about what he learned along the way.
“Entrepreneurs are very purpose-driven,” Glauser says. “[They] have a reason for starting their businesses and can articulate it very quickly. They’re not motivated by money.”
Glaser spoke with many entrepreneurs across the country. They told him they wanted to move to smaller towns for a more attractive lifestyle, raise families, and to be part of the community. One business owner Glauser interviewed teared up when he shared he’d been able to donate $2 million to his local school district, something he never dreamed he could do because he only had a high school education.
Glauser says the entrepreneurs he spoke with identify a need within their community, and then they try to fill it. When Debbie and Mike Brookes, Popeye fans and owners of Spinach Can Collectibles, visited Chester, Illinois in 1990, they believed the town could do more to capitalize on its history as the hometown of Popeye’s creator, Elzie Crisler Segar. Today, in addition to their shop, the town has Popeye murals, statues, and a park filled with characters from the comic strip.
Some entrepreneurs see themselves as their own enterprise, creating revenue around a specific skillset. For example, Joe Brandl, owner of Absaroka Western Designs and Tannery in Dubois, Wyoming, sells animal hides across the U.S. and abroad, designs for high-end lodges, and makes costumes for Western movies.
Lifestyle was a huge motivator for Benny and Julie Benson, engineers in Southern California who wanted to escape the rat race and live close to the mountains. They moved to Sisters, Oregon, and created Energyneering Solutions, Inc., a renewable-energy firm. Soon they started designing and building biomass plants, and branched out into management, later developing software to manage the plants. Because they traveled so much, the Bensons also purchased the local airport.
Entrepreneurs are innovative, and bootstrap their resources, Glauser says. They recruit advisors and mentors for free advice or in exchange for a commission, and are able to do more with less, he says.
One business, needing to buy inventory and faced with a cash flow problem during the Great Recession, offered high-net customers a 20% discount on merchandise, and was able to raise $70,000.
Of the 100 business owners Glauser interviewed, none had any entrepreneurial training, and only a handful had a business background.
In teaching entrepreneurship, we’ve let Silicon Valley take over, Glauser says. The model is to create a prototype fast, scale up fast, grow, and create an exit strategy.
“Not everyone can create the next Facebook or Google or eBay,” he says. But everybody can create businesses that fill needs in their communities, offering products or services people want, and providing great customer service.