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How I Built A Successful Startup In The Middle Of Nowhere

It can be done–even in Utica, New York.

How I Built A Successful Startup In The Middle Of Nowhere
[Photo: Saffron Blaze via Wikimedia Commons]

Location, location, location. It’s an old mantra of traditional marketers and a reason why so many startups all cluster in the same place. For many of those in the San Francisco Bay Area or New York City, location really is everything. The connections and access to the right people might seem limitless in these areas, and without them, your company might never have had a future.

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But more and more lately, you don’t have to be based in a major urban hub in order to run a successful company. I should know. In a little over three years, I’ve built a million-dollar company while living in a city most enterprise clients wouldn’t consider searching in for a digital marketing firm: Utica, New York.

I know what you’re thinking: Utica is hardly a global hotbed of fast-paced business innovation. But that doesn’t mean innovation isn’t happening here–or in dozens of other places you may never have thought to look. By using some low-cost strategies to build a sales funnel and some creative techniques to nurture relationships–both right outside my doorstep and further afield–I’ve been able to launch and grow a successful digital business.

Three factors have so far proved critical to my company’s growth:

  1. Using lead-focused online marketing to reach people in other areas
  2. Making connections locally that have connections elsewhere
  3. Developing key relationships in the areas I want to grow

Here’s a look at each of them.

Using Digital Marketing From Anywhere

When you’re in the middle of nowhere (relatively speaking), digital marketing may play an even bigger role in your company’s fate than ever. It helped me generate leads from companies that were already interested in my specific services, which helped me keep my marketing efforts relatively cheap and better targeted.

First and foremost, that meant getting my business listed where potential clients were searching for my services. Since I run an SEO startup, I started by submitting my website to directories and optimizing my own site for search engines. That’s where my expertise in the same market I wanted to serve came in handy, but some of those steps are no-brainers. For example, I created a $16/month listing in MediaBistro that led to a crucial client relationship yielding over $200,000 in the last two years.

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If that helped me secure my footing locally, the next step was to start building connections in the big cities closest to me. I compiled a list of more than 100 agencies I wanted to work with and emailed specific people at each one. Keeping it personal was key. I made sure to comment individually about the types of clients they worked with. As a result, I’ve received over $80,000 in revenue from one agency alone, plus potential projects with major brands.

Who should you contact? Here, too, a little basic market research comes in handy. Hunt down relevant local directories that list similar services to yours. So for example, if you want to build networks in Boston or New York, try submitting to VentureApp, a website connecting startups with the services they need.

Find Connectors In Your Backyard

I was able to find people with offices within close distance of me who had connections in bigger markets, like Boston and San Francisco, who would eventually connect me with the enterprise clients I was targeting. In other words, you don’t need to build your regional or national network all by yourself. It’s all about referrals–and it can start right in your local area.

First, I identified local business groups right here in Utica. That led to introductions to other local businesses that had the connections I needed outside our immediate community. For instance, I joined a local nonprofit group called Upstate Venture Connect, which focuses on connecting entrepreneurs to investors and other resources in upstate New York.

Up to that point, I hadn’t put much effort into seeking local contacts since I was building leads online and thinking more about developing relationships in New York and Boston. But UVC actually helped me do that even better by connecting me with other online marketers whose contacts in major cities have proved really useful.

Where can you find them? Use a tool like SimilarWeb to find which business groups in your area are all linking to similar companies. Or just search Google or the small-business directory Manta to find local businesses that are complementary to yours–then use SimilarWeb to deepen your research.

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And yes, some of the most useful connections in your local network may be competitors, or at least companies operating on similar turf. But startup communities have a way of being more supportive than you might imagine in out-of-the-way places, and typically there’s still plenty of business to go around.

Nurture Relationships At Any Cost

Some of the connections I wound up developing aren’t the enterprise clients I typically work with, but I was interested in nurturing any type of relationship I might be able to build upon in order to meet the people I wanted to. The rule here is simple: Just treat everyone as if they were your key account–even if they may not fit your ideal client profile.

For instance, one contact of mine in San Francisco, which brought my business only $3,000 in revenue, happened to introduce me to another ultimate client that’s led to over $120,000 last year. Not only that, but the relationship has led to no fewer than three additional clients, which will lead to over $5,000 per month each next year.

When you aren’t based in a booming tech hub, maintaining these connections and investing a lot of energy in cultivating them is mission critical. I recommend keeping a list of all the relationships you have in other areas, and doing at least one thing in the next few months that will help their business. They’ll be more likely to think of you the next time your service or product comes up in conversation.

What I’ve learned in the past few years is that your network is truly not limited to your location. Find directories that list startups similar to yours so potential clients that are searching for your service can find you. Then locate some business groups in your area that can lead to some strategic local connections–and build up from there. Put some energy into developing relationships with sources who can refer you to your target customers.

As is true for every startup just about everywhere, not every lead will pan out, but those that do can pave the way for ever bigger opportunities–including far outside your home turf.

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Kevin Rowe is the founder and CEO of Rowe Digital, an SEO intelligence provider whose clients include Fortune 100 companies as well as Silicon Valley startups.