Whether it’s the limited networking opportunities, cash shortages or daily postal service ordeals, running an off-grid business poses a number of challenges for Britain’s rural entrepreneurs.
Given the digital priorities of today’s world, poor broadband connectivity is arguably the most pressing issue facing countryside firms. Although twice as many UK micro business owners work in rural areas as in urban areas, a majority still don’t have access to superfast internet.
The government does appear committed to upgrading infrastructure, and recently set aside £30m as part of its Rural Development Programme for England to deliver 30mps broadband in hard hit areas.
We met three entrepreneurs running their company away from the country’s major business hubs to find out how they’ve navigated these trials, and if there is something offered by their countryside setting not fulfilled by the metropolis.
Swapping busy Harrogate, Yorkshire, for Welsh market town Hay on Wye has had both personal and business benefits for Ella Davidson, director of the Book Publicist PR agency.
“We specialise in books publicity, so Hay on Wye – the famous ‘town of books’ with the annual Hay literary festival – seemed like a brilliant place to be,” Davidson told Business Advice.
Key rural entrepreneurship stats (DEFRA – 2015/16):
- 537,000 – number of businesses registered in English rural areas
- 24 per cent – proportion of all English registered businesses
- 5m – number of people employed by rural businesses in England
Aside from the literary background of her new home, Davidson explained why being outside of London’s publishing hub also has its business advantages.
“It means we have much lower costs – a saving we can pass onto clients, making us competitively priced compared to other London book PR agencies.”
Rent is low, allowing the company to base itself in the centre of town, and Davidson is confident the picturesque surroundings compliment a fast-paced working environment. “There is something about rural life that keeps you calm and reduces stress,” she added.
Davidson was keen to nip one potential issue in the bud quickly.
“When we moved here, one of our biggest expenses was getting the office hard wired so every employee could plug directly into the internet. A strong connection was the most important thing to me.”
With fast broadband secured from the start, the only thing that did threaten to unsettle the business was recruitment.
“We have had to spend more on recruitment costs and get creative. Thinking outside of the box and seeking transferable skills has been crucial – in hindsight, having PR professionals with diverse experience has been a real advantage.”
Having run her company for over ten years, Davidson’s global outlook looks to have served her company well through the move.
“Location has never mattered,” she said. “We have clients in London, Australia, Belgium, US. We communicate with clients via Skype and are in regular contact with journalists via email and telephone. It’s not about meeting up for boozy lunches – when a ten-minute chat will do, the results are better.”
Rural business demographics (DEFRA – 2015/16):
- 88 per cent – number of rural businesses that are micro firms
- 10 per cent – number of rural businesses that are small firms
Getting out of a home office
For Lucy Hutchings Hunt, managing director of development agency Systemyzed, internet connectivity was a secondary concern, so keen was she to “escape the expense and overcrowding” of the South East of England. Now based in a small hamlet in the Howardian Hills, 30 minutes north of York, she enjoys a lifestyle “almost out of a Beatrice Potter book”.
But, in an indication of how far the government has to go in upgrading Britain’s broadband infrastructure, Hutchings Hunt soon realised lifting her city-based company to a home-run rural business wasn’t so straightforward.
“I didn’t really believe that places could have internet as slow as where we have moved to – I thought it was a myth.” With such a poor connection, Hutchings Hunt sought out office space in nearby York. An unexpected benefit emerged from the move.
“I have met so many more great people and my business circle has increased much more than it would have I continued to work solely from my home office,” she said.
“I do my development work in the office in York – where the internet is as good as any other UK city – and then I write and do my, strategy, telephone and relationship-building work from my office at home.”
On a personal level, an unreliable broadband connection has taught Hutchings Hunt and her family a valuable lesson in “taking things easy”.
“Now, as there are forced limits to my hours of speedy technology time, I am better at switching off when I work from home. And, my kids are watching more movies and box sets we have purposefully gone out and bought, as opposed to being on a constant diet of whatever Netflix prescribes that month.”
Hutchings Hunt still travels to London for business twice a month, taking full advantage of the “two hour, one stop” Virgin Trains East Coast Line service.
She added: “I enjoy it in short bursts, but I really don’t want to live there anymore – my home is North Yorkshire now and when I leave – it will be in a box.”
Challenges and advantages of rural businesses (Amazon – 2017):
- £43,900 – gross value added per for workforce job in rural areas, compared to £49,300 for the entire of England
- +1.9 per cent – ecommerce uptick predicted by rural SMEs in the coming year
- -7 per cent – Amazon Confidence Index score for rural SMEs, with -12 per cent for urban SMEs and -15 per cent for inner-city SMEs
Making sure you’re found
Like our previous rural entrepreneurs, the desire for a quieter lifestyle led Dan Szor to the countryside. However, his business, the Cotswold Distillery, also depended on its pastoral location.
Despite significant growth in just three years, the distillery’s remote North Cotswold site has thrown up some challenges, particularly in its strained relationship with satellite navigation technology.
“This has implications not just for collection and deliveries in our supply chain, but also for our visitors – we currently get around 30,000 visitors a year, so the absence of public transport links to the distillery and the problems with sat navs has been felt,” the native New Yorker told us.
But, aside from signal and accessibility issues, Szor pointed to positive comments from visitors regarding the impressive location.
Despite his best efforts to set up a reliable connection, Szor admitted there was “no avoiding” the broadband question. Afternoons without internet have become a regular unwelcome occurrence.
“It’s particularly tricky because we rely on the internet for our card machines in the shop and cloud-based drives for our distillery paperwork and records,” he added.
To remedy the broadband issue, Szor is working with SugarNet, a company local to Cotswold Distiliery that delivers wireless high-speed broadband to rural firms.
Otherwise, Cotswold Distillery is already an established member of the local business network.
“We employ local people, the local farmers get all our spent grains from the production process, and we only buy barley off local Cotswold farmers for our whisky,” he explained
The distillery supplies local pubs and bars with its drinks, and Szor has collaborated with independent local producers on other products. These relationships have demonstrated to the founder the stronger sense of community among rural business owners to those in the city.
Looking past one or two tests, do the business successes of these three rural entrepreneurs mean placement is becoming increasingly less important?
In Szor’s opinion, it depends purely on the business, with many companies able to run off an internet connection alone.
“But for us, as a producer reliant on the agricultural chain, location is crucial. We’re not just writing Cotswolds on the label for the sake of it – the raw ingredients we use are grown here, and we work closely with our farmers and maltster.
“The flavours of our spirits are designed to capture the place, the surroundings. Our entire business is driven by our location.”
Rural England is encouraging rural business owners to respond to an online consultation survey, the responses of which will be key to shaping policy discussions with politicians and helping to unlock the digital potential of rural enterprise
Read expert advice from Amazon on competing with city slickers as a rural entrepreneur
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