With the popularity of do-it-yourself home-makeover television shows, Kelly Michelle thinks she has the perfect business idea: help customers learn to design and create their dream spaces in their homes.
“I help them discover their inner flair and help them decide what to do and how to do it,” she said.
But over the last year, Michelle, who lives in Duncan, a city of about 25,000 people, found herself struggling to get the business off the ground. “I’m struggling to know if this is a viable business here because Duncan is a pretty small town for something like this,” she said.
That’s why she took part in Grow OK, a new initiative aiming to help rural and tribal entrepreneurs in Oklahoma. With a $200,000 grant from U.S. Economic Development Administration and matching funds from partners, the program seeks to create better equity between rural and urban areas of the state.
Based off a program known as Venture Assessment from the nonprofit i2E, the Grow OK initiative offers courses for entrepreneurs outside of the major urban centers of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, said Stacey Brandhorst with i2E. The program includes three consecutive classes once per week for the entrepreneurs plus a weekly 30-minute phone call. The focus of the classes is on product-market fit and a path for growth.
“We have seen a lot of deals that we could fund that have kind of tanked, so we realized that product-market fit is kind of the only thing we can fix with a startup,” she said. “There’s a management problem, you can bring in others. If there’s a weakness in the management team, you can hire. We can do anything about marketing. The fact that once someone wants it and we know how to sell to that person, that’s the only thing we can’t change.”
Several partners added matching funds to the initiative. They are the Cherokee Nation, Choctaw Nation, Chickasaw Nation, Muskogee (Creek) Nation, Oklahoma Business Roundtable and the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science & Technology (OCAST). Rural Enterprises of Oklahoma, Inc., is also a partner.
“In rural Oklahoma and tribal Oklahoma, adding one employee or adding a new vendor or adding a new customer can really have an impact, so we’re really excited to be working with some of the companies. We’ve traditionally run i2E in the urban areas, Oklahoma City and Tulsa,” Brandhorst said.
A major part of the program is that the entrepreneurs must think critically about who their customer is. They even go so far as to draw the customer and think about the customer’s personality.
“We really got detailed into who this customer is, which is so helpful to see: do I really have any people like that where I live?” Michelle said.
Realizing that she may not have the customer base she needs, Michelle may soon revamp her business to include an online component, in a bid to reach more consumers.
“That was really helpful to me because when it’s your own business you are a little blind to the reality because you want it to work so bad and you’ve put so much effort and time in it,” Michelle said. “You really need an outsider to come in and say, ‘this is the reality and maybe you should think about it.’”
After two programs were held in the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations, Brandhorst said she has noticed the entrepreneurs moving from a business-to-consumer model to a business-to-business model.
“If I had to sell 1,000 popsicles, I could go look for 1,000 people or I could find one grocery store that would buy them all,” she said. “How can we try to pull ourselves up from having to work really, really hard on every sale or go work really hard for a couple sales and get that top-down business-to-business model. We’re working smarter, not harder.”
For Brandhorst, who hails from rural western Oklahoma and said she understands what it’s like to live in a community with shuttering small businesses, ensuring that resources are available outside of Oklahoma City and Tulsa is important. i2E will hold two more class sessions over the next month in the Muscogee Creek Nation and the Cherokee Nation.
“We’re trying to ensure that our resources continue to stretch outside of the urban areas and where we’ve historically been focused to try to find that guy in the garage in the middle of Weatherford, Oklahoma, working on something that’s going to change things,” she said.