Image credit: Kenneth Leung, Michael Coghlan
“Dried beans saw a more than 230% increase in demand and rice sales spiked by 166% in that same time.” – ABC
How should a business operate now? Where is there work to be done? Economists are making stark predictions about the future of small businesses in the US, but at the same time, I live in a town without a courier service established enough to meet the mushrooming demand for home delivery.
Frankly, it’s devastating reading headlines forecasting the permanent closure of 7.5 million American SMBs, but while absorbing these, I also spent six weeks shaking the Internet for bathroom tissue before locating some 1,400 miles away.
Point being: Where there’s need, fulfilment can be a public good, and where there’s upheaval, any possibility is worth considering. Necessities are emerging in bold relief on the map of each town and city. Demand must be met by determined small entrepreneurs to keep society functional.
If you have a strong desire to actively support communities in new ways, by either retooling your existing business or even launching a new one, the doors of opportunity are open:
Tools and exercises can help you assess local demand, with the goal of building a stable business based on serving the public exactly what it needs most. What I see emerging is a marketplace that’s essentials first, luxuries second. With a consumer public struggling to get its basic needs met, you want to own the business that grows, sells, or markets the dried beans if you can determine they’ll continue to be a must-have in all times and seasons. Let’s think this through together today.
Map local essentials
One of the hard lessons so many of us have learned from the past few months is that our local communities are neither prepared for disasters nor sufficiently self-sufficient to meet all basic needs. Where is the wheat field, flour mill, yeast manufacturer “near me” so that I can bake enough bread to keep my household going instead of staring at “out of stock” messaging on the websites of remote major brands? If you’re considering becoming part of the local solution to this widespread problem, I’d like you to try this simple city planning exercise with me.
Take out a pen and paper, or open a design program if you prefer, and map out the essential needs of your community. Your community could be your city, or could be a larger geographic area such as a county. Include everything you can think of that human society requires, from water and food, to skills of all kinds, with an emphasis on long-term sustainability. Your map may look very similar to mine, or it could have substantial differences:
Once you’ve created your own map, answer these five questions:
1) Based on what I currently know, where in my community are the worst, ongoing local resource deficits? For example, in my community, we make too much alcohol for the residents to drink and don’t grow enough food for them to eat.
2) From what the present emergency is teaching me, which local resources have proven both essential and hard to access during a disaster? For example, there is only minimal manufacture of necessities in my town and a tax base that hasn’t been geared towards safety from wildfire.
3) Where would my existing skills and passions fit most easily into this map today? My skills, for example, would enable me to teach almost any business in town how to market themselves.
4) What new skills and assets would I need if I want to adjust my current offerings or move to a completely different role in my community? Let’s say I wanted to be an organic farmer instead of a local SEO — how could I transition?
5) If large-scale government planning fails to ensure that all members of my community have what they need to support life, what are my options for cooperating with neighbors at a local level to ensure my city or county is more self-sustaining? For example, my city has a Buy Local association I might tap into for large-scale, organized planning.
From this exercise, I want you to be able to tell yourself and others a compelling story about what your place on the map lacks and what it requires to become more self-reliant, as well as begin to gauge where you might personally fit in contributing to solutions.
Assess local demand
Now it’s time to research specific demand. How do you know what’s most needed at a local level? Try these tools and exercises and take notes on your findings.
1. Center your own experience and see if it’s trending
More than anything else, it’s your powers of local observation that will tell you most about business opportunities. Businesses exist to solve problems, and right now, the problem we’re confronting is local self-sufficiency during times of emergency as well as in better days.
Here’s an example of a problem. My household eats legumes at least twice a day in some form. We’ve always been able to get dried beans, lentils, and peas in bulk from the grocery store. However, with the public health emergency, stores ran out of stock and we had to order boxed products from an international brand headquartered far away. I can check to see if the problem I’ve noticed locally is part of a larger phenomenon by looking at Google Trends:
Sure enough, this tool is reporting a spike in demand for dried beans across the US in mid-March. Of course, this isn’t a reason to run out and start a new business, but the data can engender good questions like:
- Have I identified an anomalous spike in demand or a permanent need?
- Is there explicit value for customers if this demand could be supplied locally instead of via distribution/online channels?
- Are there already local companies fulfilling this demand? If I got into this line of business, who would my local competitors be and how well are they marketing themselves?
Pay special attention to any insider information you have as a local. For example, I happen to know that in my region, there is just one local grower of dried beans and they aren’t large enough to make the community food-secure. They specialize in organic, heirloom varieties and, every year, their small crop rapidly sells out.
What do you know about supply and demand in your community, from lived experience?
2. See if your need is mentioned in Google’s Rising Retail Categories
Google’s brand new Rising Retail Categories tool doesn’t specifically mention my dried bean example, but it’s another interesting vehicle for watching demand trends.
For example, here’s data capturing a 50% increase in US demand for tortillas and wraps:
Unfortunately, Google’s tool can’t zoom in to a local level, and you can’t query the tool, but it’s great for brainstorming business concepts based on trending queries. Right now, for example, anything to do with home and garden improvement and growing food is off the charts.
Seeing the larger picture, this could simply be a predictable seasonal trend with summer coming up, but I can again pair this with my insider knowledge. Every plant nursery and home improvement store in my area is sold out of multiple products — from tomato cages, to grow bags, to compost. At least for the present, I believe we are witnessing substantial growth in the desire to enhance life at home and to have access to fresh food. Take note of anything you’ve wanted that’s been sold out or available in only limited quantities.
3. Crosscheck demand via keyword research tools
If you’re not a Moz customer, making use of a free trial to check out Keyword Explorer will give you a ton of data about national supply and demand. And don’t overlook the beta of Local Market Analytics, which shows you local keyword volumes. Add in a few local cities you’d ideally like to serve and the website address of your own business or that of a potential competitor, even if you’re not yet open for business.
Free keyword research tools like Answer the Public or the Google Adwords Keyword Planner can also help you assess large-scale demand.
4. Ask, listen, repeat
To further explore whether there is desire for your offering in your community, test the waters by asking strategic questions in multiple places and of multiple people, including these:
- Local fora (Craigslist, community hubs, local newspapers, etc.)
- Industry fora (agricultural, manufacturing, retail, etc.)
- Buy Local associations
- Chambers of Commerce and other business associations
- Local government bodies and officials
- A formal focus group
- Friends and family
- Local reporters and bloggers
- Successful local business owners
What you ask will vary depending on your business idea. In my dried bean hypothesis, I might want to poll feelings of frustration about local food shortages and gauge interest in improving local food security, as well as discover if people would pay for direct-to-consumer (DTC) delivery of my crop on a regular basis. I’d be researching agricultural programs, grants, loans, and other forms of assistance to help me start farming myself, or to form a collective of farmers willing to devote acreage to a bean crop, or to supply stores and restaurants, or to market my product.
I’d want to gather as much information as possible from as many people as feasible to help determine whether a business idea is viable or not. Whether I want to become a grower/manufacturer, resell the output of an organized effort, or launch a marketing campaign, the fundamental requirement is that I’ve discovered my offering is definitely in demand.
5. Look Back
In 1960, 95% of the clothing Americans purchased was made in the US. In the 21st century, that figure has fallen to just 2%. A couple of generations ago, 60% of us lived in rural areas near farms, but today, only 20% of us do.
As we weather the pandemic, my mind keeps turning to a drive-through dairy my family visited weekly in my childhood. It was convenient for my mother to steer the station wagon under a portico and have the dairy’s staff fill up the trunk with milk, yogurt, cheese, and a half-a-dozen frozen push-up pops for the kids. If consolidation and economies of scale hadn’t made that independent dairy obsolete, their curbside service would be doing record business in 2020. Walmart wants to do this with robots — I’d prefer to make sure my neighbors have living wage jobs and my town has a tax base.
In these days of “buy online, pickup in store” (BOPIS) and same-day delivery, I recommend befriending your city’s library or historic society to gain access to business records depicting the state of local 20th century commerce. See how your community was sustained by the farmer, the tailor, the baker, the vegetable wagon, the milkman, the diaper truck, the cobbler who repaired non-throwaway shoes, the town-supported hospital and doctor who made house calls, and the independent grocer. What you find in the archives could shine a light on creating modern sustainability if trying times and local desire converge in a demand for change.
Once you’ve done as much research as you can into the demand, it’s time to consider how you would promote your offering.
Market like Ma Perkins
When unemployment peaked at 24.9% and thousands of banks closed in the 1930s, who was still operational? It was Ma Perkins, “mother of the air”, progenitor of content-based marketing and soap operas, and radio star who offered homespun advice to her fictional town while selling Oxydol to the listening public. Realizing that people would still need soap even in hard times, Proctor & Gamble swam against the austerity tide, doubling down on their marketing investments by launching the “Oxydol’s Own Ma Perkins” radio show, making the brand one of the most famous Great Depression- era success stories.
This historic example of tying an essential offering to dedicated communication feels just about right for our current time. Scanning headlines like “Some small businesses are flourishing in the COVID-19 pandemic”, I’m hearing crackling echoes of Ma Perkins in the storytelling ventures of Cleancult’s orange zest cleansers and Tushy’s bidets. There’s precedent behind SEOs telling clients not to pause their marketing right now if they can afford it. Being a visible, reliable resource in this moment isn’t just good for brands — it’s a relief and help for customers.
For your local business idea, there will be a tandem marketing task ahead of you:
- Tell a story of and to your local customers and tie it into your offering.
- Tell such a persuasive story of the need for local resource security that you needn’t go it alone. Help the local business community reimagine itself as a city planning task force with the goal of increased self-sufficiency.
Marketing needs to be baked into your business concept — not treated as an afterthought. To broadcast your storytelling to the public in modern times, local radio can still be a great tool, but you will also likely need to master:
Moz has many free guides and a vast library of expert articles to help you gather skills you need, and I hope they’ll help you on your business ideation journey as you consider the role promotion will play in getting the word out about what you can do for your community.
Circling back to our tale of dried beans, if you can tell your customers’ stories, tell a good story about yourself like heirloom bean grower Rancho Gordo, inspire others to talk about you as in this local industry news piece on Baer’s Best beans, you are on the way to a win.
If you learn how to cumulatively build press and awareness around your brand, your business idea could wind up a local household name by demonstrably improving life where you live.
Within the realm of possibility
“Could the reduction in air pollution be good news for fighting climate change? (University of Toronto researcher Marc) Cadotte says a small blip like the one we’re experiencing will have minimal impact on the long-term challenge of climate change. But if the pandemic continues and emergency measures remain, some countries may end up unintentionally meeting emissions targets set through the Kyoto Protocol and Paris agreement.” — Phys.org: Air quality improves by up to 40% in cities that took action on COVID-19
Theater buffs are currently arguing about whether Shakespeare may have written some of his masterworks while quarantining from plague. What’s at stake in such debates is the scope of human creativity in the face of adversity. My own community in California has already been so hard-hit by the wildfires of climate change that COVID-19 has the odd feeling of being “just another disaster”. It has made the reduction in car travel feel trivial to my friends and family, given the benefits of a massive reduction in emissions.
Is it unsound to consider reenvisioning your business or opening a new one in a reality where upheaval has become a dogged companion and stability has become a prize beyond compare? Scientists warn we can only expect more of the same until we seize the full measure of problem-solving and make our own masterwork a sustainable planet.
Against that backdrop, let’s have the courage to say it’s within the realm of possibility for you to grow beans, or build an alliance of farmers to sell them, or market that alliance to your county. Or do whatever work strikes you as most powerfully contributive.
Let’s say it’s not beyond things dreamt of in your philosophy that a tri-county alliance could provide water, food, clothing, housing, home goods, education, professional services, safety net, civic life, and culture to all regional residents. And perhaps your region makes a blueprint for others, and progress is slowly redefined not by short-sighted market wins but, rather, permanent gains in the human happiness index.
In an essentials-first economy, let’s say that people, and their capacity for solving problems have, in fact, become essential.