Variety is a blessing. It’s also a necessity and a safeguard.

Hunting & Gathering

With your permission, I’m going to plunk you down in the middle of nowhere. Wait. Don’t worry. This will be fun.

The temperatures are moderate and you have the latest in outdoor gear. What you don’t have is food. You have to hunt and gather to feed yourself. Think of it as your new diet plan.

What would you like to eat?

We have fruit trees and bushes, nut trees, some tasty water plants, and a few things I’m not even going to try. Before you decide, let’s talk convenience.

OPTION A:

If you’d like, we can arrange one bush or tree, located nearby, to be your sole source of food. Would you like that? It’s just a few steps from your tent and it will be a type that bears food year-‘round.

OPTION B:

Alternatively, you can wander over a wide area and get your food here and there. There are some downsides. You’re going to walk further. You’ll have to carry food longer distances. And there will probably be thorns involved. The really good things are often protected by thorns.

Now choose.

The Choice

I really hope you chose Option B.

If you’ve chosen Option A, I have some difficult news to share. The plant looked strong when you first saw it. It fed you and some other campers in the area for several years. Recently, you noticed some changes. Its leaves began to yellow. Its stems became stiff and browned. It wasn’t thriving anymore. It produced less and less fruit until one day you went out to pick your meal and all the fruit had withered and fallen to the ground, where animals ate it all. There was nothing left.

Now you have a problem. Not only do you need food, you also need to know where to find it. You wish now you’d been more like your neighbor.

Shelly chose Option B.

Each morning, she got up and foraged. She took a map with her and carefully marked each food source she found. When she found some particularly hardy plants, she took the

best fruit and saved it. When she got back to her campsite, she carefully extracted the seeds from the fruit. She dried them and set them aside.

The first year was a tough one for Shelly. She walked tremendous distances to find food. She had some great stories though. You felt a little smug beside the campfire when you and Shelly compared your days. You had gone to the same place, picked the same fruit, and had the same meal. It was easy. Your days were relaxing. Shelly was often tired and scratched from her foraging.

One day you walked further than normal. When you looked up, you were near Shelly’s campsite. It had changed dramatically since you’d last visited. She had cleared ground in several places and you saw varieties of plants growing in separate beds. There were plump berries, thick melons, and bushy bean plants that climbed poles she’d cut and lashed together. Squash plants curled along the ground, leaves shading their bounty. You even saw tomatoes.

You had … an impressively tall, thick, ever-bearing plant that had become a bent, sickly, never-bearing plant. And you wished you’d chosen another option.

Economic Development

Many communities can tell similar stories. They know they need to do something different. They need a jolt that will invigorate their economic futures. They embrace Option A’s. They woo and attract companies that they’ve cast in the role of The Answer. One industry or one enterprise that can employ, feed, or serve many people at one time. They invest heavily — in infrastructure, tax abatements, and in faith — to create a place for their Option A in their communities and in their hearts.

What they don’t foresee is the decline. Any enterprise is subject to the vagaries of the market. Tastes change. People mismanage. Small companies are bought by larger ones and sacrificed to create a more enticing package for the next buyout. What’s left? An empty building with a deteriorating parking lot, former employees who no longer have wages to tax and sustain the communities where they live.

Boarded up and run down homes sit on a street in Muncie, Indiana, U.S., August 13, 2016. Picture taken August 13, 2016. TO MOVE WITH SPECIAL REPORT USA-INSECURITY/MUNCIE REUTERS/Chris Bergin

In other instances, The Answer never achieves the promise its supporters envisioned. The picture they shared with enthusiastic backers. What’s lost in these cases is Hope and also the resources that could have developed an economic garden.

Shelly had it right. She went to a number of places and analyzed what was working. She took the best bits and brought them home. These were her renewable resources. She didn’t mind starting small. She knew that she’d be able to grow from a humble enterprise. Time was her ally because she was planting for a harvest beyond this one.

Shelly also diversified. If one plant failed it was not her sole investment.

Communities often focus on the star employers—the ones that hire hundreds or thousands of workers. Clearly, they are important. But they also are the Option A’s. What if a area’s business environment comprised smaller enterprises? One business closing might affect half a dozen employees, but it would not significantly diminish the economic well-being of an entire city or county.

What is a small business?

The Small Business Administration (SBA) standards for small businesses are for the most part expressed in either millions of dollars or number of employees. A size standard is the largest that a concern can be and still qualify as a small business for Federal Government programs. For the most part, size standards are the average annual receipts or the average employment of a firm. How to calculate average annual receipts and average employment of a firm can be found in 13 CFR § 121.104 and 13 CFR § 121.106, respectively.

When you look at the standards, the businesses that fall into the “small business” category are not small at all. They can have average annual receipts ranging from $750,000 to $38.5 million and anywhere from one to 1,500 employees. The acceptable limits of receipts and number of employees are set by industry. (See http://https://www.sba.gov/contracting/getting-started-contractor/make-sure-you-meet-sba-size-standards/table-small-business-size-standards)

Smaller than small

Could it be time to reassert the role of micro businesses?

Economist Brian Headd reported on “The Role of Microbusinesses in the Economy” in 2015. He defined micro businesses as firms with one to nine employees.

They represent a relatively small share of US employment. In 1978, micro businesses were 15 percent of private-sector employment. By 2011, they dropped to 11.5 percent, or 13 million employees. (Source: Census Bureau, Business Dynamics Statistics, Initial Firm Size)

This is not a measure of the importance of micro businesses. Headd reports that micro businesses have an oversized importance on job flows. They accounted for over 20 percent of the job gains and job losses from 2000 to 2013, with much of their gross job flows coming from new and closing firms as opposed to expanding or shrinking firms. (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Business Employment Dynamics)

In the allegory above, Shelly would be tending carefully to these micro businesses — her individual plant stocks. They provide variety, diversity, and often complementary services.

How much better it is for a community to do business locally when possible. When wages are earned and spent in the same place, it’s like cultivating a garden. You take something grown locally and reuse every bit of it. You fold it back into the planting environment to encourage health and growth.

Look around you. What product or service is missing? Where is there a niche that is ideal for a passionate entrepreneur to fill? And what do we need to do to encourage people to take such risks? To support them, and ourselves, by creating a business environment that borders on self-sufficiency but also has an astonishing reach?

For more information, look to your regional, state, or county Economic Development organization to learn about programs and possible assistance in launching or enlarging a business.

Daviess County Economic Development Corporation

Hoosier Ombuddy: Resources for Veteran-Owned Businesses

Purdue Extension

Small Business Administration (SBA)

Southwest ISBDC