Recently, someone asked me to share my story as an entrepreneur in Small Town America. As the email reply progressed, I thought I would like to turn it into a full blog post so I could share it with all of you.
I grew up in Dallas, Texas. The military assigned me to KU to get my degree and return to service. But I met the most amazing woman ever, who happened to be a small town girl. She’s now my wife. When we’d travel to her hometown of Erie, Kansas, I would make fun of it–mocking it as “Mayb-Erie” after the “Andy Griffith Show.”
As my career was taking off, we were also starting our family. My wife wanted to raise our kids in a small town. I didn’t care as much because my career was travel intensive, so I wouldn’t be there much anyway. I’d come back from long business trips and feel guilty because my stay-at-home wife was pregnant and chasing our other kids around the house while all of “my” chores, like mowing the lawn, were somehow already done.
One day, I was sleeping in and I heard the lawn mower. I thought “No way is my wife going to mow the lawn while I’m home–exhausted or not!” I ran out and was shocked to find my neighbor mowing our lawn.
Immediately, I thought I had a property line dispute on my hands. I started in on him, making sure he knew this was my property. He chuckled softly and said, “Yeah, I know. I just met your preggo wife a couple months ago and she said you travel a lot, so I thought I would just mow your lawn for you. Besides, I like being outside. It reminds me of being back home on the farm. It’s really not a big deal.”
That shock made me more intentional about understanding the value of small towns. For instance, where I grew up, kids could bring all their toys and things inside at night, lock the doors, and it still wasn’t safe. Many nights here, my kids leave stuff outside and it just stays right there until they go pick it up. That’s what I’ve come to call the moral competitive advantage of Small Town America.
Meanwhile, my Corporate America career left me craving more impact, more meaning. So I started my journey as an entrepreneur.
After a few failed ventures, I met a couple of other local geeks (Casey Morford & Josh Strohm) who had the same love for small towns and all things geek. We just wanted to work in the town we fell in love with and where we raise our kids, but there weren’t any companies who’d hire geeks like us. So we built Reflective Group.
Reflective Group grew to become one of the larger employers here in Baldwin. We’re a digital agency that specializes in humanizing brands through storytelling services like graphic design, film and video production, copywriting, and internet marketing. At the same time, we’re experts at product innovation: automating business processes or updating that home-grown software, putting it in the cloud, and then providing on-going support and maintenance.
When we had outgrown our kitchen tables, I thought about moving the business to Dallas because of the lack of a tech startup ecosystem in our small town. But I couldn’t escape the thought that I would be abandoning my new hometown. We needed a tech infrastructure to compete in this digital economy, but who was going to build it if Reflective Group left? So we opened our office in downtown Baldwin.
Within 12 months, we outgrew the office and the local internet infrastructure. We found ourselves asking the same question, “Wouldn’t it be better for us to move the business?” At the time, we were thinking of Kansas City because of Google fiber. That way, we could still live in a small town. But I thought “Isn’t that why we started this business in the first place? to work as geeks in the town we love?” So we’re building Dawn Fiber, an internet service company building the most advanced internet infrastructure right here in Baldwin City, Kansas.
Over the past three years, our presence in our community had more than an economic development benefit. It’s not just about the jobs or our employees buying lunch & fuel locally, or even them moving to town. It’s about having access to the team of experts that we’ve assembled:
When our neighbors’ offices needed a more affordable phone service with more features, we built ‘Ello Tello.
When our school district needed one place to more effectively run their school district on increasingly tighter budgets, we built Locus.
When our community wanted more accurate news and better coverage of stories that matter, we built My Baldwin City.
When local businesses needed to augment their IT staff, we built Alpaca Tech.
When businesses wanted to spend more time having meaningful interactions, instead of administrative tasks, we built Cloud-Shine.
When local non-profits needed a way to raise funds, in-kind donations, and coordinate volunteers, we started building Kanstarter.
When our kids wanted to learn how to become the next generation of American Geeks, we started building Geek Dojo.
When local startups wanted a simple billing solution, we started building a yet-to-be named billing software.
All this happened because small towns have a moral competitive advantage. We care more and it shows. My neighbor did what was a simple act of undeserved kindness. That one simple act of undeserved kindness changed the course of my life. And now, I am doing anything and everything I can to show the world the value of Small Town America.