Windwalker beat me to it. I’ve been amused by Facebook’s promotions that want me to promote my business through Facebook promotions. That’s a lot of promotions. Windwalker had fun making fun when Facebook said they could reach up to 71,000 people in Greenbank, WA, a place with a very patriotic population of 1,776 people. Facebook tells me I can reach 330,000 in my town of Clinton, that is much bigger, 5,840 people. As much as Facebook may have problems with math, the math for small towns reveals some problems for small businesses in small towns. It can be tough making money in a tiny town. Making money from a tiny town, as in ‘working from’, makes much more sense.
Windwalker Taibi and MaryJo Oxreider are dear friends who also happen to own an art gallery in Greenbank, WA on Whidbey Island: Raven Rocks Gallery. It is an eclectic fine art gallery that they’ve created around a theme of “Home to Whimsy and Wonder”. A visit is a mix of smiling at fun perspectives while also being impressed with artistry and expertise. (Her fantasy houses are a joy, and his ravens in love paintings are sweet. Or is it the other way around? Both.) They were nice enough to host some of my photo exhibitions (which sold reasonably well); but that may partly be because I helped paint the space before they opened.
It would be tough if they tried to run the business based only on the population of the gallery’s zip code. Even without knowing their expenses, I’m sure that making $1 per resident wouldn’t suffice. $1,776 is not a lot of money. Add the four zip codes for the south half of the island and find 17,567 people. So, $17,567 is a much nicer number; but, even if the gallery didn’t have any expenses, that’s not much of an income. Obviously something else is going on because they’ve been in business for at least 8 years. How do they and others manage?
Let me use myself as an example because there’s a lot less guesswork involved.
I was semi-retired when I moved to Whidbey. Prior to my divorce I was retired. (For details, read my book, Dream. Invest. Live. Even better for me, buy it.) Divide retirement by two and that becomes semi-. (That’s overly simplistic, but definitely a powerful influence.) This is also the five year anniversary of my Triple Whammy, a series of events that decreased my net worth by another 80%. My writing and photography efforts shifted from contributions to culture and chronicles of nature and society, to hopefully sources of income. They did well, but not well enough to meet mortgage payments and climbing health insurance costs.
The active work of trying to establish passive income wasn’t enough; so, I emphasized those professional skills I developed in helping manage research, development, design, and customer support while an aerospace engineer at Boeing. Check my consulting page, 1) to see how I can help, and 2) to see why consulting is potentially a better way to sustain a lifestyle while doing good work.
Whidbey Island looks like a good place for operating a consulting business. There are plenty of creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial people and therefore plenty of projects to help with.
During the worst of the Great Recession (the Second Great Depression), it wasn’t a surprise that establishing any new business venture would be difficult. I know people that lost more than 100%. I only eventually lost 98% while establishing my business, was relatively glad I hadn’t lost more, and genuinely worried for myself and others.
It wasn’t until I looked at the market I was trying to reach that the economics of a rural island became apparent. There’s plenty of wealth represented on the island, but like me, most of it came here to retire. Some local investment happens, but considering the billions that are represented, the local investments are relatively small, and understandable. Much of that wealth also has homes in several communities, and probably already has other purposes and goals.
Get back to those numbers from above. If I made about $3 from every person on the south half of the island, I’d be comfortably lower middle class. I might even be able to afford visiting a doctor. It is unrealistic to have that broad a business base, unless the business is a local utility. How about making $30 from 10% of the people? That’s more doable, and is probably the business model for barbers. Make $300 from 1% and that gets into the realm of most businesses like contractors. That 1% is 176 people, a sizeable, and possibly unmanageable customer base for one person. Make $3,000 from 17 people? That’s possible, but a lot of consultants live on the island which means they have plenty to choose from.
Facebook, however, claims it can reach 330,000 people in Clinton. Great! That is, however, 56 times the population. Make an average of $3 per person in that large of a population and skip past middle class and get busy celebrating being close to being a millionaire – as long as it doesn’t burn out the business owner.
People move to cities for many reasons; one of which is that it is easier to find jobs and start businesses there. There’s a greater population which means greater opportunity. It is a positive feedback cycle that grows itself, possibly to a fault. That fault was apparent to me when I lived in and around Seattle, and that was before its recent insane growth spurt. Median house prices of $666,000? Median rents of $2,300? That’s a caution from so many perspectives, especially that 666 thingy.
I am fortunate enough to have passed through some major disfortunate events and end up with a dramatically reduced mortgage. If I’d stayed in Seattle, I’d probably have to move. Through the bizarre circumstances I’ve passed through, I now have a much more affordable set of expenses. Getting the income to match or even exceed expenses is tougher.
The numbers are clear. That’s what I like about math. It is tough to make money on the island. It is tough to afford a lifestyle in the city. So, I try to make money from the island. I work on the island, but most of my income comes in from off the island. I’m making my money by working from my home of Whidbey.
Being willing to travel helps, though it hasn’t been required more than once a year or so. Being aware of the mathematical difficulty of islanders trying to survive by making money from islanders also helps. There are jobs and a need for consultants on the island, but the most successful islanders I know use Whidbey as an enticement, as a treat for any off-island client that wants to consult. Come to the island, get yourself out of your familiar environment, and find a new perspective while tackling tough decisions from a pleasing place.
Whidbey Island is a destination. Art patrons travel here to meet artists and buy their work. Creative people travel here to remove daily distractions while focusing on their projects in a supportive environment. Corporations, institutions, and organizations travel here in groups for retreats, seminars, and workshops. There’s a value in being a destination, but there’s a limit if the expectation is to find everything in one place.
Whidbey Island is an island; but there are many kinds of islands: geographic, economic, cultural, etc. Islands have strong identities because community is stronger when people can identify a larger percentage of the people they meet on the street. Community is strong, but don’t be surprised if to sustain a community it becomes necessary to work from it, not just within it.
I enjoy working with islanders. We speak a common language, or at least know many of the same ferry jokes. I enjoy working with people who live elsewhere; not just as a source of income, but as a source of fresh perspectives.
As for Facebook, I think they just proved that they don’t quite understand what community really means; but, I’m glad they’re providing us with straight lines and raw material for jokes. I guess I can promote that.