Forget Silicon Valley: Build Your Business in the 'Burbs
Big cities are alluring, but many startups find favorable trade-offs in smaller communities.
Are big cities the best choice for successful startups? Maybe not.
When entrepreneurs jump to New York or the Bay Area, they're overlooking a major candidate: the suburbs. Big cities are alluring, but these quieter regions aren't to be neglected. For many companies, suburbia will make a better fit than a city.
Sure, downtown is the place to be for companies whose founders want to enjoy easy access to networking resources and cross paths with tech pioneers while waiting in line for a microgreen salad. Being "present" in competitive markets can be a great path to visibility. Then, of course, there's the human element. New companies want to hire the best, most skilled people. Hiring the top candidates often means interviewing a wide range of candidates, and the hiring pools are deepest in big cities.
But people cost money -- a lot of money. So does real estate. The suburbs may lack the energy and accessibility of larger metropolitan areas, but they offer important benefits such as quality of life and affordability. Those are just two reasons why the suburban entrepreneurial scene is booming. In fact, Naperville, Ill., recently hosted the 17th Annual Entrepreneurial Excellence Awards.
Finding not-so-hidden treasure in suburbia.
I started my business out of my home office, so I was pretty spoiled in terms of commute time and work-life balance. But when I sold the company and agreed to stay on as president, I insisted our new office be no more than 10 miles from my house. That stipulation turned out to be a huge benefit.
The cost of office space is one of the few things new businesses can control from the outset. On average, rentals in central business districts are $10 more per square foot than they are in the suburbs. Because we rented office space in the suburbs instead of moving to a tech hub, we had an easier time navigating the financial challenges of expanding a small organization. Choosing an unaffordable space or renting for the sake of having the "right" address will sink a company faster than will overpaying employees.
Workers who commute in rush-hour traffic spend about 42 hours a year just getting to and from their jobs. That's an entire work week. Employees who work for suburban businesses have shorter commute times than their city-bound peers.
Short commutes not only make for better work-life balance but also facilitate productivity. There's a reason so many tech pioneers started in their garages rather than toiling in cramped urban offices. If an employee's daily commute includes sitting in stop-and-go traffic, there's no way he or she will be laser-focused upon arrival. And that doesn't even account for the frustration of fighting for a parking spot two miles from the office.
Being outside a city doesn't limit a company's market. A different location simply re-centers it. Instead of launching a product on the main stage right away, new businesses get to test their offers in smaller markets and make adjustments based on that feedback. Startups in southern New Hampshire's suburbs use the lack of a tech scene to their advantage, connecting more easily with users. They're also able to attract a more diverse pool of workers. Cities may be the favorite scene among millennials, but older workers with more experience in their fields tend to favor the suburbs.
Creating rules to live by.
Because my company was based in the suburbs, we didn't have access to a massive talent pool. We hired a small, ambitious team that thrived under the conditions we created. With fewer than 15 people, we hit record profits and were able to offer above-average salaries and bonuses. Best of all, we usually were done with work in time to catch Little League games, dance recitals and dinners with family and friends.
Suburban life can't compete with the excitement of city living, but it's the right fit for many people and companies. If you're considering setting up shop in the suburbs, learn to embrace three core concepts.
Trust that location won't be a deal-breaker for the right employees.
If a candidate is the right fit, location won't keep him or her from joining the team. Tech workers are drawn to cities because they value proximity to dining options, entertainment and cultural events. But these workers also prioritize community and the ability to live comfortably wherever they are. If towns offer interesting culinary options, volunteer opportunities and community programming, people will be willing to give the suburbs a try.
Highlight the unique benefits of suburban life.
Don't focus solely on salary when wooing new employees. Sell them on the perks of eliminating angst-ridden commutes and having more time for family or hobbies. Even better, offer them flexible work policies. Eighty percent of companies boast some sort of flexibility, and combining adaptable work hours with the ease of suburban traffic can help employees get more done in less time. If possible, choose an office location that's central to supermarkets, cafes and outdoor recreational spaces to help employees feel connected to the area.
Reassure employees they're getting more for their money.
Employees need to pay for housing, fitness memberships and groceries no matter where they live. People warm to the suburbs when they realize how much further their dollars stretch outside of cities.
Someone who pays $2,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in the Bay Area might be delighted to realize she or he can rent a spacious townhouse for the same amount in the suburbs. Gas lasts longer and gets used more efficiently when it's not being burned five days a week in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Once people consider personal expenses from this perspective, many decide the suburbs look appealing after all.
The suburbs may never match the cool factor of city living, but they offer a range of benefits for businesses and their employees. Suburbia presents great options for establishing a successful, financially sustainable business that's more focused on creating innovative solutions than keeping up with the Joneses downtown.
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