The 25 Best Cities for Entrepreneurs -- and How You Can Make the Most of Yours
If you have an online business and zero employees and are happy to travel 24-7, then your physical address doesn’t matter much. Everyone else? “No question, the resources available to CEOs depend on where they locate their company,” says Peter Cohan, an investor and author of Disciplined Growth Strategies. “Beyond a great product, strong marketing and sufficient capital, startups thrive or fizzle depending on their environment and the people in them.”
That’s why we asked Livability.com to assemble a list of the best cities for entrepreneurs. But even if your city isn’t named and you’re not looking to move, it should serve as an important reminder: Businesses prosper when locals band together. Where you are is intricately linked to who you know, and you can always find new value in your community. We heard that repeatedly from people in the cities on our list -- that their lives improved when they joined Meetup groups for founders, referred customers to neighboring businesses, traded the home couch for a coworking space and more. “Join professional organizations, get involved in your chamber of commerce, find local small-business groups and attend community events,” advises Lisa Gundry, Ph.D., a professor of management and entrepreneurship at DePaul University. Those relationships will make or break a business.
For Kathryn Hawkins, cofounder of Portland, Maine-based Eucalypt Media, sleuthing for the right events has even served as a low-cost, crash-course MBA: She has soaked up insights from entrepreneurs across the country at the annual Maine Startup and Create Week; workshopped her company issues with local business leaders at House of Genius, a monthly, invitation-only panel devoted to solving a startup’s specific problems; and she gets a regular boost from her ongoing FocusMe group of women entrepreneurs. Last year, she and her cofounder participated in ScaleUp, a free program funded by the Small Business Association, complete with curriculum, homework and guest speakers. “We used what we learned to hire our first full-time employee, and we’ve since grown the team to five,” she says. “We’ve found a very grounded, supportive community here.”
As you read this list, you’ll discover results of Livability's analysis as well as unique ways cities are leveraging their unique talents and capabilities. Hopefully their strategies will inspire you to find new ways to make the most of your own town.
About our list: Entrepreneur partnered with Livability.com to find the top 50 small and midsize cities that can help business founders flourish. The Livability team crunched a mountain of data, including household income growth, employment rate, housing affordability, per capita spending, commute times, safety, diversity, rates of healthcare coverage, wage growth and more.
We've included just a sampling here. For the full list of 50, check out the April print issue. For a deeper dive into each city, visit Livability.
Start the slideshow to see the 25 best cities in America to live as an entrepreneur.
1. Alexandria, VA
What the research shows: Alexandria’s local entrepreneur organizations and proximity to Washington D.C. provide business owners numerous advantages. With a top-10 unemployment rate, a top-20 rate for small business loans and a top-five diversity rate, the Virginia city is a no-brainer for this top spot.
One entrepreneur's take: “Having a D.C. address used to be important for business, but now customers see it as cost wasted on overhead. D.C. power brokers are crossing the river because it’s more affordable, and Virginia’s general pro-growth, pro-business approach is a real enticement.” -- Chaz Cirame, founder, Cc:External Affairs
2. Iowa City, IA
What the research shows: Perhaps best known as a college town (it’s the home of the University of Iowa), Iowa City is also a great place to live and ranks in the top 20 for affordable housing and food spending, growth in high-wage jobs, culture and jobs.
One entrepreneur's take: “Folks here are progressive, educated and cultured. The small-town vibe means word of mouth and cultivating regulars are a critical aspect of our business. We can’t rely on cycling through customers like you might in a metropolitan area.” -- Rodney Anderson, founder, Pancheros Mexican Grill
3. Chapel Hill, NC
What the research shows: Chapel Hill gets all the perks of the Research Triangle of Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh but keeps its small-town feel. The home of the University of North Carolina is top five in the country in educational attainment and top 10 in both high-wage job growth and household income growth.
One entrepreneur's take: “I started an eco lawn-care business. I went door-to-door at first, but joining the chamber of commerce helped a lot. The president is great at picking up the phone to talk.” -- Mik Beetham, owner, Green Energy Lawn Care
4. Boulder, CO
What the research shows: Boulder might rank as one of Livability's best cities in America, but its close-knit and supportive community makes it the best place to start a business. The Colorado town also ranks in the top five in educational attainment, culture, and transportation affordability.
What's helped one entrepreneur: “There’s a nonprofit called Naturally Boulder that brings together the natural foods community for networking. It’s been a great way to grow my business and learn from other founders about everything from accounting and legal to operations and distribution.” -- Elizabeth Stein, founder, Purely Elizabeth
5. Corvallis, OR
What the research shows: The home of Oregon State University and a Hewlett-Packard research facility is one of the 10 best college towns in the country, one of the five best cities for high-wage job growth and top 20 for income growth.
One entrepreneur's take: “This area is full of young people starting businesses, and many are owned and operated by women. It’s created this unique culture that really thrives on companionship and openness.” -- Ann Schneider, owner, Tried & True Coffee
6. Bozeman, MT
What the research shows: This southwestern Montana community has something for everyone, from outdoor recreation to tech businesses such as Oracle. It also ranks in the top three in commute time and the top ten for affordable housing and food.
One entrepreneur's take: “Bozeman is full of tech professionals who moved from bigger cities to raise their families. And because of the skiing here, we attract a lot of visitors and people with second homes. Successful people help fuel the entrepreneurial spirit.” -- Mike Myer, founder, QUIQ
7. Ann Arbor, MI
What the research shows: A “Best Cities” mainstay, Ann Arbor is full of creative and smart people (including tons of University of Michigan graduates), ranking in the top five for creative class workers and educational attainment.
One entrepreneur's take: “When I moved here, I fell into a group of fellow entrepreneurs from really different backgrounds -- an architect, an SEO expert, a bakery owner -- but we all feed off each other, trading tips and resources. One of us found a great accountant, and now we’re all using that accountant.” -- Nicole Haley, owner, Nicole Haley Photography
8. Ames, IA
What the research shows: Anchored by a top research school (Iowa State University) and an engaged community, Ames has been one of Livability’s 100 best places to live for three years in a row. It also ranks in the top five for high wage job growth and affordable housing.
One entrepreneur's take: “We launched as a food cart near the campus of Iowa State, but people started asking if we’d sell our pretzels near them. So we opened a store and purchased a mobile unit. There are so many entrepreneurs in Ames, it makes it really easy to approach people.” -- Alex Van Alstyne, co-founder, Salt & Pretzel
9. Rochester, MN
What the research shows: Home of the Mayo Clinic, this growing city ranks in the top 10 in household income growth, commute times and affordability. It’s also top 15 in high-wage job growth and top 20 in creative class workers.
One entrepreneur's take: “You’d think the long winters would hurt ice cream sales, but I have a lot of regulars who come in and like their frozen dessert drinks even when it’s minus-14 degrees outside. And I’m certainly happy to provide.” -- Bryan Bachman, owner, Nowhere Special
10. Manhattan, KS
What the research shows: “The Little Apple,” home of Kansas State University, is pretty much the whole package wrapped in small-town charm: education, livability, growth and business.
One entrepreneur's take: “We have one of the best chambers of commerce in the state, and I think that has a big impact on new businesses getting started. Our community is very focused on working as a region, since our labor pool really comes from a seven-county area.” -- Kristin Brighton, founder, New Boston Creative Group
11. Provo, UT
What the research shows: With a growing job market, Google Fiber, healthy living and outdoor recreation at every corner, it’s no wonder Provo ranks highly for small business owners. It's also a top-15 city for small business loans and in Livability's top 10 for affordable housing and per capita food spending.
One entrepreneur's take: “Provo is a very open community in terms of business, lending and new ideas. I’ve never had a door shut in my face.” -- Jeff Pedersen, owner, The Quarry
12. Burlington, VT
What the research shows: The birthplace of ice cream giant Ben & Jerry’s, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that Burlington is one of the country’s 10 best foodie cities. It also boasts a terrific downtown and high-wage job growth.
One entrepreneur's take: “Businesses are passionate about being socially responsible and having great work environments. It’s a small enough area that you get to know and learn from each other.” -- Ted Castle, founder, Rhino Foods
13. Portland, ME
What the research shows: Outside the hustle of bigger East Coast cities, coastal Portland boasts the charms of New England with the conveniences of larger metros and a bustling culture scene. The city is full of entrepreneurial spirit, ranking in Livability's top 20 for commute time and affordable transportation (and top 99 in beer cities, if you needed more convincing).
One entrepreneur's take: “The cost of living is so much lower than in bigger cities; it really reduces the pressure on our capital requirements and helps us price our services more competitively.” -- Kathryn Hawkins, co-founder, Eucalypt Media
14. Beaverton, OR
What the research shows: Part of Silicon Forest and just outside Portland, Beaverton is home to several technology companies and ranks in Livability's top 20 for small business loans. It’s also in the top 15 for household income growth and the top 10 for commute time.
One entrepreneur's take: “Beaverton is anchored by Nike, Columbia Sportswear and Intel, but there’s a ton of small businesses up and down Main Street. My business is mostly word of mouth and referrals bouncing back and forth between all the interesting people who live close by.” -- Katherine Andrews, owner, What Sew Ever
15. Gainesville, FL
What the research shows: Well-known for its easy access to the beach and Disney World, Gainesville is also gaining a name for itself in the startup community as an affordable place to live and do business, ranking in the top three for food spending and top 20 for affordable housing.
One entrepreneur's take: “There’s a myth that because we’re a college town, retaining customers can be a challenge. But there’s a sizable population here of people raising their families, and they need our businesses all year long.” -- Lauren MacKay, owner, Zen Vibe Yoga
16. Columbia, MO
What the research shows: A small, vibrant city with a booming high-tech sector, the “Athens of Missouri” ranks in the top 10 for small business loans on our list and the top 15 for unemployment rate, high-wage job growth, affordable housing and food spending.
One entrepreneur's take: “We have 20,000 students at the university and 25 percent turnover every year, which means new blood all the time. We also have fewer big businesses here than you’d find in a more metropolis-type town. I see a lot of new businesses open. The city is pretty receptive to new ideas.” -- Steve Stonecipher-Fisher, owner, Tryathletics
17. Madison, WI
What the research shows: Madison is rich in business headquarters, research, talent and new businesses ... and the cheese isn’t bad either. The home of the Wisconsin Badgers ranks in the top 3 for small business loans and top 10 for creative class workers.
One entrepreneur's take: “I know all the other Pilates studio owners. We are all aware of our different teaching styles, locations, demographics and business models. This provides the best opportunity to create your own brand.” -- Vanessa Washicheck, owner, Pilates Central
18. White Plains, NY
What the research shows: Just 35 minutes outside of Manhattan, White Plains is a top 100 place to live and home to major business, bringing in hundreds of thousands of commuters every day -- which makes it a good thing that it also ranks in the top 10 in transportation affordability.
One entrepreneur's take: “We have a large amount of businesspeople here, and we have big companies like IBM, Pepsi, Heineken and Mastercard, so people don’t mind paying the prices at my upscale barbershop. They want high-end service.” -- Peter Palushi, owner, Gentleman’s Barber Spa
19. Palo Alto, CA
What the research shows: Sandwiched between the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, the home of Stanford University is the mecca for startups. This diverse town strikes a chord with the especially creative and intellectual types, ranking first for creative class workers and second for educational attainment.
One entrepreneur's take: “Our customers are pushing the envelope in every part of their lives, so they keep us on our toes. We modify our programming a little to appeal to the venture capitalist, startup founder or Fortune 100 exec.” -- Darryl Brandon, owner, Reach Fitness
20. Cambridge, MA
What the research shows: Just across the river from Boston, this city is best known for its tech scene and higher education institutions -- Harvard University and MIT -- but it should also be recognized for its great neighborhoods, cultural attractions and bustling nightlife
One entrepreneur's take: “The people are educated, and they actually take my experience to heart. I have a highly successful little pet-grooming shop that barely has a down season. I’ve got poodles coming out of my ears.” -- Jeana Ward, owner, Jeana’s Dirty Dogs
21. Bellevue, WA
What the research shows: Located near Seattle, this Washington town has tons of amenities while maintaining a small-town feel. It ranks top 10 in the country in small business loans, creative class workers and culture while still offering affordable transportation and easy access to broadband.
One entrepreneur's take: “The abundance of technical and business talent enables us to grow and thrive. And we get to enjoy everything from good parking, to the range of places to eat and drink, to the public transit links throughout the greater Seattle area.” -- Bruce Jaffe, CEO, Donuts
22. Berkeley, CA
What the research shows: Situated on the eastern shores of San Francisco Bay and home to the University of California Berkeley, this city is a hub for intellectuals and creatives, ranking in the top five in creative class workers, educational attainment and transportation affordability.
One entrepreneur's take: “The Bay Area music scene exploded in the late ’60s, and we had the opportunity to work alongside many artists performing in the area. Those relationships continue. Berkeley is filled with artists and scientists, and we are constantly inspired by those we meet.” -- Helen Meyer, cofounder, Meyer Sound
23. East Lansing, MI
What the research shows: Michigan State University’s home ranks in the top 10 for educational attainment on our list and top five for food spending. East Lansing also has more than 20 unique neighborhoods, restaurants, bars and things to do that lend to its ranking in the top 20 for culture.
One entrepreneur's take: “Our company started with three engineering students from Michigan State University in 2014. We were supported by the student startup resources at The Hatch and Spartan Innovations in East Lansing, and even closed two investment deals with funds from the area.” -- Alexa Jones, cofounder, TheraB Medical
24. Bloomington, IN
What the research shows: Bloomington isn’t just ideal for trails, outdoor recreation and its relationship with Indiana University. It’s also incredibly affordable, ranking among the best in the country for affordable food spending and in the top 20 for affordable housing. Entrepreneurs here can find strong talent and a high quality of life.
One entrepreneur's take: “Bloomington has enough people, growth and income to support a business like mine. Not very many small cities can do that. I saw the growth happening and knew I could grow with it.” -- Josh Smith, owner, Clutch Fabrication and Design
25. Brookings, SD
What the research shows: Entrepreneurs strapped for cash will find a booming economy in this Midwestern town. Brookings has the second-lowest unemployment on this list and the second-best growth of high-wage jobs. Plus it’s affordable, ranking second for food spending and in the top five for housing.
One entrepreneur's take: “Early on, we were uncertain if we could be successful in a town and region the size of ours. But Brookings is incredibly supportive of local businesses, and the community is quite diverse, much like a slice of a much larger city.” -- Trevor Clements, co-founder, Coteau des Prairies Olive Oil Co.