Made in the USA: What it's like to have a small business in rural America.
Posted on August 26 2017
Outlaw Soaps is based in Colfax, California.
When we first told people that we wanted to start a soap company and move to a small town, we heard a lot of negatives:
"People will be all up in your business."
"People in town won't accept you."
"Aren't you more of a desk type?"
And then when we selected Colfax, on the first Transcontinental Rail Line, in Gold Country, we heard many other negatives:
"I hope you're not planning on having a retail business. There just isn't enough business here."
"California regulations are going to kill you."
"Those people aren't going to buy artisan soap."
This past couple weeks have been particularly rough on our little business (and employees), so to honor what we're going through. and also to share a little insight into what small business ownership is like, I wanted to tell you a little about our experience: the challenges, the unlikely friends, and where we are right now.
Colfax, CaliforniaColfax is off the I-80 between San Francisco and Reno. For people going to Tahoe, Truckee, Reno, or Burning Man (the desert festival happening in a little over a week), Colfax is about a five minute side trip.
That's how I found myself in Colfax on many of my 10+ trips to Burning Man. I would stop for coffee and wander through the antique shops to stretch my legs. Even if you've never been to Colfax, you've been to a roadside attraction town off any of the major interstates across the US. I'm sure you can picture it.
When the recession hit about 10 years ago, Colfax, along with many other little rural cities across the country, fell into recession. If you've seen the Disney movie Cars, Colfax is a little like Radiator Springs: many of the storefronts and tourist attractions closed, and the only things left on the route are businesses that serve the local residents.
Colfax's downtown area is mostly shuttered businesses. More than half the stores on the street are closed or closing.
Outlaw Soaps moves to ColfaxWhen we started Outlaw Soaps, Russ and I wanted to move outside of the city, ideally to an old West town. That's a really romantic idea, but people had plenty of warnings for us.
Regardless, we found a home for Outlaw Soaps in the old Freight Depot. The Freight Depot was built in 1880, and is in the historic district, so has the same lovely boardwalk and bright yellow color that it did in the old days.
It seemed the perfect home for our little artisan business.
We'd set up shop there, and as the town recovered from the recession, we could still continue to sell online (which was always our bread & butter) until it was busy enough to have a retail store. (well, we tried to have a retail store, but that didn't go all that well)
You are the recovery plan for Colfax, California.We love Colfax. We feel like our business supports the town's recovery.
We have hired local employees, and we support our local small businesses. All our website orders go through our local post office, which has increased their budget without significantly increasing their work (since we pre-print all our postage).
Since we moved here, a candy and ice cream shop opened (also supported mostly by online sales), an independence performance troop bought the old Colfax Theater, and a wood games manufacturer (also mostly supported by online sales) recently bought the building across the street and started renovating it to be their headquarters.
This is the accidental recovery plan for Rural America.
YOU are the accidental recovery plan for cities like Colfax.
In this political climate, something that comes up pretty frequently is what to do about the plight of Rural America. People are losing jobs, stores are closing, and the industries that used to power our rural economies are shutting down or changing.
I know our customers span the political spectrum, but I also know that we all care deeply about other people, about small business, and about America.
It's something we all agree on, and I know that because you're our customer and you've read this far down in what has turned out to be a pretty long email.
But now...We're at a crossroads as a business.
The local city zoning doesn't allow for manufacturing in the historic district. And yes, artisan soap crafting isn't really "manufacturing" in the same way as steel smelting is "manufacturing," but the zoning classifications are the same.
Now, one could blame our problems on regulations, but I think the problem is a much narrower point than that. Our problem is really that the regulations aren't fine enough. Colfax historical district isn't really a place for industrial manufacturing, heavy machinery, and large quantities of waste.
But the face of "manufacturing" has changed in the 100 years since the concept was invented. Most of what we think of as "manufacturing" is done in other countries.
Meanwhile, the internet has created an economy of location-independent entrepreneurs. Which is likely how you found us... on the Internet! Hooray internet!
Through behemoths like Amazon and Shopify, we can sell to literally anywhere in the world (except China, because they require that products be tested on animals).
So, what are we going to do?A business doesn't stick around for five years because of luck. Sure, we've had a lot of lucky breaks, but we're only here because of our stubbornness and tenacity.
We have a responsibility to our employees and our customers to keep this business going, come Hell or high water.
In all this, we have had so many interesting experiences. Our landlady, who really helped us get going in this town, has been such a great balancing force and advocate for all our needs. One City Council member, Marnie Mendoza, has been an incredible cheerleader through all of this. All our local friends have really been trying to come up with every possible solution for us, which is just incredible.
In a situation where it would be easy to feel persecuted and unfairly regulated, it is through the love and affection of our friends, fellow Colfaxians, and our customers that we are able to continue with warm hearts.
Our gratitude is boundless.
I know that people here love us and support our business. It feels so good to know that we aren't just "those flatlanders from the Bay Area" to locals here, we're important parts of the community and the growth of this town.
You are Helping.When we talk to the City Council, City Planner, and City Manager, we talk about how our customers come from everywhere, and how you follow along with our company and our story. We talk about how we are so proud to be part of the town, and how excited we are to stay here and build our business.
You are part of our story, and the story of the economic recovery of Small Towns in America.
Thank you for being our customer and for caring where your products come from.
CEO, Outlaw Soaps