March 19, 2014
Last week I wrote about the need for an artisan economy in Eastern Kentucky: an economy focused on creating niche, alternative-brand products, services and attractions based, in large part, on our Appalachian culture and heritage. These may include products in food, drink, popular media, crafts, furniture, tourism attractions, etc.
A few hearty entrepreneurs are already engaged in this arena. Tourism: there’s a Hatfield & McCoy feud app directing you to historical locations related to the infamous family feud., and created by descendants of the famous feudists. Popular media: Charles Shouse, a Breathitt County filmmaker, recently made a documentary about a notorious gunman named Bad Tom Smith. It got play on TV stations all over the state. He managed to land Tom Wopat to handle his narration — Luke Duke, to Dukes of Hazzard fans. Now, Shouse is trying to leverage that success to fund a movie on Bad Tom. Food: KD’s Manufacturing & Distribution is managed by a Whitley County native and chef. It sells a variety of BBQ sauces made and processed in a house-basement in Wolfe County.
The key to these ventures’ success will be the ability of these entrepreneurs to scale their offerings. What is scalability? Scalability is an entrepreneur’s ability to increase sales and revenues while the marginal costs of this product decrease. The reasons for this should be obvious: making a movie, setting up a commercial kitchen, developing an app… these plays aren’t cheap. They usually require substantial upfront investment. Further, if you want to make a living selling films, BBQ sauce, and apps, you need to make enough money to pay the bills and justify leaving your day job. This is where entrepreneurship comes in: entrepreneurship is the critical ingredient from taking these products from a neat project to a viable business that has solid sales, pays the bills, and hires employees. That’s what we all want, right?
The problem with entrepreneurship: it ain’t easy. Many creative types fall in love with their products and eschew the rest. Entrepreneurship involves mastering a wide variety of skills beyond product development. After the sauces are prepared; the movies are made; the apps developed… then comes the hard work. Marketing, sales channels, social media, licensing, web development, labeling, financials, presentations to a large number of potential partners- most of whom will say “no” before the few say “yes.”
To build a vibrant artisan-economy in East Kentucky we have to factor in this reality. We must teach entrepreneurship, emphasize entrepreneurship and encourage entrepreneurs. Around the region, we have plenty of resources: lending agencies, Small Business Development Centers, branding support, technical programs, networking opportunities, and more. The Kentucky Innovation Network, funded by the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, tries to leverage each of these groups to support businesses. We believe it’s not enough to have the coolest economy, to live in the coolest place, to have the richest heritage. To succeed, East Kentucky also has to leverage these offerings into scalable-enterprises. Entrepreneurship is our economic imperative in these hills.
Johnathan Gay manages the Kentucky Innovation Network local office at Morehead State University. He helps entrepreneurs grow enterprises. To learn more about the Kentucky Innovation Network, visit www.kyinnovation.com