Starting Up in a Business Backwater
One founder based in Iowa explains how the state’s lousy reputation for startups works to her advantage.
By Bree Brouwer (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0)
When you start a social media agency in the middle of agricultural and food manufacturing in the worst state for female-owned businesses, you’d think the process would be incredibly challenging.
But that wasn’t Beth Trejo’s experience when she started her social media company Chatterkick in Sioux City, Iowa.
With a background in public relations, Trejo worked in several marketing and social media jobs, including the American Red Cross’s advanced public affairs team and the local Sioux City, Iowa chamber of commerce, where she worked with businesses to help them solve their marketing problems. It became such a large part of her duties that she decided to offer the same services on her own.
“I saw that I could help where there really wasn’t anybody else to give that expertise,” she said.
Trejo’s primary challenge was the fact that she found out she was expecting. “It was a very busy year,” she said with a laugh on our phone interview. “I actually found out I was pregnant two weeks after I quit my job.”
But other than her complicated pregnancy, she said she hasn’t run across major hindrances for her business, even though Iowa doesn’t have a lot of technical acuity, particularly in Sioux City where the major industries are agricultural and food manufacturers.
“I do think that the Midwest, Iowa particularly, is not as saturated on all the social media tools as maybe if you go out to the coasts,” she said. “But I think it almost works better for businesses when there isn’t as much of a saturation, because 1) they don’t have as much competition and 2) in Iowa it really does come down to those traditions where business deals are made over a handshake.”
It’s those handshakes that Trejo thinks have made Chatterkick’s services work so well for Iowa businesses, even the manufacturers. “That’s really what social media is — it’s all about relationships. If you can just get people to see those connections, it really does work well.”
Trejo explained that social media works incredibly well on a local level because people actually know the face behind the brands and small businesses increase ROI simply through involved fans. She also pointed out how some of Chatterkick’s national clients have Facebook pages and interactions from all over the country, but the response that they get from Iowa on a local level is astounding and affirms the “handshake” mentality.
“I can’t even tell you the percentage because it’s so much higher than the national response,” she said. “I have pages locally that have more interaction than national brands with hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of fans.”
Trejo also doesn’t feel affected by a recent study by American Express Open, where Iowa ranked last in the nation for cumulative growth in the number of female-owned firms, revenue, and employment. Besides her pregnancy and her 50/50 co-ownership of Chatterkick with a male friend (which would have otherwise granted her more seed money if she was a primary shareholder), she doesn’t feel being a businesswoman in Iowa has been a struggle.
“On a local level, I don’t sense that [problem],” she said. “I understand that there’s national statistics that relate to that, but a lot of my friends are female business owners, and I do feel that there are lots of females successfully running their businesses.”
Overall, she said the business community and climate in Iowa has been wonderful for her. “I had so many people when I started that were supportive and wanted to give me business and really help me out on so many different levels.”
However, as a native Iowan, Trejo understands how some female-owned businesses could be struggling in Iowa.
“People don’t take as many financial risks here. You see people with amazing ideas but they just don’t quit their jobs and start it,” she said. “They’d rather work in the job, even if they didn’t like it, to make sure they were more financially secure. If you’re in that culture in other communities, it’s not a big deal to start a company and fail, start another company and fail. But around here, that’s a huge thing, so social status and culture make a difference.”
But Trejo thinks Iowa can easily change its attitude toward female-owned, tech businesses. “You see a lot of startups going in the tech world, and I really think that’s where we need more businesses going, especially in this northwest Iowa pocket.”
Central and eastern Iowa are doing very well in regards to tech businesses, she said, because of the larger cities’ cultures where they get excited about what they’re doing (Pinterest, for example, started in Des Moines). “I think that needs to be carried throughout the state.”
She also believes that all some women need is encouragement and the knowledge that they have options and programs to help them. “For me, I just needed someone to say they were there so in case it didn’t work out, I could try something else,” she said.
And if Trejo could start a successful social media company in a poorly-ranked state for female businesses (while being pregnant), maybe that means other women will finally start to get the support they need to follow in her footsteps.
Are you a founder in an out-of-the-way locale? Share your experience in the comments.
About the guest blogger: Bree is a freelance blogger and content strategist who wants to help geeks pursue a better life and business. When not blogging, she enjoys playing video games, analyzing culture and entertainment, and learning about powerful women changing the world.