Driving through a little town in Indiana one day, Andrew Davis, a big-ideas expert and global marketing keynote speaker, was greeted by an unexpected sign: “Welcome to Warsaw, Indiana, the orthopedic manufacturing capital of the world.” Stopped in his tracks, Andrew had to investigate:
“Can you really market a place as the “’blank’ capital of the world” and actually impact your economy and business and leave a legacy?”
After three years of research and investigation in collaboration with Northeastern University, he discovered a fascinating trend. Visionary business leaders all around the country were making these kinds of claims to the great benefit of both their businesses and local town economies.
Andrew calls these businesses Town Inc., and his latest book by the same title takes a deep dive into the benefits of setting up your company as a community beacon.
What is a Town Inc.?
Hamilton, Missouri is the quick-quilting capital of the world. You probably didn’t know that was even a “thing,” but the town of Hamilton has been prospering thanks to it.
It all started when a 60-year-old resident named Jenny Doan decided to turn her hometown into the “Disneyland of quilting.” Crazy as the idea may sound, her business, Missouri Star Quilt Company, now brings in revenue at the pace of $100 million a year, with up to 50,000 visitors from all over the world flocking to the otherwise-unknown city.
Jenny’s company is now the biggest employer in her county, providing career prospects to many young people who’d otherwise have long left their little town and moved to the nearest city. The company isn’t just “giving back” to its community. It’s building the community. A community that benefits Jenny’s business and all other local businesses as much as Jenny’s business is benefiting the community.
And that’s Town Inc. Or as Andrew puts it:
“Town Inc. is all about businesses that market the place they do business more than the business they do.”
A Town Inc. is a business that’s shaping and changing the towns and communities around it. This has benefited not only their own business but also other businesses and the community.
Building the vision of a Town Inc.
Skeptics would have you believe that there are absolutely no benefits to setting up a Town Inc. and laying claim to your town and your niche’s home territory. They’d even warn you that you’re inviting competition into your turf.
But these are the same people who’d have you believe that employees should be kept on a tight leash to remain productive—an idea that the modern business world of startups and remote companies has well repudiated.
Think about this way: if every employee in your business is empowered, then the leader will benefit. Expanding that idea out from employees to businesses, it makes sense that when every business has access to a better talent pool, everyone benefits.
More importantly, these businesses give a true sense of pride, meaning, and belonging in the towns and communities in which they operate. And that’s simply priceless.
Through his research and countless interviews, Andrew has discovered the three key elements that leaders pay great attention to when setting up these businesses:
- Creating location envy to bring in other businesses in their niche. Why do all the tech companies want to be in Silicon Valley? Because that’s where industry giants like Google and Facebook and, much earlier on, Intel and Apple, set up offices and became successful. That’s where the tech revolution happens and where anyone who wants to be a part of it wants to go. That’s location envy.
- Making sure they have the highest-caliber talent available in their towns. Usually, we think that talent goes where the work is, but what happens when you bring all the talent in first? Businesses follow the talent.
- Staking a strong claim in their particular niche. The towns and businesses may not be for all businesses, but the key is to attract the right businesses that will help you and the community flourish.And those who don’t succeed? They fall prey to the greatest misstep of all: Watering their vision down by trying to get consensus.
In this episode of Org Uncharted, Andrew talks to us about all the businesses he’s met and takes us deep into all the details of setting up a Town Inc. following the three key elements—and avoiding that one lethal pitfall.
Click play to hear his tips and research, and don’t forget to subscribe to Org Uncharted on your favorite podcast player for more insightful conversation with innovative business leaders of all walks and stripes.
What’s the big idea? You can interpret that phrase in two ways, one positive, one negative. What’s the big idea? The positive is when we feel that spark, that fire inside of our guts, when we have this idea and we can’t wait to pursue it. It’s different, it’s bold, it’s potentially fulfilling, but just one problem. You got to sell it up the chain. Too often, people don’t even try, or their attempts get squashed. So, that’s the negative.
Too many people go to work worried that trying anything new, even the stuff they know will improve the company will get shot down by others before it sees the light of day. Others, by the way, with more political clout, but not more insight into the customer. It’s like we envision this stereotypical boss, and he bursts through the door to catch his employees doing something other than what he told them. Hey, what’s the big idea here? Get back to work, you no-good so-and-so’s.
Okay, so apparently our boss is a middle-aged man from the ’50s. I’m picturing balding, some suspenders, some hairy knuckles and a stub of a cigar crammed in hit teeth. You know the guy, and that guy might not actually exist at most companies, but man, if people don’t act like he does. They put their heads down and just do what they’re told. Blech … But, I get it.
When you’re someone who believes in things, like company culture and employee empowerment, the skeptics like to point to a lot of things that you do that don’t look like work, even thought they enable better work.
Today, we explore something that looks nothing like growing your business. Not directly, anyway. In fact, it’s something that a skeptic could say would help grow a competitor’s business. Our guest today gives us every reason to believe that we as leaders should try this. As you might expect, it’s a really big idea.
People don’t do their best work when they feel like nodes on an org chart. Instead, great businesses today empower each and every individual to do their very best work. This is the show about people who do that. This is Org Uncharted.
Welcome to Org Uncharted, the podcast from Tettra. Tettra makes knowledge management and sharing software for modern fast-growing teams. I’m your host, Jay Acunzo, and on the line today, it’s the big idea master himself. Can I call you that, the big idea master?
Sure, that’s a huge compliment, man. Thanks.
You are. Andrew Davis is your name. We should probably lead with that, but ever since I’ve known you it’s all been, you’re able to start with a big idea that people need to hear, but I think your superpower is that you’re able to make the big idea seem very strategic and logical. It’s not just something that gets me nodding and gets me excited, but it’s like, I understand how to execute on that. You’re the big idea machine.
Oh, thanks man. Well, I’m glad it’s a machine. I wish I could turn them out even faster. Big ideas are hard to come across.
I know, I know. Well, what do you tell people that you do, like at holiday parties? You’re not going up to them saying, “Hi, I’m the big idea machine,” obviously, although you can. I give you permission to do that now.
I usually, at holiday parties, I would tell someone that I speak and write books for a living.
Got it, okay.
Which is a good conversation starter, because people either want to know about either of those, sometimes both, like what kind of books is usually a good followup question.
You know, I actually don’t, like most people I think, I don’t like talking about myself so it’s much easier to flip it on them as soon as I can, and ask them what they do and try to dive in and find their big idea.
Can I be honest?
I think most people do like talking about themselves. I think that they’re supposed to say they don’t like talking about themselves.
Yeah, come on.
I find it really awkward. Even on podcasts like this I feel like I don’t really know what to tell people I do. I don’t feel like they’re that interested in what I do.
All right, well let me be the interested person in what you do.
The show itself is about people who empower other people, and you travel around the world, basically doing that. I know you speak, like you said, you write books. How many gigs a year do you do? Just give people a sense of how often are you on the road?
I do about 50 gigs a year. I’m on the road about 130 days a year or something like that. A huge amount of that is in the United States, but I also do a lot of stuff in Europe and Asia, in Australia, so it’s kind of a global idea-generating and sharing machine. How’s that? I do like sharing the things I’ve learned with other people, and inspiring them to kind of change the way they do business, or they think about their job, or their career, the opportunities in front of them. I’m an optimist at heart, and I really do like getting people excited about really changing what they’re doing in big ways.
One of the things that I admire about the way you speak is, you’re kind of like a vessel up there. You’re not saying, this is what I did in the past, and so here’s what you can learn. You’re also not saying, this is my blueprint for success. It’s like, the big idea is made instead of found, in other words. You go and you investigate stuff.
I don’t know, I really do think I have good ideas to share, but I don’t feel like they’re the answer. I just think it’s an answer that I hope people will at least think through. If it works for them, great, but if not I hope it challenges them to think about their own answer to the same problem, or similar problem they’re having.
Right, one of those answers was this idea behind Town INC.
Which, we’re going to talk about today. So, the travel, I know, inspired your idea for your most recent book. I know you’re writing another one right now, but the last book you published was called Town INC. Just give us a quick overview of, what was the inspiration for that as you were traveling around doing all this speaking? Also, how does that apply to leaders trying to build empowered teams?
I’ll answer the last question first, how’s that?
Town INC is all about businesses that market the place they do business, more than the business they do. I actually was in a town called Warsaw, Indiana, which is basically an hour-and-a-half West of Ft. Bend, Indiana. I was going there to speak at a speaking event, and I drove the back roads to get there. That part of Indiana, North of Indianapolis, is kind of a really sad-looking place. There are lots of derelict buildings and old beat-up factories that are empty and have no employees.
As I got closer and closer to Warsaw, Indiana I started wondering, what is in Warsaw, Indiana? Who is going to be at this event? I can’t imagine there’s anything in any of these towns. When I drove into Warsaw, Indiana, I realized it was kind of like an oasis in the middle of the rust belt of America. There were lots of cars, all the shop windows were full, the cafes had lines in front of them, there were office parks and fountains. It was a really beautiful little Midwestern town. 25,000 people live there.
As I was driving into the town, there’s a sign that says, “Warsaw, Indiana is the Orthopedic Manufacturing Capital of the World.”
Yeah. It is the Orthopedic Manufacturing Capital of the World. I thought, is this for real? I mean, I don’t even know what that means. As I got to know the town, and left that town, on the way out there’s a sign that says, “Thank you for visiting Warsaw, Indiana, the Orthopedic Manufacturing Capital of the World.” I thought, you know, is it that easy? Can you market a place as the blank Capital of the World, or the blank capital of the Midwest, or the blank capital of Texas, and actually impact your economy, your business, leave a legacy?
I spent the next three years researching cities and towns, and doing some quantitative research with Northeastern University to try to figure out if that was the case, if you actually market a place as the blank capital of something, if it will make a big impact.
What I found, Jay, was that nine times out of ten, it’s a private citizen, a business visionary who makes the claim, and builds the legacy and the economy, and then, the town follows.
My assumption when I went into this was that there must be economic directors, and government organizations, and nonprofits that are marketing and branding this kind of thing. It turned out, in most cases, to not be the case at all. In fact, in almost every town I visited, I visited 54 towns, and then 27 of them, it was a single business visionary who said, “You know what? We are going to be the RV Capital of the World,” or, “We are going to be the Quick Quilting Capital of the World,” or, “We are going to be the Record Safety Capital of the World,” that all of a sudden started to change the economy.
They did not try to get a consensus, they did not try to get everybody bought in, they did not try to get the economic development team to start putting money behind it, or the Chamber of Commerce involved. They just believed that marketing the place they do business is an important aspect of marketing the business they do. It makes their business unique in a world where being, just online you can be anywhere and no one seems to care. They realize that this was a differentiator that no one else could have. That’s why they were able to build their business, but also, in lots of ways, transform their economies.
I have a big question that I want to ask you, but I have a really specific one based on the examples you just gave. Just to make sure that I understand what the heck that was. The quick quilting capital of the … Which one was that?
That’s right. Yeah, Hamilton, Missouri is the Quick Quilting Capital of the World.
It was a 65-year-old visionary, a woman named Jenny Doan, who in 2012 told me that she was going to build the Disneyland of quilting. That’s literally what she told me when I met her in this little town.
As one does, right?
Of course, and I honestly … Jenny’s a wonderful person, but when I first met her I did think she was a little crazy. I thought, this is never going to happen. What she’s done in the last five years is transform her economy. She’s now a hundred-million dollar a year business, and she helps people who want to quilt faster, create quilts in as little as a day. The average quilt takes nine months to actually finish. She’s come up with all these ways to cut corners … Ha-ha-ha, pun intended. I know, terrible, sorry … And, actually build a great-looking quilt in as little as a day. She’s built her entire business around that.
More importantly, her town was one of those kind of rust belt towns with no one in it, and she now owns about 20 of the buildings in the downtown area. She’s the largest employer in the county. Not just in the city, in the county. They did $108 million in revenue last year. They have a magazine that makes $500 thousand a quarter, a print magazine, by the way, that they send out. She has a YouTube channel with hundreds of thousands of views every week on quick quilting tutorials. People come to meet Jenny Doan, to the tune of about 50 thousand people a year visit this little town that no one used to visit in the past.
She’s one of my shining stars of someone who’s really leaving a legacy, growing their business, and in fact, transforming everybody in town. People that had down and out prospects for jobs in a town with no real revenue source, they either have to leave and go to a big city, or they have to resolve themselves to the fact that they can work at the convenience store, the grocery store, or cut hair, like any other little town, and make a minimum wage and a meager living. Now, she’s really built something special there.
That’s unbelievable. That’s such a great story, and I imagine one that people love when you tell it on stages too.
They do. She’s inspiring to me, because I think a lot of people think even the digital world is for people that are digital-savvy, natives that have kind of grown up in the economy. Somebody that’s in their 60s is able to really harness the power of the online world to spread a very simple message. Which is, the Missouri Star Quilt Company, which is the name of her company, is based in Hamilton, Missouri.
If you go watch her YouTube ads, she says, “We are located in Hamilton, Missouri, home of the Hornets,” which is their football team. She’s immediately educating the world. People have flown from Iran, literally from Iran. A woman rented a car and a driver from St. Louis, Missouri and drove to visit Hamilton, Missouri because she had “met” Jenny Doan online, and wanted to actually come to this little place and see what it was. This woman didn’t go to New York, she went to Hamilton, Missouri.
Right, okay. Staking a claim is basically the equivalent of … Hopefully, in a more differentiated and interesting way, it’s the equivalent of a single company saying, if you want to be an engineer, or if you want to work in this sector, we as a business, we’re the go-to. Instead of saying, we the business, we’re the go-to, you’re saying the location is a go-to, so there’s a little bit of …
… There’s a parallel you can draw to a lot of the themes that have already started coming up on Org Uncharted, which is basically like, it used to be that you look at the org chart, and the decision-makers are at the top, and the people who take the tickets from the decision-makers and execute the work, they’re in the bottom. The insights, the ideas, the direction, the strategy, that’s all set top-down. A lot of what we believe in the show is, that’s no longer the case. It’s absolutely not about top-down management, managing to the org chart, it’s about doing the right things for the business, doing the right things for the customer, solving for the customer. So often, people on the front lines have access to the customer.
The reason I bring that up is, in the case of a leader in a business, they’re now sort of collaborating with all people within their business to be a better leader. Now, you step outside of the one business, and you’re now collaborating with other businesses. Ostensibly, some competitors, to be better recruiters, and it’s like everybody benefits, right? If every employee in your business is empowered, then the leader will benefit. If every business has access to a broader talent pool, then everyone benefits. So, it’s more of a collaborative approach.
Yes. You can think of it in really basic terms. Like, Nashville is the Country Music Capital of the World, right? If you want to be a country music star, there is no better place in the world to go than Nashville. Now, that’s an emotional decision. I mean, yes, I would imagine you’re more likely to be successful in Nashville, but there’s no real reason that Nashville is any better than Atlanta, I guess, right, for writing country music. What happens when you have perfect competition, where you actually have access to more studios that record country music, where you have more bars that have live country music, and more opportunities to play. You get a higher-quality talent over and over. You up your game and play a better song, write better music, because you’re surrounded by the best of the best in the business.
It’s no different when you’re in Elkhart, Indiana, the RV Capital of the World, the Recreational Vehicle Capital of the World. Basically, all of the competitors who make RVs have got together in Elkhart, Indiana and essentially said, we’re the RV Capital of the World, if you want to supply us with anything that goes into an RV, it would be great if you were located near us, because there are 300 of us here building recreational vehicle, and we all need the same kinds of things.