Small mountain towns are the perfect setting for entrepreneurial types, as there is a plethora of specific products and services to which both tourists, and locals, need year-round access. It may seem daunting to many prospective mountain town residents; but owning your own business is simply a matter of crafting a solid plan, and working hard to bring it to fruition. If you’ve ever thought about tuning skis, selling fly fishing gear, or even brewing beer at 10,000+ feet, we’ve put together this guide to setting up shop in a mountain town — along with a list of ideas for small businesses — so you can be your own boss, and never again get fired for taking powder days off.
BUILDING YOUR BUSINESS
There is a myriad of factors to consider when starting a business in a small town. You’ll have to choose a location, fund your enterprise, determine what products or services to sell, build a network of connections, and hire staff, among many other things. Most importantly, though, you will need to come up with a thorough business plan that serves as a roadmap for how your company is going to operate, and hopefully, turn a profit.
MAKE A BUSINESS PLAN
There are plenty of ways to approach building a business, but a good way to start is by assessing and utilizing your, and/or your partners’, strengths. If you’re knowledgeable about, and have a passion for, mountain biking, skiing, kayaking, etc., consider setting up a rental/retail shop. As a foodie, your dream may be to open up a bar, café, or coffee shop. If you have a business background, but lack experience in the industry you’d like to enter, consider partnering with someone who’s knowledgeable in that specific arena. Drawing on your experience and proficiencies is the best way to ensure you’re putting out a quality product or service.
Even with the perfect idea, you’ll need to figure out the right target market. Not every town is going to have a need for every type of service or good. Do plenty of research on the local economy, making sure you have a thorough grasp of your potential customer base. You may realize that, despite the area’s mostly college-educated citizenship and your desire to open a bar, there is already a surplus of watering holes, but not one single bookshop in town. Be flexible enough that, if you need to, you can adapt your plan to your chosen town’s dominant demographic.
Of course, almost every aspect of your plan is going to have to be viewed through a financial lens. Again, the key here is research. Look into the typical costs and revenues of similar businesses, in similar areas. If numbers intimidate you, bring in an expert (accountant, financial analyst, etc.). You’ll need projections, funding sources, a pricing structure, and plenty of other pertinent data that will help inform your decisions early on.
You’ll also have to figure out how you’re going to market your business. This doesn’t have to mean a well-coordinated media blitz across multiple platforms. It can be as easy as planning or sponsoring events, or engaging with prospective customers on social media. It’s extremely important that you first have a clearly defined mission statement. That way, potential customers will be able to understand exactly what you’re providing without expensive, elaborate marketing techniques.
There are several other facets you can include in your business plan, many of which we will address below. You’ll have to take insurance, licenses and permits, legal representation, intellectual property, organizational structure, and several other matters that are critically important to the success of a small business, into account. And, of course, you’ll have to pick a name.
CHOOSE A TOWN
As great as it would be to set up on Park City’s Main Street, or in the middle of Whistler Village, not every small mountain town is going to have the right mix of conditions necessary for your business to prosper. Obviously, the cost of living is going to be incredibly important, but there are a multitude of other considerations that go into picking a spot to hang your shingle.
The success of your company will naturally depend on the particular business climate of each town. If you’re looking to set up a ski shop or restaurant in a popular resort area, even a smaller, more inexpensive one, the barriers to entry are going to be higher, and it will be that much more difficult to establish yourself. On the other hand, it might be hard to stay afloat in a more accessible, less popular area, with a smaller potential client base.
Try getting in touch with shop owners in the area you’d like to settle. Find out what the local business environment is like overall, including advantages or potential pitfalls of operating in town, typical clientele, etc. This will not only provide you with useful information, but also help you to begin making local connections before you’ve even moved.
An extremely important factor to consider is that every town is going to have its own set of restrictions and ordinances that inherently dictate which businesses are most feasible. So, figuring out the legal viability of your prospective company based on the specific town in which you’d like to start out, is crucial. Everything from minimum wage laws, to zoning ordinances, to local taxes will have an effect on the success of your company.
Do a lot of research early on, and figure out which towns provide the best balance of economic and legal factors, prospective partners, and of course, livability.
BUILD A NETWORK
Finding contacts and creating relationships in your community is key to helping build and maintain your business. Most towns have small business organizations, and other built-in networks that will allow you to connect with like-minded people, and keep you apprised of local business activities. Other small business owners, even in different industries, are familiar with the issues you’ll face. As you grow your network, you’ll have an extensive support system for when you need a contractor, legal help, or just some sage advice from knowledgeable locals.
FORM THE BUSINESS
Forming as an LLC (Limited Liability Company) is by far the most popular way to set up a small business these days. LLCs legally separate the owner and the company, creating a buffer that prevents the owner from being personally liable for the debts of the business. Other formation methods, including partnerships or sole proprietorships, can be less expensive, but are generally riskier when it comes to leaving owners open to personal liability.
These days, the expenses related to LLC formation and maintenance are far from prohibitive. Depending on the state in which you’d like to set up your company, the fees can range from $50 – $500, with the average near $125. You’ll also have to choose a business name, file Articles of Organization, choose a registered agent, and comply with applicable tax laws. Also, depending on the state, there will likely be a yearly reporting fee (the average fee is ~$100). But for the most part, you can obtain and file most of the required documents for free. If the idea of doing all of this is daunting, there are a number of services that will create and file your documents, for an additional fee.
OBTAIN START-UP CAPITAL
If you’ve just retired from private equity at the age of 32, and are now looking to offload a few of your millions by starting a heli-skiing venture in Alaska, fantastic — you don’t have to worry about this part. If, however, you’re not flush with cash when you’re ready to start out, you’ll need some seed money. Start-up activities like stocking inventory, obtaining machinery, and building out a storefront require large upfront expenditures.
Funding your business, however, doesn’t have to be an intimidating process, as long as you do plenty of research, and find the option that works best for your situation. Depending on what type of business you’re setting up, and how you’d like to operate, procuring seed money can mean obtaining the right small business loan, finding investors or partners, or seeking help from friends and family.
No matter how hands-on or hard-working you are as a business owner, at some point you’re going to have to hire help. Staffing your small business can be a difficult task, especially given the limited hiring pool in some mountain towns. Again, it will be helpful to have an extensive network: look for local organizations and trade groups, and reach out to existing connections who may know of potential employees. In addition to word-of-mouth, you can advertise in local and regional publications, online job boards, or via social media.
When it comes to hiring, it is again going to be necessary for you to know federal, state, and local laws and regulations. Staying apprised of labor laws will ensure you’re creating a safe and mutually beneficial workplace.
SPREAD THE WORD
Every business needs to hang out a sign to let the world know they exist. Today that basically means having a website and social media accounts. Social media accounts are free – you just need to spend some time branding them in your particular style. And business websites can be very inexpensive as well. The easiest and cheapest way to make a website for a small startup is to use an online website builder from a reputable service like Weebly. Just choose a domain, a template, and start customizing.
13 SMALL BUSINESSES PERFECT FOR MOUNTAIN TOWNS
As we’ve mentioned, not every community is going to have a need for every product and service. But there are certain small businesses with the potential to thrive in almost any mountain town. Here are several options for reformed ski bums who want to set their own schedule.
HEALTH FOOD STORE
Mountain towns tend to attract health-conscious types, who will often pay a premium for their Clif Bars, organic frozen acai, and locally sourced honey. Operating a small market is great because it gives you the opportunity to stock specialty goods that larger stores don’t sell. In addition to doing plenty of market research, you’ll want to build relationships with farmers, artisans, and distributors who will eventually keep your shelves stocked. Equipment costs are going to be fairly high, as you’ll need to store and protect perishables — but it’s worth it to be the town’s only purveyor of five different types of gruyere.
It’s pretty sweet that part of the research that you’ll have to do before opening up say, a snowmobile guiding operation, is literally snowmobiling. Guiding is the perfect occupation for those who love to share their passion for the outdoors; and it’s even better when your name is on the outfit. Having solid partners and employees is incredibly important when starting a fishing guide service (or any other), as you’ll need reliable, knowledgeable locals. Also, the seasonality of many recreational activities means some aspects of the business are going to only be profitable for part of the year. You will also need to acquire location- and activity-based operating licenses, and ensure that your guides are properly certified in order to operate legally. So, do some research on how to comply with local regulations before you set off for the wilderness.
If you’ve driven down a mountain town main street almost anywhere, you likely passed a small shop with a Labrador on the front porch, and people in fishing waders milling about. That’s the local fly shop. Knowledge of in-demand rods, reels, and apparel is hugely important; but, there is perhaps nothing more important than knowledge of the local waterways. Fly shops have to be able to stock the flies that work for the rivers and streams around town, as that’s what tourists are primarily relying on you for. Fly fisherman appreciate a good tip, as much as quality fly line, and will be more likely to buy gear from you if you can point them in the right direction.
There aren’t many things that sound as romantic as spending your days tasting wine in the shadow of a mountain. There are a number of potential directions you can go in here, including catering to a high-end clientele, stocking lots of locally produced wines, or just having an all-purpose shop. Obviously, alcohol distribution laws are strict; but other than legal hurdles and inventory costs, the wine business is relatively accessible. To boost sales, consider hosting tastings and other events that will drive customer engagement. Local hotels and restaurants also need experts who can help them curate their wine list (ideally using your wines). So, if you know how to pick out the best cab franc for any occasion, open a wine shop, and live the outdoorsy sommelier’s dream.
Skiers and snowboarders are always going to need someone who can quickly wax and sharpen their quiver, or efficiently size them for new boots. Here, building inventory, and offering the right mix of products is key. If the mountains nearby are more backcountry-oriented, you may need to stock skis and boards that are better for powder, or off-piste terrain. If you’re at a more family-friendly resort area, you’ll likely want gear that caters more to a beginner to intermediate crowd. There are also an endless number of accessories or other pieces of gear that skiers and boarders need before they hit the slopes, so stocking plenty of hand warmers, lip balm, and beanies is a great way of boosting sales.
BED AND BREAKFAST
Most mountain towns have more than their fair share of large resorts and hotels. Many travelers, though, prefer the comfort and service that comes along with smaller bed and breakfasts. This is especially true with Airbnb – people really like places that are anything but typical. So if you can manage to buy and fix up a mountain cabin or other quirky property, it could do really well as a rental property. The biggest startup cost here is pretty obvious: a decently sized home. If you don’t already have one, you will either have to buy an existing property, or purchase a lot to build on. And the better the location, the more likely you’ll be able to turn a profit. And the profit can be substantial. Airbnb income can be quite high.
A purveyor of good espresso, flaky croissants, and reliable wi-fi is a godsend anywhere, but especially in a mountain town, where many people are looking for grab-and-go food and coffee to fuel their adventures. Management experience is extremely useful prior to opening a restaurant, as the margins can be very thin, and the industry is notoriously unforgiving. Determine which restaurants in the area have been successful, figure out a pricing structure, and try to differentiate your product. If all else fails, come up with a memorable name, like the Pink Elephant Coffee Shop in Park City.
Aside from a scholarly nature, you’ll have to have an excellent location, an inventory management system, event planning and marketing knowledge, among other things, before opening a bookstore. A good start when considering this route is to figure out a niche you can carve out for your shop. Maybe your bookstore specializes in rare early edition books, or novels from independent publishers. Customer service is also incredibly important, as there are so many options for prospective buyers these days. Consider starting a loyalty program, or hosting events like book readings and pop-ups that will drive sales and bring more readers/snowboarders through the door.
HOME DÉCOR STORE
Someone has to keep the mountainside chalets looking alpine chic. If you know how to perfectly pair a teak coffee table with a sheepskin rug, an interior décor boutique may be your dream business. Look into what home designs are popular in particular regions, and what pieces may become in demand in the future. Try to also cultivate relationships with local interior designers, artisans, and home builders, who can refer business in your direction. It will also be very helpful to surround yourself with employees who are knowledgeable about interior design.
There is nothing better than getting off the slopes, and having a beer, while you’re still in your ski boots — unless, perhaps, you made that beer yourself. Mountain towns are the ideal setting for microbreweries, as tourists are increasingly interested in sampling local fare, as opposed to the Budweiser they can get literally anywhere. Obviously, you’re going to have to have a passion for brewing beer, and the know-how to do so on a large scale. The start-up costs are pretty high compared to some of the other business on this list (it can cost well over $1 million to obtain all of the equipment you need). Then, of course, there are permits and licenses to obtain before you can brew a single drop of blood orange double IPA. This might be one of the most difficult businesses to start anywhere, much less a ski resort, but it will be well worth it when your beer is the toast of the town.
As hotels and resorts become more and more pet-friendly, tourists are increasingly willing to include their beloved pets on mountain excursions. A dog training and/or grooming shop is the perfect way for animal lovers to provide a valuable service to travelers, while turning a solid profit. Owners are willing to spend a lot of money to have their dog trained, groomed, or just watched over, while they go hiking or rafting for the day. You’ll need to obtain specific licenses for pet grooming, boarding, and training, depending on the services provided, and your local regulations.
Living in a mountain town presents its own set of challenges, many of which necessitate the use of special tools and equipment. Tourists and denizens alike will need snow chains, shovels, snow blowers, and a whole laundry list of other tools to exist comfortably in the mountains. Operating a hardware store entails, among other considerations, figuring out which goods are in demand in the area, creating a pricing strategy, staffing handy employees, and picking a convenient location — because nothing is worse than not being able to find a hardware store when you need to reattach a wayward roof rack.
THE HYBRID ROUTE
Well-rounded entrepreneurs may want to build a business that incorporates varied goods and/or services, as a way to potentially cater to a wider client base. Some amalgamations are a natural fit — like an oxygen/cocktail bar, or a coffee/ski/apparel shop a la Saturdays NYC. You’ll still want to ensure you’re putting out the best possible product in each aspect of your business, though. So be sure you’re not sacrificing quality for the sake of diversification.
Starting a new business, in a mountainous location, or anywhere is a notoriously difficult accomplishment. It requires lots of work and lots of patience. While you’re waiting for your business to get noticed and starting really making money, you’ll need some ways to earn some extra cash. Driving for Uber is an excellent way to do just that. And hey, you can also spread the word about your new business while you’re driving.