Small Business, Small Town

Have you ever dreamed of quitting your corporate job in the big city and moving to a small town to start, say, that jewelry store, winery or artisanal cheese shop of your dreams? Here’s how to make the dream a reality.

Former Calgarians Jill Rutherford and her husband, Andrew Hayden, vacationed in Fernie for 20 years, falling in love with the quaint, friendly mountain town of 5,000 residents. “Andrew and I fantasized for years about how we could leave Calgary and move to Fernie,” says Rutherford. Three years ago, they started getting serious. “After doing our research, we narrowed it down to the idea of opening a distillery,” says the mother of two young children. In 2016, Fernie Distillers became the town’s first maker of artisan spirits.

Rutherford and Hayden focused on their strengths: he has a background in sales and management in the pharmaceutical and liquor industries, while Rutherford’s degrees in geology and geophysics engineering made distilling a good technical fit.

Both knew starting a business in a small town could present challenges: there might be fewer potential customers, or perhaps the locals would have less money to spend on luxuries than urbanites would. “It came down to our strengths, passions and whether or not our business idea could be supported by the local community during the shoulder season,” says Rutherford, one of a few female artisan distillers in Canada.

Fernie Distillers has firmly entrenched itself in the community, one that Rutherford sees getting stronger over time. “Fernie is experiencing a lot of momentum right now,” says Rutherford, praising the strong local chamber of commerce and an active tourism board.  


When deciding where to relocate your family, and potentially become a start-up business owner, the local economic drivers are among the most important considerations, says Barb Wild, a Forum for Women Entrepreneurs mentor with long experience in assisting B.C. start-up businesses in the food and beverage industry.

“When thinking about where to launch a business, find out what kind of support the community offers: are there tax or other financial incentives to start businesses in the area, what is the economic growth and what does the town need?” asks Wild. She also suggests researching what type of economic development, networking and support organizations are available for business owners, and calculating the cost of distances from larger cities or transportation hubs, from which you’ll get supplies or raw materials.

Small businesses create a lot of economic activity: according to the Ministry of Jobs, Trade and Technology’s Small Business Profile 2018 report, more than half a million businesses–or roughly 98 per cent of all businesses in B.C.–are classified as small businesses, with fewer than 50 employees (about 80 per cent of those have fewer than five employees). Since 2014, B.C. has led the country in small-business growth.


The report pinpoints some small business hot spots. Leading the way is the large region that encompasses the Lower Mainland, Fraser Valley communities to the east, Squamish and Whistler to the north, and the Sunshine Coast. All regions in B.C. saw small-business growth from 2014–17, with the Kootenays leading the way with nearly 20 per cent growth. Four out of every five small businesses is in the service sector, says the report, with construction and utilities leading the way. Construction and professional and business services (like accounting, legal, tax, marketing and design) are also hot.

Before you decide to make a move, Wild agrees with Rutherford: you’ll need to “find synchronicity between your passion, your business plan and your town–then all the green lights should be there for you,” notes Wild, who has turned her own passion and expertise into a wine education and consulting company. “In this era of entrepreneurship, location shouldn’t stop anyone from starting a company–in fact, it could be an asset.” With technology, a strong website and social-media presence can help drive many businesses.

“It’s never been easier to set up a business entity, ever,” says Wild. “Having [intellectual property] and scalability is the key to success no matter where in the world you live work or play.”  


Do your homework: research if your idea/product is feasible in your chosen market.

Network: meet people in the community who can help, support or be customers.

Start-up smarts: consider pricing, promotion and costs to launch and operate until profitability.

Get with the plan: write a business and financial plan, follow the plan–and change it when required.

Reality check: meet with an objective third party to review the plan.

Go online: from logo and website design to social media advice and local events, find free or inexpensive resources online.

By Michelle Hopkins