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Can You Be a Web Worker From a Small Town?

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By Becky McCray

Part of the promise of working independently is to able to live and work where ever you choose. Getting away from the big city sounds great, but can you really work remotely from a small town? Can the technology support it?

The answer, of course, depends on the small town. Broadband is the most obvious issue, but isolation and general amenities are also worth thinking about. The advantages of small towns might just outweigh those problems, so let’s talk about it.

Almost everywhere in the US, some form of broadband is available. It may not be affordable, and it may not be speedy, but it does exist. Between satellite service and EVDO on cellular networks, you can get something better than dial up almost anywhere. But that is different than having real broadband direct to your home that is capable of handling the intensive bandwidth of working remotely. Direct broadband access varies considerably, with huge rural areas still on dial up. Primarily, if you locate inside a small town, your chances are better. Small towns around in my area tend to have DSL, cable, and RF options. This is definitely something to check out before making a move.

Another variable. Some small towns seem to be hotbeds of geekiness. In others, you’ll be the only technical-minded person. But no small town is going to have the same vibe and connection as a big city. You can’t just throw a Tweet-up and expect to get 20 people in Alva, Oklahoma.

Kind of like broadband, you can use technology to work around the issue of isolation. Staying connected on Twitter, Facebook, Skype, and other social networks can help you feel less alone. Attending conferences, workshops, and other meetings in the cities can also help. But at the end of the day, you’re still pretty isolated.

Co-working options are severely limited. There probably isn’t a Starbucks to go work from, or even a Panera bread. If you are lucky, you may have a McDonald’s with wifi, but I’m sure that’s not the same. This is a trend that I’d like to see our local business incubators and economic developers take on. If every business incubator in a small town opened up some space for co-working, I think they would be surprised at the response!

How could the advantages outweigh all of those problems? Well, let’s start with no traffic. That’s why you wanted to be a web worker in the first place, wasn’t it? Cost of housing is lower, usually much lower. People are friendly, helpful even. You won’t need that GPS navigator to get around town, either.

If you’ve gotten through the first step of moving your work to the web, then moving your physical location to anywhere you choose is a logical step. Hugh MacLeod, of Gaping Void, recently moved back into small town Alpine, Texas, and garnered a lot of attention. He wrote about living where you want, while building a global microbrand. His Notes from West Texas are worth a read, if you are thinking of jumping ship from a big city.

Becky McCray is a small town entrepreneur. She writes Small Biz Survival about small business and rural issues, based on her own successes and failures. She is the co-owner of a small town retail liquor store and small cattle ranch. She helps tourism related businesses from Oklahoma to Africa to maintain their web presence and helps rural nonprofits and governments with grant writing. Previously, she was worked as an antiques dealer, city administrator, nonprofit executive and newspaper reporter.

Becky is a noted speaker on small business issues, having made presentations to business associations at the state and national level.

24 Responses to “Can You Be a Web Worker From a Small Town?”

  1. Dalton

    Many people can work at home for companies located far away. But consider the situation of those who rely on jobs offered on their own town, those who cannot work at home. Small town job offers are certainly not as diverse as those of a big city. This control over one’s own work experience is a competitive advantage that those who live in big cities have.

  2. currently I’m a web worker that lives in a fairly small city, I seem to be completely alone in my geekiness but, in the words of Stuart Smalley, “that’s okay.” The city only has 30,000 people and I feel like that is the perfect size, just the right mix of a small number of people and pretty decent broadband access.

  3. I’ve always wanted to start some sort of co-working facility in a small or medium size town near other small towns, that would have all the advantages of working from a “real” office but it would house the work from anywhere type folks who want to live out in the sticks…(thats the only thing keeping me from finding a place in the north woods).

  4. I think it depends on the types of connections that you need to make with other people. Do you have to meet face to face with clients? Are colleagues in different time zones? In addition how far are you from an urban area?

    For me I live in a very small town, but I’m within 45 minutes of 2 smaller metro markets and a little over an hour from Detroit. So I have the ability to connect in large markets, but I’m completely comfortable working from my small town 95% of the time.

    It all depends on what you actually do. I’m a blogger, and at this point I really don’t have clients, or someone to report to. So in that regards, I’m a lot freer than many web workers.

  5. When I left San Francisco to head back South, I nearly lost my mind. It’s not that it’d be impossible to make such a leap, but it definitely takes the right person in the right set of circumstances. (Hugh, for example, seems to be doing fine.)

    Gigs slipped through my fingers due to my inconvenient location. I spent days, weeks trapped in the house with my cats. And then I came back to San Francisco!

  6. I technically can do anything I could do from a larger metro area in my little town. The biggest issue is isolation. The lack of non virtual social networking can be challenging.

  7. I have been a web worker from a small town since the day I started to be a web worker!

    I love it because it has allowed me to move from one small town to another and even move for months to southamerica, and it was fun because it was cheaper.

    Isolation is for me the biggest issue. I don’t get most of what I enjoy about social contact from the internet, actually I don’t like it that much since I already have some because of the work itself. When I finish my work sometimes I only want to meet people not through the internet and it has not been always easy, and sometimes incredible difficult. Yes, I have experienced isolation at times. But during the last two years I have been able to find the right small town to me, where I can get involved in non-computer related activities, mostly art and crafts and then things get a lot better. To be able to not depend completely on the net is now very important to me and I look for a more balanced daily life between the web and the local community. To use the web work to find the right small town or to move around and have fun is very important. That being said I need to stress that I love my web life a lot!

    I have always found good broadband conection and I live in small towns in Mexico. And internet service is cheap, broadband or cable.

  8. While we were living in the snowglobe, as I called my husband’s tiny home town in Austria, I had no trouble getting my work done – we had a high speed connection, that was all I needed. The trouble came when I had to do all my networking virtually – unless you have an established client base, it can be difficult to maintain an income stream when you’re not present for in person communication. My projects went just fine, mostly online communication with the random phone call when something just wasn’t getting clear, but finding local clients to augment my work just wasn’t happening. Plus, I’m happier in a big town. We ended up back in Seattle because of that, but while we were in Austria, getting work done for my existing clients was no problem at all. It was the soft stuff – no social contact with those that shared my concerns – that was the problem – NOT the logistics.

  9. Brian8655

    When I was freelancing, it was nice because I was able to up and move whenever I wanted. I had clients that were with me through four moves and never knew the difference. I think as long as you are willing to make the trip for a face-to-face visit periodically, the work can successfully be done from anywhere.

    On a lighter side, I ride motorcycles so the first thing I think of when someone says “fifth wheel” is one of the white “boxes on wheels” with the entire back that opens up into a ramp ( when DVS said he “can get a signal in my fifth wheel from damn near anywhere in North America”, the first thing that popped into my head was Dilbert sitting in side of a two-bike enclosed trailer surrounded by computer equipment.

  10. I’m a “sort of ” web worker, doing Service design in a small Scottish Highlands place called Cromarty. There’s also a web design company, an ISP, and a couple of coders.

    It’s very viable when you have broadband, and it’s much greener – and cheaper for the clients – to do things via conference calls/online conferencing.

  11. for the last 17 years i have been living on top of a hill in the scottish highlands. my nearest neighbours are farmers and gamekeepers living half a mile and more away.

    i have always worked fully on the internet. in the last 3 years i have had broadband. apart from my friend who does my books, all my business associates are scattered across the globe: Ukraine, USA, India, South Africa.

    the biggest discovery i made when working full time online is that the way relationships are developed and sustained is completely different to face-to-face working. not only different, but qualitatively different. i would almost venture to say “better”.

    so while the challenges of working completely online are not trivial, the rewards, once one gets the hang of it, can be quite substantial, in terms of both financial and personal growth.

  12. As someone who moved from The Windy City, a mecca of hot geekiness, to a small town in MS last year, this post spoke to me.

    In my small town, there is broadband, many local restaurants offer WIFI, and just last summer a small coffee shop opened up with WIFI.

    I actually MISS the hustle and bustle of a big city, and will definitely be back in my lovely Chicago, but with todays technology just about anywhere is workable for todays mobile entrepreneur.

    I love it. Thank god for technology.

    I think everyone should move to a small town (atleast once in their life) and experience life from a different perspective, it really is eye opening to see how others live on a slower pace.


    P.S. For those in small town MS, feel free to follow me on Twitter: m38967.

  13. Aliza Sherman

    I did a lot of Web work from the town of Lander Wyoming (pop. 7800) from my RV where I lived for almost a year, half the year parked in front of my friend’s double-wide and the other part of the year in a campground.

    I had to use dialup – and connections would be sketchy on windy days – but at that point, I had didn’t usually have high speed dialup so didn’t feel deprived.

    Even though there wasn’t a Starbucks for miles, I could still access wifi at the locally-owned cafe and even get online at the local library (pretty much all libraries in Wyoming are wired).

    For me, isolation wasn’t an issue not just because of online communities but because I was connected to an amazing network of women through the SBCD & it wasn’t uncommon for us to meet to discuss business over a good merlot and steak dinner.

    Totally do-able to be a Web worker from a small town – AND from an RV either parked or on the road. I did the Web working thing from my RV while driving to 40 of the 50 states over the course of a year. Back then, I used to use a primitive gadget called a “Cellular Modem.”

    Ah, those were the days.

  14. Torrey Clark

    Well it really depends on your companies requirements. If you have to take phone calls over a PBX system, you can forget satellite. Sometimes an EVDO connection will be sufficient, but at peak times they aren’t as reliable as latency increases.

    I personally live in a very rural area, with only one stop light in the whole town. I am fortunate enough to have a 6mbit DSL line, and work remotley from home for a company that provides Windows & OS X support for all kinds of EVDO products! I couldn’t ask for much more, especially with gas prices these days!

    Feel free to check out our store,

  15. Provided that you can get decent broadband in the small town, many small rural towns will have long vacant retail storefronts or over store spaces that could be turned into a co-working office for pretty cheap. It’ll take a bit of elbow grease to turn that 25 yr vacant drug store into your own quaint version of the Google campus, but it’ll be cheap.

  16. Internet access is ubiquitous now that two way satellite connections exist. There are even systems that can be installed in RVs that auto-locate the provider’s signal via GPS. I can get a signal in my fifth wheel from damn near anywhere in north america. Even when I’m far outside anything resembling cell phone coverage. And this is the same tech whether mobile or stationary. So go ahead and get that cabin in the woods.

  17. If you can get around some of the drawbacks you listed—internet access, isolation, etc.—I firmly believe that working in a rural or small town outweighs some of the hassles associated with living and working in a larger city.
    Large cities require a higher cost of living, dealing with more people (and not always ones you like), and making compromises. I can always visit new places and enjoy the advantages of living and working somewhere smaller.

  18. I am a small town web worker. I love it and I hate it.

    I still have to meet with clients so I am not completely remote but it is about an hour drive for most of the client meetings. The thing that is interesting about that is most people spend more than an hour stuck in traffic anyway and my house was about 40% less than one 30 minutes closer.

    Although If I could afford it I would be a web worker and still have a house in the city.