This is a transcript of an interview I did this month with Frank Odasz of Lone Eagle Consulting (www.lone-eagles.com), an expert in the field of rural e-commerce education.
I wrote an article based on this. It can be found at http://www.dailyyonder.com/wanted-broadband-and-broader-minds.
Tell me a little about your work and your experience with rural e-commerce.
I started around 2000 to identify what are the barriers to rural e-commerce and telework, and what would it take to create an online course to teach these to others. And basically, through Idaho State University received funding to do a lot of workshops and presentations on these topics and create an online course on rural e-commerce and telework strategies for rural people, with a lot of examples and links. http://lone-eagles.com/ecom.htm
My main experience boils down to this, and I’ve presented it at a lot of conferences and talked to a lot of people in many states and internationally. There are “early adapters” in rural communities that have figured this out on their own. They typically are shunned by their neighbors because technology is something that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and innovation is the same way. … It makes people feel inadequate.
So there are these success stories that are not being recognized in every community, and the flip side of that is the governor’s office, the economic developers, the elected leaders, are from the older generation. They’re also uncomfortable, and most rural developers today (despite pushes for broadband that goes back over ten years), don’t address broadband as an economic development solution.
So you advocate that, then?
Well, my role (one) is, as an educator, I need to be honest as to what the truth is. As a Lone Eagle, my business intent is to teach other people how they can retain their cherished rural lifestyle by enjoying the freedom of self-employment via the Web, whether it’s working for another company via telework or creating your own business.
Part of my work relates to the poverty issues, both in this country (on Native reservations in particular), and internationally. Half the world is under the age of 20, and half the world lives on under 2$ a day. Yet we’re now seeing everybody on the planet will have the opportunity to have a handheld wireless device with high-speed internet, capable of two-way video, multimedia instruction, and entry into the global economy. So who’s championing genuine innovation? Who’s just talking the talk, as puffery, as many global organizations are, and who sees (as I presented in Tokyo in March), that the GNP will be determined by nations as to the level of innovation the masses are engaged in. No longer the elite, or just the business community.
While we’re on the subject, you mentioned the reservation culture and the poverty levels, trying to use technology to open up new avenues for expansion. In the letter you gave to Sen. Tester ( http://lone-eagles.com/tester.htm), you referred to “using the Internet for rural sustainability.” Could you elaborate on that concept a bit?
The economics of rural sustainability are in question with the current rise in oil prices. Even just a dollar jump means people that are commuting to work can no longer make that economically viable. Going to the next town to shop becomes an economic hardship. The shifting of the economics is causing a lot of people’s livelihoods to disappear, at a time where rural broadband could provide clean, industry-sustainable jobs working for corporations that are physically located anywhere in the world.
In the native situation, I have a particular interest in cultural sustainability. And as far as my own lifestyle goes, I want to be able to live and work anywhere. I’m in Dillon. A lot of people envy me because I actually have an interesting vocation and I’m living where I want to be, which is a ranch house surrounded by 16,000 acres of alfalfa, and I’ve been there for 10 years.
Well, it is beautiful, and it’s all about lifestyle. I’ve taught myself to teach online classes, and to learn what’s possible, and I’ve put myself in economically unviable situations dealing with native Americans and advocacy for change, where there isn’t necessarily a paycheck guarantee. But this is my choice as a social entrepreneur, which is a popular theme these days. I’ve been doing this for over twenty years, so I’m seeing a lot of themes emerge echoing my work, going back decades when these terms did not exist.
Just as an example, the Fort Peck Enterprise Community on the reservation up in Wolf Point cut and pasted one of my grant templates and got $50,000 for a community e-commerce incubator project (http://www.lone-eagles.com/fort-peck.htm). And I was up there doing three weeks of Train the Trainer workshops fall 2007. As a result, local trainers were able to hold web-raising events with youth where the youth created three e-commerce websites in less than an hour, with affiliate programs, so that they could receive commissions on sales of products from Amazon and Wal-Mart. And this was to raise awareness. Trouble is, no tribal leaders, showed up, no teachers from the school, and no faculty from the college, so the ideal outcomes were hampered by the unwillingness of the leadership to hear what’s possible. At the same time, the community college up there is building a new IT building.
So this educates me in what the real barriers are. Another example – the Yukon First Nations Council in Whitehorse, Canada got a million dollars for a native ecommerce project. After a year of workshops, they were unable to get anybody in the villages interested. They want to give the money back to the government and call it good. They should have focused on the youth.
How can that be possible? And that’s basically what I’m studying, is on the ground R&D to determine just how deep these anti-literacy, anti-technology rural attitude barriers are regarding rural innovation diffusion.
So does it seem to you that it’s a vocal minority that is opposing this?
No, it’s the majority that is uncomfortable with technology in general. Risk taking, also called entrepreneurship. And change more often is viewed as a negative rather than a positive, unlike entrepreneurial cultures which exist in Silicon Valley where change is considered a positive and the only way to make things happen.
So that kind of touches on one of the other issues, and that’s the issue of change. Here’s something that I see in our community that appears to me to need to be changed, and that’s the outmigration of young people. I’m 26 years old. As a young person who is a technology professional, I see technology as one of the ways we could keep young people here. Would you agree with that?
I couldn’t agree more. Our greatest export is our youth. They leave because there is nothing here for them. We are not teaching entrepreneurship in school, which should allow the students to understand they can live anywhere they want to. Ecommerce, telework, 21st century literacy, I’ve been teaching teachers online since 1988 consecutively. I now do it primarily through Alaska Pacific University and Seattle Pacific University.
Growing an entrepreneurial culture needs to start in the primary grades – in Alaskan native villages, for example, if those villages are to exist and have a future. I’ve done extensive presentations, and was just down in Salt Lake for the FCC Indians Training Initiative, presenting on native youth ecommerce. Someone said that Native youth created www.lickitysplitchocolate.com, which received 44,000 orders for chocolate last month. And if you look at the site, they’ve attached themselves to the cause (cause marketing) of poverty reduction in Navajo lands.
My challenge is when I present all my resources, the web raisings, the videos, etc, the ideas are still so new that few are ready to take action, or even to invite a more in-depth presentations. I find this troubling that the adult leaders that are uncomfortable are standing between the youth and their very real opportunities for a sustainable future.
I did write an article called Indianpreneurship online at www.lone-eagles.com/fcc2008.htm. Also see www.lone-eagles.com/entrelinks2008.htm
It sounds like you’re saying that there is more than one barrier in a sense. That there is a technological issue, but that education is a primary part of getting ecommerce rolling in rural communities.
Well, how do we educate our leaders who are not in school? How do we educate teachers when there are not budgets for professional development for educators? Most youth are well advanced over their educators and parents in the realities of the social media phenomenon, such as MySpace. It comes down to leadership. If leaders are not keeping up with what’s possible through trends, etc, then it hampers the rest of us, and right now we have a generational inertia that is incredibly damaging. Having presented in Tokyo for 21 nations, we ranked 17th in broadband deployment. We pride ourselves as innovators as Americans but we’ve really dropped the ball on this in a big way.
That’s an issue that we’ve seen here in Dillon. I live in town and I have no problem – I have my choice of several different high speed internet companies. But I’ve heard from some folks out of town that they can get high speed internet through satellite, which can be prohibitively expensive. Is that a common issue? Or is that an accurate view of what is going on here?
Well, I’m 8 miles south of town, and I have DSL/wireless. And it’s adequate (256kb). Satellite systems aren’t prohibitively expensive, 50 bucks a month is not prohibitively expensive, but you don’t get live 2-way audio or video, but you can upload and download with very nice speeds. The FCC just auctioned 20 billon dollars in spectrum; February 19th the analog TV signals will be switched over to 100Mb rural wireless by Verizon/AT&T. In the next year or so we expect to hear of major new rural broadband services at these speeds.
That’s very fast.
In Wyoming, they have TCP West that provides fiber optics for a dozen very small communities that now have telecenters employing people teaching English to Koreans via two way video using Skype.
Rural Wyoming, via fiber optics. And that Eleutian with an E .com. So if they can do it, everybody else can do it as well.
Do you have an estimate what percentage of the rural communities have access s to broadband internet?
www.Pewinternet.org is the PEW foundation, that does demographic studies in detail on that. Connectednation.com has broadband mapping technology the FCC is looking at. The Connect Kentucky model helped raise the level of broadband adoption through an e-communities grassroots awareness and adoption campaign, where they brought together leaders in 120 counties from the different sectors to address their joint advocacy for rural broadband.
The exact figures here in the Dillon community I don’t know off hand. The providers could give you that. Alaska has more subscribers than any other state (68%), Montana is probably near 50%. That’s not high speed necessarily, I’d call that internet. But at issue is how many more people would subscribe to high speed if they could turn it into an income supplement based out of the home? The obvious answer is “just about everybody” would be interested.
Where in this state can you go to learn how to do that? It’s not taught in the schools, it’s not taught at the universities, it’s not taught at the small business development centers, and why is that? It runs counter to common sense regarding serving rural citizens. I’ve been to DC just recently, just visited with [Montana senators] Baucus and Tester and [Representative] Rehberg to advocate for a rural ecommerce support network statewide to share success stories, mentors, available expertise, and provide online training so that we can grow more such self-sustainable clean industry businesses. “Greencollar Workers.”
So you mentioned speaking with senators. Is there policy in place that is going to encourage this kind of development? Obviously you are moving towards getting some programs or policies into place to help with that.
Well, Baucus and Tester are both really supportive of rural broadband. However, most rural broadband initiatives have focused on the infrastructure. It makes sense, you’ve got to have it before you can use it. But if we look at most infrastructure projects in the past, most existing rural broadband, the take-up rate is so low as to dissolve the business case and incentives for the telcos to expand that access without government subsidies. Even if the government does subsidize it, if people don’t pay for the subscriptions, if the universal service fund goes away, so does the broadband.
So there needs to be a cultural shift at all levels, top down and bottom up, to embrace the application side for how this can contribute to rural sustainability and our way of life. And the rise in oil prices has pushed this dramatically in the short term. So what I presented to our Senators as well as the FCC, and National Governors Association and others, is the need for a broadband training best practices clearinghouse.
There are people already doing [rural ebusiness]. In the letter you gave to Senator Tester, you mentioned some success stories. I’m an advocate of people using ecommerce, but [even] I was pretty amazed by some of those. What people have been able to do, and the market they’ve been able to tap. Do you have any favorite success story that you’d like to share?
Well, Rule Realty. Chip Rule here in Dillon taught himself to create Web pages about 6 years ago, and grew his business to include 29 offices nationally. He posts 11,000 real estate holdings in his online catalog, and people down the street had no idea that he was doing this. I’ve created listings of Dillon-based businesses, and sometimes when they’re successful they don’t feel they need to inform their competition as to their superior methods of competing. What fascinates me is the way these type of success stories are unknown by their local communities.
Another one would be www.spaghettiwesternreplicas.com in Malta. Roy Martinez sells Clint Eastwood western paraphernalia through his website, grosses about 12K a month. When I presented this in Malta to the community, people who knew him had no idea he was doing this.
Can your average ecommerce businessperson expect to see that kind of results?
Not without hard work, like any business. You have to understand your opportunities for e-marketing, you have to know what an affiliate program is. As an example, http://www.batsbatsbats.com has a thousand affiliates. Their little logo is on a thousand websites. You click on that logo and buy a bat, a check is computer generated for a 10% commission that goes back to the owner of that website. Hence, their motivation for advertising your products.
Affiliate programs exist with Wal-Mart, Amazon, most big businesses now, and you can set them up free (http://affiliateshop.com). So that’s one example of a simple, learnable technique at no cost, that if you don’t know about it, your website ‘s not going to go very well;
And that’s the key, people have to know. And that’s why setting up this bets practices clearinghouse, just getting that information out to people in the community, is important. More info at http://www.lone-eagles.com/meda2008.htm
I have a few questions for you about the actual ebusinesses. What kinds of rural ebusinesses seem to be the most successful?
Niche markets. Something you can do well that’s unique tends to be more popular. Like licketysplitchocolates.com. You go to that website, you read about reducing poverty on the Navajo Nation, you see photos of the kids, and hey, who wouldn’t like to by and try some chocolate from such energetic young entrepreneurs? http://www.nativeamericanjobs.com grosses 4000 a month from Wolf Point in the middle of nowhere. What they do is provide a service more than a product, and in the knowledge age, instructional entrepreneurship, providing skills, transfer services, or other online services, is going to be a growing area.
I’ve created listings of Montana ecommerce success stories, and there is no “one formula” other than if you have a decent product, you have a billion people available online with 6 billion more coming, and much of the world highly prizes America products. So the more unique and regionally identified it is (branding it as Montanan), that adds value to it.
It floored me in this letter than you said that in Europe people will use mobile phones to purchase 88 billon dollars in goods and services this year. I guess the way I see it is that could be me in MT selling a proofreading service, or my wife does quilting – selling a quilt – you can literally have these customers anywhere. That amount though is really what floored me, because that market is just in Europe. The market that’s available is really surprising.
Much of the world would not believe the resistance that rural Americans have shown toward what is their greatest opportunity at sustaining their lifestyle.
We’re a bit stubborn.
… You mentioned quilts. www.Quiltuniversity.com is a dozen ladies teaching quilting online as an entrepreneurial effort. Just another example.
At issue, though, is if this is important, why don’t we do the simplest of all possible things – gather success stories and share them? I suggested that [Sen. Baucus] hold a conference follow-up to his economic summit from last year – call it “Why Broadband?” – and have these grassroots success stories present themselves and tell how they got to where they are. …
I agree. Let me ask you this. What are some ecommerce ideas that just have really flopped?
Generally, when you put a page on the web alongside the one billon new pages that appear every month, and do nothing, then blame it on ecommerce not being a viable solution. That’s the quickest way to failure, is to think it’s going to be easy, and that you don’t have to market your website and basically follow the best practices that the successes have already generated.
Would there be general principles of these best practices that we could boil down to?
Build on what works. That’s the simple answer. Anybody that has a website, they go to their competition’s website to see what new ideas are coming. If you have a used car lot, how’s your competition marketing themselves? And as a result, there are now national used car websites that anybody with any level of expertise can post their own used car on, and tap into the national and international market.
So you don’t necessarily have to have your own website, but you could market it on an existing website like Amazon or eBay?
There are people that are brokering used cars specifically as a service. The thing is that the Web is evolving very quickly, new ideas can be implemented at the speed of thought. If you’re going to be marketing online and you’re not paying attention to what’s working for others, you’re not likely to succeed.
So that marketing is going to make a lot of that difference, then?
Well, following effective marketing practices as they continue to evolve.
You mentioned social marketing. I’m into a little project right now for a scholarship contest I’m doing. I’m trying to market my video I posted on the web. I have some experience with that, being a young guy who’s into technology. How can somebody who didn’t grow up with the internet, how can they keep up with the trends in marketing? Or is it important to keep up with the trends?
Well this is where the “first digital generation” comes in. It’s a lot easier for youth to understand what’s going on, to assimilate information quickly, and to provide the services for nontechnical adults that they might need to gain a web presence.
You mentioned youth outmigration – the logical thing to do would be to match the digital skills of the youth with the ebusiness needs of the community, showcase the skills of the youth as a way of helping the community understand their value to the future of those rural communities. That type of dynamic would be a win-win .
I’ve written grant proposals along those lines. (http://lone-eagles.com/youthskills.htm). I’ve articulated a lot of this at length. To get rural community leaders to sit and listen to a presentation on these topics has been very difficult. Having been to sixty rural communities doing presentations over the past few years, I find that those who do show up are the rural citizens with an interest. Those that don’t show up are the elected leaders, K12 administrators, and educators. That’s not to fault anyone, but that’s the dynamic we’re up against. How do you help those people grow if they avoid any opportunity to learn?
Say you have someone in the community who is interested in that, but because of this dynamic there is not the resources available to them, how can they go about getting that kind of support.
Online. Free online courses like the one I’ve posted. There’s lots of free information out there. You have to be confident and aggressive with search engines to find it. What I’ve tried to do in my online courses is present step-by-step lessons that function as a brokerage of some of the best free resources others have already put up online. I’m now in a position to do that again in a web 2.0 context, because my courses are 3-4 years old now and I’m sure a great deal has changed.
But the main thing that needs to change is people’s readiness to accept change and to pay attention to what is happening around them, both locally and globally, and to give the youth an opportunity to receive current education and showcase their skills.
So do you think it’s different for folks in rural areas as they would consider going into ebusiness. Is it different for them than for folks in urban or suburban areas, and how so?
The difference is the level of access. You can get fast access easier in urban areas. As you know, we have urban poverty that suffers the rather identical social isolation and lack of updated education that most rural areas suffer from.
So let’s say that I would start up an ebusiness out of my home here in Dillon. How do I find a reputable designer or technology expert, find hosting for the site, if I did go with a full site.
That’s what the statewide ecommerce support network would provide, is a roster of local mentors, local expertise, and I talked with Commissioner McGinley just two days ago during Sen. Tester’s personal visit here to Dillon, that we have http://njdgraphics.com, which is a new web designing/graphics business that just moved to town. How can they market themselves? What can they offer? We have half a dozen internet providers, any of which can provide internet hosting, but we have no real training entity in town….
That’s interesting. So you might have to do a little digging, but do you know if there are other states that have that kind of network? Is it a common thing?
I don’t know of any well-considered statewide ecommerce support network initiatives. I know some states like Minnesota tend to e much more on the ball than we are, but I’ve also been in touch with Idaho, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Alaska. Not much going on that I’ve been able to identify.
So if someone is going to the web, trying to find a design company, or someone of the web who could make a page, is there any kind of system of finding out who’s reputable and who’s not. That’s a big challenge for folks, knowing if some fly-by-night is going to take their money.
Well that’s one big problem with all this. When the Internet boom went bust, a lot of people thought “Aha! The internet’s a scam and that proves it!” There’s so many email messages that promise easy riches that it’s impossible for isolated individuals to identify authentic opportunities from the scams. Somebody has to pony up and authenticate what is really working – that’s the role of the statewide network. We have a … proposal in for Wyoming that would do just that, for rural communities, for vets, disabled, women, youth – to separate the wheat from the chaff. http://lone-eagles.com/wyomingrcdproject.htm
What can a person expect to pay to get a site up and running smoothly, if they have someone else develop it?
I do web-raisings using tripod.com. Tutorial is www.lone-eagles.com/tutorial.htm at my website. Anyone can create a free ecommerce website in under 45 minutes at no cost. There’s no catches other than they have ads on the site. If you want to take the ads off and have your own custom domain, it’s something like 20 dollars a month, which is not prohibitively expensive. And there are more and more sites like that. Part of that as well – how do other people make money – Google AdWords. It’s something you need to go to Google and find out. Why do you see those on so many sites? Google paid out over ten billon dollars last year to people that took a little bit of extra effort to post Google ads on their site. And the more traffic you get, the more people click, and pretty soon you’re getting significant checks every month in the mail through Google AdWords. So that’s another way of adding income to your website.
I’ve found that to be true. Viral marketing, and kind of a snowball effect that happens as a good idea gets out of the immediate circle of contacts someone has and starts spreading. It seems to me that the Internet has that kind of potential. How can people tap that? You mentioned AdWords as one of the programs that is doing that. Are there other Internet giants that are selling that kind of service to people?
The way I’d answer that would be – it depends on what Americans learn to do with broadband that determines whether or not they are going to benefit economically or otherwise.
I’ve heard you say that before. ..
Would it make sense for everybody to get behind providing the best instruction for everyone? It would make a lot of sense, yeah. Why aren’t we doing that? Well, there are a lot of people that don’t wish to address the issue because they are uncomfortable with technology in general and change in general, and that’s where we are right now. Who is going to demonstrate some leadership? Will it be the telecommunications companies, the universities, the governors’ office? Some third-party corporation?
You said that it’s what we DO with rural broadband that makes the difference.
What we LEARN to do. The best-practices issue.
What CAN we do with rural broadband? In a best-case scenario?
We can learn what’s working for others like us on a global scale. We can turn around and market that same expertise to anybody, anywhere, and we’ve cited that there’s a huge need for that. We can begin to understand phenomenon like MySpace, which became 100M people strong in 18 months because they provided tools for content creation on the Internet that were very popular. What can’t we do something like MySpace that would be focused on entrepreneurship, international trade facilitation and so forth? It’s rather inevitable that will happen. But notice MySpace and other successes like that, YouTube and so forth, did not come from the university, did not come from the governor’s office.
It came from people with an idea.
Bottom up innovation.
That seems to me to be the key with ecommerce, is use that creativity and bring a creative idea to the market. Market it creatively, and it can really spread that way. Does that seem accurate? Are there other components to that?
You have to be following pretty closely what is happening. I think MySpace and Facebook, they had the right idea and the right time, but they also had some pretty serious technical expertise behind them. You know, the people that created Skype in Denmark, they were technically gifted, among other things.
But that said, there are a lot of success stories that were simply good products that were posted on a simple website. Somebody kept at it with affiliate programs and marketing, and the viral nature of the Internet pretty much took care of the rest. This set of what has worked for others, how regular people can create something marvelous along the same lines, that’s where we’re at right now. How can everybody become successful? Through education, which now can be delivered online very conveniently and effectively.
Back to the issue of someone developing their own site. What are some key elements of that site that people should include?
Simple accessibility; clear definition. These are the types of things that are in my lessons. You can find “how to create a business website” websites in profusion. Do a search on “ten tips for e-marketing” and you will find dozens of hotlists with the ten top recommended best practices for emarketing. You could do the same thing – “ten tips for web businesses, hot lists like that. But again, most people don’t have the tenacity, so somebody has to be the information broker, simplify it for the rest of us. Provide services. Ideally, there’d be a little office here on Main St. here in Dillon where I could have a logo made, a website put up, spend 150 bucks on the first three-month package for emarketing, and in three months assess my investment in monetary terms.
Is there anything else you would want to include?
My perspective on higher education is that it’s really not higher anymore. They’re so far behind that higher education in my mind is coming from businesses that are embracing e-learning and online collaboration. I just had a long conference call this morning with an international group of CEOs. They’re talking about these same issues, and how to educate corporate CEOs on the impact of viral marketing, social media, and these trends. They are going to do an e-newsletter with podcasts. They’re working internationally.
I think the big vision is that now we have the capability to create a global information society and economy where everyone participates. And once we have uniform connectivity, the issue is helping everyone become part of the global supply chain through education. If economic disparities remain, that’s the main cause for war – if everyone is invested in the global supply chain, that’s the biggest step we could make for peace.
There are a lot of people discussing these issues. My Tokyo paper is on social engineering. You know, that it’s not just infrastructure – it’s how people can rally around accepting their own full potential, and how we can provide cost-effective online education and mentoring services for all. And also the new web tools that Google and others are providing need to be streamlined with companion services so that everyone can get the level of help they might need, noting that the older generation are the ones that need the most help.