I wish I could tell you I grew up knowing all the great reasons to support local businesses and started on this course as a child, but I can’t.
I spent more of my own hard-earned money eating at fast-food chains and shopping at corporate-run department stores than anyone I know from around age 11 (when I launched my first business cutting grass for neighbors) through high school (while working at Pizza Hut for three years) and even during college (when I worked full time as a student at UT-Austin).
The only potential redeeming qualities I could share for that period in my life is that a) I grew up in Killeen, Texas, and Berea, South Carolina, which are not exactly hubs of local entrepreneurial activity, and b) I didn’t have parents footing the bill most of the time so at least I wasn’t routinely asking my mom for food or mall money once I started working.
A lot of people say they didn’t grow up in Austin, but they got here as fast as they could. I’m one of those people, but have another thing to add: I didn’t grow up knowing the importance of experiencing local, but I learned as fast as I could.
Or maybe I didn’t. Maybe there’s some classroom lecture I could have received as a high school or college student to inform me of the major reasons to support local businesses instead?
I think that talk would go something like this if I were to give it today:
Hi there, my name is Joah Spearman. I appreciate your teacher/professor for having me in to speak with you today. I know you’re all focused on high school or college life, the classes you’re taking, the teams you’re on or sports teams’ next game, the clubs you’re in, the boys or girls you’re dating or wanting to date but haven’t worked up the nerve to ask yet. I remember it all very fondly. Well, most of it.
But I’m sure a lot of you are getting ready to start working too. How many of you already have jobs or plan to work this summer? (Several hands raise) OK, that looks about right. I worked at Pizza Hut for three years in high school then I worked for the University’s athletics department to buy my own clothes, and gas, and to be able to hang out with my friends without asking my mom for money. I’m sure that’s the motivating factor for a lot of you too.
Well, I’m here today to tell you one really truly important thing that I didn’t learn for many many years, long past high school and even my college graduation. Something I wish someone had come and told me at your age.
The thing I’m here to say is that it’s very important that when you spend that hard-earned money you make on new clothes or on eating after school with your friends, you make sure and do your best to support local businesses. I'm not talking about service providers as much I'm talking about brick-and-mortar restaurants and shops; these are the kind of places that truly influence the makeup of a city and the types of people it attracts. These places will have an outsized impact on whether or not this is a city you want to live in as an adult.
This may not sound like something you should concern yourself with yet, but I can assure you it most definitely is. Here are three reasons why:
1. Did you know that when you support local businesses, the money stays closer to home?
There's a ton of evidence for this including one study that found as much as 25 cents more of every single dollar is put back into that same community when a customer pays a local, independent retailer than a corporate chain. Simply put, if you support a local business, that business owner has more incentive and ability to hire local people at fair wages while also doing things like supporting local nonprofits and causes that reflect the needs of the city or town their customers are in. The phrase "I live here, I give here" is powerful.
2. You’ll continue your education long past graduation.
When you support local businesses, you’re not just keeping money in the community and closer to home, but you’re also furthering your lifelong education by putting yourself and your money closer to people who are at the edge of new technologies and trends in everything from food to fashion while also enhancing any trips you take to new cities by better understanding the unique aspects of that city and that city’s residents by being in the places their values and perspectives are shaped rather than where other tourists go for cookie-cutter experiences you find in almost any city.
3. You will be happier.
The food will be better. The clothes will be more unique. The experiences will be richer. It's that simple. I promise you this despite the lack hard data to back it up. There isn't a ton of research on this yet - and it's something I hope my company Localeur will be able to invest in at some point in the near future - but it's a truth many people, especially those who travel, will share with you.
Case in point, I have traveled more than 100 days a year for six straight years and have gone everywhere from major international cities like Tokyo, Japan to small West Texas towns like Marfa and there are two things you get by supporting local businesses: first, you become more adaptable because you aren’t walking into new places expecting the same thing you just had and second, you have more empathy because you realize that what works for one person or one local business owner or one community or city isn’t necessarily what works for the next. You learn to adapt, to empathize and to relate through differences rather than constantly striving to assimilate into the norm.
I’m not here to say corporate chains are the devil and that you should never eat late night at IHOP (hopefully not too much past college) or that you shouldn’t get a new shirt from The Gap every now and then. I understand that it's often hard to find a locally-owned place to get your oil changed or to buy an affordable mattress and that sometimes you end up in the mall on your way to the Apple Store. I get it.
What I’m saying is that when you put your money into local businesses first, you also put your money into local communities, into lifelong learning, and into your own long-term happiness more than you would by being the one billionth customer of a business that is neither based in your community nor relies on the creativity, passion or trust of people like you to thrive in your city.
I know you probably won't remember the person who shared this with you a year or ten years from now, but I do hope you remember to experience local.