A business development program through Wichita State University promises to guide owners, serial entrepreneurs, specialists, contractors and anyone else away from the potentially costly "rite of passage" mistakes that can accompany running a rural business.

A business development program through Wichita State University promises to guide owners, serial entrepreneurs, specialists, contractors and anyone else away from the potentially costly "rite of passage" mistakes that can accompany running a rural business.

Through the eleven-session Growing Rural Business Entrepreneurial Certificate Program, attendees will develop a "top to bottom toolkit" for improving their rural businesses. Topics range from marketing and sales to legal and financial advice, said Wendy Veatch, the director of outreach programming at WSU's Center of Entrepreneurship.

Even if the business owners are old pros, they can benefit from the program, she said, even if the major takeaway is how to improve their quality of life.

The ten-week program costs $300 and consists of 11 three-and-a-half hour sessions. Attendees can also enroll in individual courses for $50. The program is supported by the Dodge City Chamber of Commerce and Network Kansas, which subsidizes the courses.

Along with the courses, attendees will get a complete resource guide and access to business development specialists at WSU and other business organizations. On top of that, attendees will be able to "build bonding relationships" with other entrepreneurship-minded people in the community.

Rural businesses have different circumstances than in urban areas, Veatch said. For one, the number of customers is lower, requiring greater loyalty from customers to excel, and "word of mouth" can be a double-edged sword. How business owners and operators deal with, for example, firing employees, can have a lasting effect on the health of the business in a community where many are interconnected.

Another issue is it can be difficult for rural businesses to compete solely on price as they rely on longer, more expensive supply chains. This can be mitigated through a strong relationship with a community that wants to see the business succeed.

One major error that businesses make, both large and small, is in the pricing of goods and services, Veatch said.

"You don't want to undervalue it; you don't want to overvalue it. You don't want to be investing all your time, energy and effort into a product and you're not pricing it right. That affects everything. Know what you're worth," Veatch said.

"In a rural community I think you have even less room for error."

On top of that, businesses that could have been saved end up failing, said Joann Knight, director of the local business development corporation.

Culturally, rural people "are very independent and we don't like to ask for help. I see businesses fail because they waited too long to ask," she said.

"Or they get into a bad situation and sell it to someone for little or nothing," Veatch added. Contacts, relationships customer lists have value, and when business owners get into a desperate situation and see a buyer with cash, they often let all that go.

"They completely undervalue what they've built. Nine times out of ten, they have no idea how long it took them to build those relationships. … When you had that over to someone who buys your business, they automatically have all that time, energy and effort you took building that relationship.

"It's like, 'Wow, you're going to sell that for little to nothing?' That’s practically one of the most valuable things you have in your business."

It can be difficult for business owners to take time out of the business to work on the future of the business, Knight said, but it’s a necessity as all businesses are affected by trends and cyclical events. The main purpose of the entrepreneurship program is to provide upfront information and create a connection between the business and no-cost support services, she said.

Some owners say they don't want to "grow" their business, Veatch said, but growth can also mean making a stronger business without necessarily expanding that business.

"I don't buy self-help books anymore," a program graduate told Veatch, she said. "I buy business books."

This will be the second time the program is offered in Dodge City. Last spring, 18 local business owners attended the program.

Kelly Persinger, the owner of Kelly's Corner Grocery in Spearville, attended the last offering. He has more than 40 years of experience in the grocery industry and has "constantly got ideas going through (his) head" on ways to improve his business. He recently started a tool rental business in the grocery's hardware store, and earlier started selling ice cream and remodeled part of the 103-year-old building.

But sometimes, he said, people need "someone coming along kicking you to get you to think."

Persinger has owned the only grocery in Spearville for three years. It took some time to become familiar to others in the close-knit community, but once he did, "You know who the people are that really support what you're doing." Those relationships have been an important part of his business and the people he serves.

The entrepreneurship program "actually changed my thought patterns along, 'What could I do for the community?'," he said.

"I'd recommend it to anybody, even if they've been in business for 30 years."