At CORI, we are interested in broadening the conversation about rural America and sharing stories from local change agents and entrepreneurs who are driving innovation in the small towns and communities they call home. Our Rural Edge series features conversations with the people who are changing the narrative about what’s possible in rural America.
This week we spoke with Chris Lukenbill, co-founder of Shrpa, a platform that makes it easy for people to share experiences they love to have in their local communities in order to empower more people to explore like a local. Shrpa is based in Rochester, Minnesota, and was the winner of the E1 Ignite Cup pitch competition, run by our Rural Innovation Network partner Red Wing Ignite.
Our conversation touched on the importance of mentorship and community in rural entrepreneurship, and how drawing attention to the special parts of rural communities can help people see the value in place.
Tell us about Shrpa, especially in the context of COVID-19, as the whole idea of travel has rapidly changed.
We started Shrpa a little over a year ago. The basis is that as a traveler, there’s some friction when you’re trying to find something new that’s out of your comfort zone. The lack of information of not knowing what to expect gets you going back to your same routines, where you do know what to expect. We wanted to provide a way for travelers to more easily go outside their comfort zone. We want to highlight what’s unique about the communities people travel to, and give community members themselves the space to do that. There are review sites where you can put in five stars, but that doesn’t really tell you how to go explore a new place. Fishing out real life details can be challenging. So our goal at Shrpa is to have more personality than just a review site. We know we didn’t just want it to be a few editors and publishers pushing out the content, but rather wanted our content to be crowdsourced from community members themselves, with different perspectives showing what the community has to offer. We started with southeast Minnesota because we had a network there and wanted to show that the idea can work. Now we’re expanding beyond southeast Minnesota, because with COVID, when people are trying to get back to exploring and traveling, it has turned local travel into the only option. People aren’t going beyond their borders. They’re staying where they feel more comfortable, and that means local places where they have good information. That ties into what we’re trying to provide with the content, removing the friction of trying somewhere new while making you feel safer and know what to expect when you get there.
Do you see this kind of community based storytelling as especially powerful for rural areas?
For rural areas we think this can be really powerful, since they don’t always have the resources of a major tourist destination to highlight what makes their communities unique. They don’t have the budget of a place like Orlando or Chicago. Even here in Rochester we have this issue, where we can’t tell all the stories of what makes a community special, and we are relatively big for a small town. We’re finding out that the best people to highlight community characteristics are community members themselves. They’re the ones that experience and know what makes a place special. When you can crowdsource that from 5-10 people in a community, you can get interesting information and highlight that differently than if you’re doing it manually.
Telling stories seems like such a powerful way to get rural communities on the map by showing first hand the opportunities that those towns have, but might have difficulty highlighting.
Absolutely. Tourism plays a major part in finding where people want to live, and especially now as remote work is becoming standard, it’s going to be less about where companies are located, so there will be more opportunities to have people move into these small communities. People will be able to choose where they live based on whether they enjoy the place, instead of where their company happens to be located.
We heard about you from our partners at Red Wing Ignite, who are also in CORI’s Rural Innovation Network. Tells us about how you and SHRPA are connected to them.
Red Wing Ignite’s work is important on the rural side of entrepreneurship, and really relevant right now. We made the connection with Red Wing Ignite when we heard about the Ignite Cup, which we applied to and ultimately won, which moved us into the Minnesota Cup. Red Wing Ignite helps us out in a bunch of ways, like through a $500 grant they gave to help with some of our marketing last year. As a network of entrepreneurship, they have helped to offer connections and education within our region, and we’ve benefitted from their mentorship, programming, and events.
I want to understand more about the entrepreneurship support system and incubation that exists in rural places, that people might not be aware of. It seems like a small world.
In a rural place, you end up finding other entrepreneurs and supporters that are working on things quickly because there aren’t as many of you out there. The groups we have to work with here are now growing, because as more entrepreneurs are working together, the connections happen faster. I’ve been involved in a few startups, and it seems like this time there’s a lot more traction in all the different ways. There’s a really strong network of organizations helping us out. Being rural, entrepreneurship isn’t always as accepted a thing as it is in a major urban hub. But this time, finding people to help work on things as team members is easier because of the fact that this entrepreneurship is looked at as more of a viable option, versus in years past I was competing for talent with places like the Mayo Clinic, which is the opposite of a startup in terms of stability and opportunity.
What have the mentorship and resources been like through the Ignite Cup and Minnesota Cup?
Soon we’ll have our big introductory gathering with all the Minnesota Cup participants, though unfortunately not in person. It’s a great way to be able to network, even though it will be harder now that it’s just a webinar. But we do have a list of who the mentors are, and there are a lot of people who are Minnesota-centric, and a lot of people in the region helping out on this effort. These are well connected individuals with good experience, which is huge in startups when you’re looking for people whose skills can help the company.
Do you see any advantages of being a startup in this climate?
As a startup, your advantage is your flexibility to shift as things change, which allows you to apply yourself wherever is more needed. With COVID, we had a plan for where we were going to focus our work this summer, but that’s been upended. But fortunately, we now can shift and look at growing SHRPA in the communities that really need help bringing people in to explore. We’re having conversations with more communities, and our work is now focused on finding people we can help, within this new reality.
CORI is looking forward to following Shrpa’s continued growth, and we believe that providing rural communities platforms to tell their unique stories is a powerful way for people to see small towns as places they could call home. We hope that more rural tech startups like Shrpa participate in future Ignite Cup pitch competitions!
If you would like to nominate a compelling rural innovator to be featured in our Rural Edge series, let us know.