Economy

Shane Howard loves Elizabethtown.

He says living in Elizabethtown — just 45 miles south of Louisville — allows him to remain in close proximity to a bigger city without having to deal with city problems like rush hour traffic.

He’s only 35 minutes away from downtown Louisville. Arguably, Howard says, for someone living in the East End, it can take them the same amount of time to get to downtown. But the cost of living in Elizabethtown is much cheaper.

“The new restaurants popping up, new entertainment things, sports bars and those things popping up, it’s becoming more and more attractive,” he says.

Howard is founder of Custom College Recruiting. The service matches high school student-athletes abroad with sports scholarship opportunities in the U.S. He founded the company in 2009 and received funding in 2014. Prior to that, he bootstrapped. But Howard said he knew if he was going to expand his business from something he was doing at home alone on his couch, he was going to need help.

“I can make a great living doing that, don’t have to worry about the overhead and employees and all that fun stuff,” he said. “But I knew that if I wanted to take this business where it could actually go, it was going to take a little outside funding.”

For those eyeing a similar entrepreneurial path, Elizabethtown could be the place. The city topped fivethirtyeight.com‘s list of metro areas with the fastest-growing rate of new startups or companies less than a year old.

The Whole Picture

But before we get too excited, let’s do the numbers.

According to 2014 data released by the U.S. Census Bureau, Elizabethtown had 179 startups out of almost 2,000 total businesses that year. Startups accounted for nine percent of Etown’s total firms in 2014. That’s a 4.3 percentage point increase since 2009, or post-recession.

While the data is positive, with 179 new startups, we probably shouldn’t crown Elizabethtown a bastion of entrepreneurship just yet. Especially if you compare it to St. Louis, which came in second for the city with the fastest-growing rate of startups. The Gateway City had almost 5,000 startups, out of more than 50,000 total businesses. Startups were 9.7 percent of all businesses, but only accounted for a three percentage point increase since 2009.

And Kansas City — ranked 12th in the country — had more than 3,000 startups in 2014 out of approximately 36,000 businesses. Startups there made up 8.4 percent of all businesses but that amounts to only a 1.1 percentage point increase since 2009.

Why Elizabethtown?

Still, when comparing the numbers by percentage points, Elizabethtown is number one. And there’s a lot of help for people who want to start businesses there.

Steve Wright is a member of the Lincoln Trail Venture Group, an organization that funds startups. He says most of the businesses he’s pitched are technology-based or service-oriented.

“We’ve seen very few hardcore products, where someone’s going to build or manufacture something for sale,” he says. “Most of our members in our Lincoln Trail Venture Group and a lot of people downtown are first -generation business owners.” 

There are other groups in the area that help big dreamers get on their feet, like the Kentucky Innovation Network, which is part of the state Cabinet for Economic Development. The organization has offices throughout the Commonwealth.

Elizabethtown chapter director Lisa Williams says they host events such as Startup Garden, where attendees can network and hear success stories of fellow entrepreneurs. Williams says one example of an Elizabethtown startup success story is Schedule It, a provider of scheduling assistance for firms such as insurance carriers.

“She raised a million dollars in one week,” Williams says of Schedule It founder, Rebecca Wheeling.

Other Kentucky metro areas that made the list include Bowling Green and Lexington-Fayette County.

Louisville did not make the list but had almost 1,400 startups out of more than 20,000 businesses in 2014. Startups made up about 6.7 percent of all firms in the city. That’s a 0.2 percentage point increase since 2009.