Finding Big-City Success in a Small Town

Something about the town of Southern Pines, N.C., inspires small-business owners to find niche markets there and distinctive ways to serve them. Hirease, an employment screening company, is an excellent example.

Hirease founders Heidi and Paul Dent used to live in Atlanta, where they worked for a large data-processing company. But the Dents wanted to raise their children in a small town. They were planning to move back to their hometown in Florida in 2008, when they happened to visit a relative in Southern Pines and changed their minds.

“We knew this was where we wanted to raise our family,” says Heidi, who describes Southern Pines a “cosmopolitan Mayberry” because of its small-town atmosphere and sophisticated vibe.

But how could the Dents use their experience working for a big-city enterprise like a background screening company in a small town? “Finding our niche was the key,” Heidi says. “You have to suppress that fear that tells you have to do everything. Narrow your scope and do one or two things really well.” So, for their new venture, the couple chose to focus on staffing and health care.

Over the past four years, Hirease has grown to 55 employees and two offices, its headquarters in Southern Pines (pictured) and a sales office in Omaha, Neb. Along the way, Hirease also opened and closed an office in Jacksonville, Fla. Its struggles taught Heidi and Paul a valuable lesson: Your niche is more than the market you serve.

“We have a great niche, but when we [first] tried to expand, we realized that the niche we filled was not just in the marketplace, but also in the workplace,” Heidi explains. “We didn’t set up a management structure that supported our company culture, which we discovered is a vital differentiator.”

Since then, Hirease has thrived. The company has developed its own proprietary back-end processing system, an application organizer, and a tracking system. The company also plans to launch a mobile app that staffing companies can use to track job applicants.

Hirease attracts top talent to its “cosmopolitan Mayberry” headquarters with an employee-oriented culture that distinguishes it from its larger competitors. Benefits include subsidized gym memberships, quarterly massages (that’s not a typo), and fresh flowers for everyone’s desks once a month.

When asked for advice for new entrepreneurs, Heidi responds: “You can over-plan yourself out of some great opportunities. Once you really know your niche, just dive in.”

About Tere Bracco

The daughter of independent restaurateurs, Tere' Bracco wishes her parents had followed her advice. Growing up Tere' knew that when the phone rang at 5:30am, she'd be bussing tables by 6. Tere' is the founder and managing partner of Heron Hill Farms, an equine training center, and Tony's Good Eggs, a poultry farm. She is the author of four books on technology in small business.
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