If you're looking to start your own small business, where you set up shop is vitally important. Cities across the country, big and small, are facing significant challenges — from population growth and an aging workforce to climate change and economic stagnation.
But there are areas that are emerging as small-business hot spots, offering entrepreneurs a vibrant, educated workforce, low cost of living, a business-friendly tax climate and a great quality of life. We've identified 20 of these metro areas and outline the reasons why small-business owners are finding them especially attractive.
Of course, small-business start-ups have always flocked to San Francisco and New York City, but these cities didn't make our cut. Not only are they among the most expensive U.S. cities in which to live but their states offer small-business owners 2 of the 3 worst business tax climates in the country, according to the Tax Foundation (New Jersey is the third state).
Seattle has been among the fastest-growing cities in the United States since 2010, and its population is expected to increase by an additional 200,000 over the next 20 years. A young, vibrant population, a booming tech industry (Amazon and Microsoft call it home) and some of the most interesting restaurants, bars, shops and coffeehouses are among the reasons for the influx of folks.
And while that's good news for small businesses looking for a well-educated, plentiful workforce, it also means prices for nearly everything in Seattle have moved up as well. According to the Council on Economic and Community Relations, Seattle is 24 percent more expensive than the average U.S. city. A three-bedroom house in the metro Seattle area now costs roughly $500,000, up 26 percent since 2010.
Still, the area has become a hotbed for start-ups of every stripe — from gaming and food delivery to health care — and in the last year, they've attracted more than $1.2 billion in venture funding. Unemployment is a low 4.8 percent. As of January 1, the minimum wage in Seattle went up from $10.50 to $13 per hour, depending on the number of employees a company has and whether workers receive tips. By 2021 the minimum for all employees will be $15 per hour.Overall ranking: 779 out of 1,500 points
Las Vegas was among the cities hardest hit during the recession, but slowly its economy is recovering. Unemployment has dropped from more than 14 percent in 2010 to 6.4 percent today, and the housing market is recovering nicely.
Much of this good news can be traced back to Zappos founder Tony Hsieh's Downtown Project, a $350 million fund that seeks to make Las Vegas an entrepreneurial hub by investing in fledgling start-ups. And despite the city's reputation as a gambling mecca, it's actually a nice place to raise a family, with good schools, a low cost of living and tight-knit communities outside the city. The median price of a house is $220,000.
Las Vegas is also one of the most tax-friendly cities in the country. There is no business income tax, personal income tax, franchise tax or gift tax. Wages are lower than the national average as well, making it cheaper to hire labor. Workers in the Las Vegas metro area earned an average hourly wage of $20.23, about 13 percent less than the nationwide average of $23.23.Overall ranking: 785 out of 1,500 points
Salt Lake City has emerged as a tech hub with a large number of angel investors who like the talent as well as the lifestyle this mountain city offers. The metro area is home to the University of Utah, one of the country's leading biomedical and chemical research institutions. Skiing, snowboarding and other outdoor activities abound, making this an attractive region for starting a business and raising a family.
A healthy economic climate is indicated by Salt Lake City's low 3.7 percent unemployment rate. Small businesses can tap into the city's Startup Connectory, a list of all the Utah entrepreneur groups, associations and networks across the state's new-business ecosystem. And the city is business friendly: Both the individual and corporate tax rate is 5 percent.
The median home value in Salt Lake City is $248,500, above the national average. Values have gone up 7.8 percent over the past year, and the online real estate site Zillow predicts they will rise 5.1 percent within the next year. Salt Lake City's population is approximately 182,000, making it the largest city in the state. It has one of the highest job-growth rates in the country (around 4.5 percent annually) and ranks among the top states for its number of college graduates.Overall ranking: 790 out of 1,500 points
The metro Atlanta region is home to more than 5.3 million people and nearly 150,000 businesses, a world-class airport and competitive schools. The unemployment rate is on par with the U.S. average, at 4.6 percent, although weekly wages are slightly higher than the national average.
Atlanta is home to a number of Fortune 500 companies, which makes it an especially great place for start-ups. In fact, Startup Atlanta is a community nonprofit that's focused on growing and connecting the local start-up ecosystem. It hosts events, brings start-up and regional leaders together and supports policies friendly to innovation and entrepreneurs.
A well-educated workforce — Georgia's university system is one of the country's largest and turns out more than 60,000 graduates each year — provides a constant flow of skilled workers to businesses. A cost of living lower than the national average, a flourishing arts scene, along with great restaurants and locally owned shops, attracts families and retirees. The median price for a home in Atlanta is $226,370.Overall ranking: 790 out of 1,500 points
El Paso is the largest metro area on the U.S./Mexican border and is located at the farthest western tip of Texas. The region constitutes the largest binational metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere, with 80.4 percent of its population being Hispanic. Would-be entrepreneurs will find a growing region, with 675,297 residents — a 19 percent increase from 2000.
Labor, energy, state and local taxes and office rents in El Paso are all below the U.S. average, making it an especially affordable area to establish a business. Although the region is not known for a highly educated workforce, the University of Texas at El Paso is a big presence in the community and serves as an incubator for many small businesses, especially those in tech.
The unemployment rate — at 4.5 percent — is in keeping with the national average, and home prices are rising but affordable. The average home price is $160,049. A flourishing arts scene draws visitors on the weekend and shoppers from nearby Mexico. That's why being bilingual in both English and Spanish is an asset for local business owners.Overall ranking: 792 out of 1,500 points
Sarasota's economy is driven by education, arts, tourism and financial services. The cultural arts industry alone employs close to 5,000 people, but tourism has the biggest economic impact, totaling $2.6 billion last year. The city's population swells to more than 100,000 during the winter months, but year-round it's closer to about half that amount.
Compared to the rest of the country, Sarasota's cost of living is 3.80 percent lower than the U.S. average. The median home cost is $151,400, but as more baby boomers retire, home appreciation continues to rise.
The city and surrounding areas have also become a hub for e-commerce businesses. Google named Sarasota the city with the top online business presence in Florida, based in part on the ability of customers to make a purchase from a web page as well as mobile-friendly websites. The tax climate is also a draw. In a recent survey, Sarasota was voted the seventh tax-friendliest city in the United States for small businesses. That helps explain why the unemployment rate is 4.3 percent, well below the national average.Overall ranking: 797 out of 1,500 points
Raleigh and the surrounding cities of Durham and Chapel Hill are probably best known for their research/technology roots. The tri-city region (known as the Triangle) attracts nearly 80 new residents a day and has strong job growth and a high quality of life.
The Raleigh metro area is luring new and established businesses with its educated workforce. More than 167,000 students are enrolled in its 12 universities and colleges and average more than 42,000 degrees annually. In fact, over 40 percent of the population 25 and older have at least a four-year degree.
Pharmaceuticals, advanced medical care and cleantech are among the industries attracting the most start-up interest and venture funding. The Research Triangle Region employs 1.18 million people in more than 54,000 businesses, and the pay is $49,845, $5,700 higher than the state average.
The cost of living in Raleigh-Durham is slightly lower than the national average, but home prices have been climbing significantly over the past few years. They're estimated to continue to rise over the coming years as more folks continue to move into the area. But because Raleigh has fairly low property taxes, owning a home is more affordable than other tech and research hubs, such as Silicon Valley and Boston.Overall ranking: 801 out of 1,500 points
Colorado Springs has grown to become a thriving metro area of more than 600,000 people. Within a one-hour drive north, businesses have access to the Denver metro market of nearly 2.5 million people, as well as the Pueblo market to the south, with more than 160,000 people.
Colorado Springs is the second-largest city in Colorado and is located in the heart of El Paso County, the most populous county of the 64 counties in the state. There is a robust pro-business environment, with easy access to both coasts and a competitive tax environment. The state's corporate income tax is a flat 4.63 percent. The personal income-tax rate for individuals in Colorado is 4.63 percent of taxable federal income adjusted. Couple that with a low cost of living and a backdrop of beautiful mountains and it's not surprising that Colorado Springs is often named as one of the most livable cities in the United States.
Unemployment is 4 percent, below the 4.7 percent U.S. average, and reflects the presence of strong, steady employers, including Progressive Insurance, FedEx, Lockheed Martin and Verizon. Salaries for a variety of jobs are below the national average, and housing costs are also reasonable. The city is consistently listed as one of the top 20 smartest regions in the country and looks to foster entrepreneurial activity. The entire Front Range, from Fort Collins to Pueblo, is recognized as an entrepreneurial zone.Overall ranking: 803 out of 1,500 points
Located on the Texas/Reynosa, Mexico border, McAllen has emerged as a thriving metro area offering small businesses a low cost of doing business; a young, bilingual workforce; and a centralized location in southern Texas.
In recent years the city — with a population of 135,000 — has made a name for itself as a center with a flourishing arts culture. The Creative Arts Incubator supports aspiring artists in the Rio Grande Valley and also houses Techspace, an area designed to offer low-cost office space for start-ups, as well co-working spaces. The local Chamber of Commerce offers about a dozen programs for would-be entrepreneurs, including the Youth Entrepreneur Factory, which introduces public school students to the ideas of entrepreneurship to inspire future businesses; and a Latina Hope initiative to train women about basic business practices and teach them specialized skills.
The median home price is $112,200, lower than the state and national average, and the cost of living is 16 percent cheaper than the national average, making McAllen one of the most affordable areas in the country. One down note: The city ranks among the lowest in average hourly wages, at $16.26, about 30 percent lower than the national average. Still, residents will find a downtown entertainment district that's filled with restaurants, shops and galleries. For folks who like to get outside with nature, the city has the World Birding Center, where 500 species flock to the wetlands habitat.Overall ranking: 812 out of 1,500 points
Richmond offers entrepreneurs the best of both worlds: an educated workforce, low costs, both government agencies and private-sector companies as potential customers, as well as a thriving outdoor lifestyle, great restaurants and cost-of-living advantages.
The city is at the heart of the mid-Atlantic region, with 40 percent of the U.S. population within a day's drive. The Port of Virginia and the Port of Richmond offer significant structural advantages in transportation and logistics. The city is business friendly, with a 6 percent corporate tax rate, and tax credits and abatements for job creation and development in economically distressed areas. Population in the greater Richmond area is 1.3 million and is expected to grow 5 percent by 2020.
Unemployment is 3.7 percent, below the national average. The overall cost of living is lower as well, and housing costs are 13 percent than the average for the United States. There's a big variety of housing types and styles in downtown Richmond, its suburbs and rural areas, and although the average sale price is $253,449 — above the U.S. average — homes are still less expensive than in nearby Washington, D.C.
Small-business owners will find fit-minded employees in Richmond. There's a new 50-mile Capital City bike trail, class IV rapids on the James River and signature running events. Richmond has 100 local parks and 6,500 acres of parkland.Overall ranking: 820 out of 1,500 points
This city, located in the south-central region of Texas, is emerging as a major player in informational technology. There are about 1,000 IT companies in and around the city, employing more than 34,000 people, and the sector contributes about $10 billion a year to the region.
San Antonio also has the distinction of being one of the most affordable big cities in the country. The cost of living is well below the national average, and the median price for a single-family home, at $195,500, is well below the national median. Better still, the market is healthy and growing — prices are up nearly 6 percent from the same time last year — with houses listed for less than $100,000 to more than $2 million.
Small-business owners will find reasonable taxes, a well-educated workforce and a low unemployment rate (3.8 percent). The diverse population — one-third of residents speak both Spanish and English — is 1.4 million today but is expected to increase 6.9 percent by 2021, attracted by the low costs, healthy employment and quality of life. The miles-long River Walk, which follows the San Antonio River, is a landmark pedestrian promenade lined with cafés, restaurants and shops.Overall ranking: 832 out of 1,500 points
As the capital of the so-called "flyover" state, Des Moines is especially business friendly. The cost of doing business here is 17 percent lower than the national average, making it an attractive place for start-ups. Insurance companies rule the business scene here, with more than 80 firms maintaining offices in and around the city. Other notable industries include publishing, financial services and distribution and logistics. Wells Fargo is the largest private employer, with 14,500 employees in the greater Des Moines area. Not surprisingly, the unemployment rate is lower than the national average.
The area also offers a great quality of life. A vibrant downtown area with one-of-a-kind shops, locally owned restaurants and bars, and cool condos and lofts draw millennials, while beautiful, older homes in quieter surrounding suburbs attract new and growing families. Home prices are far below the national average, at $169,550, but do increase as you get out to the newer suburban communities popping up.
Though there's an educated, young workforce and a diversity of industries for start-ups to tap into, Iowa does levy the highest corporate tax rate (12 percent) in the country. Personal income-tax rates range from 0.36 percent to 8.98 percent.Overall ranking: 836 out of 1,500 points
One of the biggest draws for the Dallas metro area is Dallas/Fort Worth International airport. Spread across 18,000 acres between the two cities, DFW handles 64 million passengers a year, earning it the designation as one of the busiest airports in the world. But even with its size (five airline terminals and 2,000 daily flights), DFW is well run, easy to navigate and allows travelers to get in and out quickly.
Couple this with a growing population, decent salaries and reasonable home prices in the plentiful neighborhoods that ring the city and it's easy to see why more businesses are moving to, or starting in, the Dallas/Fort Worth area. In Dallas the top industries are technology, financial services and defense. Fort Worth is strong in oil and gas, aerospace and aviation. The area's unemployment rate is 3.7 percent, below the national average.
Dallas doesn't have individual income tax or corporate income tax, but it does levy a margins tax on gross receipts for businesses. That hasn't stopped venture capital money from flowing into the area. Dallas/Fort Worth area start-ups attracted $104.1 million in the first quarter of 2016, four times the last quarter of 2015, according to a MoneyTree report. A huge slice of the money went to local software companies.Overall ranking: 840 out of 1,500 points
Ogden combines the best of a city and a mountain town. The area has access to numerous outdoor activities, including hiking, skiing and biking, and has attracted outdoor recreational companies such as Rossignol, Goode Ski and Amer Sports. The city's 84,483 residents are fairly young — the median age is 30 — and enjoy relatively high incomes (median household income is more than $50,000) and low cost of living, with affordable home prices.
Aerospace, IT software and outdoor recreation are the biggest industries in the area. Ogden is located between ATK and Hill Air Force Base, two of the largest aerospace employers in Utah. The broader, Northern Utah region has a strong existing base of aerospace and composites companies, with more than 30 companies and an estimated 16,500 employees.
Utah overall is known for its business-friendly environment and low taxes, and Ogden benefits from this. The unemployment rate is 3.3 percent (below the national average), and job growth is projected at more than 3 percent in the coming year.Overall ranking: 852 out of 1,500 points
If there's one adjective that makes Houston attractive to would-be business owners, it's "affordable." The city didn't experience a huge housing bubble — and subsequent crash — like many other cities across the United States. The median home price is $190,000, below the roughly $219,000 national average, and the overall cost of living here is below the national average as well.
Though the oil and gas industries still dominate in Houston, the city is actually home to 25 Fortune 500 companies, including Sysco and Group 1 Automotive. Aerospace is also represented with NASA's Johnson Space Center located in Houston. The Texas Medical Center has more than 50 research labs and health-care institutions, making it especially attractive to start-ups in the medical space.
The unemployment rate, at 4.9 percent, is below the national average, and not surprisingly, the average salary here is a bit higher, at $50,830. With more than 2.3 million residents, Houston is the fourth-largest city in the United States and one of the most diverse. More than half of its residents are either Hispanic or African American. They're young as well: Approximately 22.6 percent of the population is between the ages of five and 19, the largest population cohort.Overall ranking: 860 out of 1,500 points
Though it's long been considered a banking hub — Bank of America has its headquarters here, and Wells Fargo has a significant presence — Charlotte also boasts strong health-care and retailing industries. Lowe's is headquartered in nearby Mooresville, and American Airlines employs many residents as well.
The unemployment rate is 4.9 percent, a little below the national average, but the average salary is slightly above, at $48,290. And Charlotte keeps growing: The city had the 10th-largest population growth last year among big cities, according to the Census Bureau, with 828,000 residents. The city's nonprofit Business Innovation and Growth Council works to foster entrepreneurship and connect small-business owners with the resources to help them grow.
The individual income-tax rate in Charlotte is 5.75 percent, and the corporate tax rate is 5 percent. Housing has recovered quite nicely since the recession, with home sales up 71 percent from a year ago. The median price of a home is $190,000, according to RealtyTrac, making the area more affordable than other big cities, such as Washington, D.C., or Miami.Overall ranking: 862 out of 1,500 points
The Mile High City, so named for its 5,280-foot elevation, is located at the base of the Rocky Mountains and is probably best known for its skiing and snowboarding venues. But the local economy has definitely expanded since residents voted to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012.
Today there are numerous cannabis-related small businesses setting up shop, and that's attracting people, especially millennials, to the city. According to the real estate website Zillow, 18- to 34-year-olds accounted for 35 percent of the city's population growth from 2010 to 2014. The Denver metro area has a low unemployment rate, of 3.1 percent, which helps explain why the average salary is $53,060, well above the national average of $47,230.
Businesses looking to set up shop in Denver will find a well-educated workforce. The University of Colorado and the University of Denver are located here and help turn out graduates needed for the thriving aerospace, biotech and telecommunications industries. Housing costs have risen in recent years as the population has blossomed to more than 2.6 million residents. The median home price is $301,000, compared with $218,867 for the United States overall.Overall ranking: 863 out of 1,500 points
Though it's our nation's capital and politics seem to be the singular focus, Washington, D.C., is actually home to a highly diverse and well-educated workforce. In fact, it ties with Houston and Dallas as the most diverse city on our list and tops the group with the highest percentage of residents with a bachelor's degree or beyond.
The metro area also gets its share of start-up funding. According to accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, venture capital firms pumped more than $700 million into new DC-area tech companies last year. That cash infusion is balanced by above-average wages and a 6.1 percent unemployment rate, higher than the national average.
The tax climate in D.C. can be a challenge for businesses just starting out. Individual income-tax rates range from 4 percent to 8.95 percent, and the general consumer tax rate is 5.75 percent. But with a steady economy, thanks in large part to the federal government, and lots of government agencies as potential customers, small businesses can find a solid business environment in the Washington, D.C., metro area.Overall ranking: 877 out of 1,500 points
Provo has been lauded for many things — one of the best places to raise a family, one of the healthiest places to live — and now a great place to start a business. In fact, over the years, there have been a dozen budding entrepreneurs on the reality series "Shark Tank" who hail from Provo.
The metro area prides itself on being start-up friendly. The city's entrepreneurial hub is called — what else? — the Startup Building and rents desks and other co-working spaces to spur collaboration and innovation among freelancers, small-business owners and inventors. Camp 4, a public/private partnership, is located in the Startup Building and works to support tech start-ups as they bring their products to market. A low unemployment rate — 3.5 percent — and cost of living (5.5 percent below the national average) is another reason why small businesses are flocking to Provo.
Of course, no mention of Provo would be complete without a nod to Brigham Young University. The metro area benefits from the skilled workforce turned out at BYU — especially students in its entrepreneurial Innovation Academy. This program acts as an incubator and enables students to work with their peers to learn how to start and run a small business.Overallranking: 910 out of 1,500 points
With a population of just over 2 million, the Austin metro area is home to a sizable tech industry as well as a thriving music scene. That might explain why the tech-friendly SXSW festival has called this city home since 1987.
The Austin metro area is especially small-business friendly. There's a young, educated workforce (the University of Texas is based in Austin), no state individual or corporate income taxes, and enough different industries represented to offer an array of opportunities for start-ups. It ranked No. 1 on our list for the highest number of small businesses created, as well as the metro area with the fastest population growth.
Technology is a key driver of small-business growth. According to commercial real estate and investment firm CBRE Group, Austin ranks fifth in the nation — behind the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington, D.C., Seattle and New York City — for its ability to attract and retain tech talent. All that tech hiring has kept the unemployment rate low (3.1 percent) but has driven up office rents by 30 percent over the past five years.Overall score: 926 out of 1,500 points