Small business owners are feeling optimistic about the economy and the health of their companies. Even so, they’re cautious about investing or expanding.
American Express has been taking the pulse of small businesses since 2002 (the American Express OPEN Small Business Monitor), surveying a representative sample of owners or managers of companies with fewer than 100 employees. The latest results indicate that 67 percent of small business owners have a positive outlook, up from 54 percent a year ago. Some 76 percent plan to grow their businesses and 80 percent are confident they can access the capital they need. However, 45 percent have cash flow concerns, and only 34 percent have hiring plans.
Business owners are choosing to maintain capital and pay themselves a little more. (A welcome improvement for many after the lean days of the recession.) It’s a fairly even division between those who say they are on track with their retirement savings (54 percent) and those who are worried about their ability to save (47 percent). In Texas, small business owners are even more bullish, with 73 percent taking a positive view of the economy (up from 48 percent a year ago). Moreover, about 37 percent are planning to hire.
The survey gives a nice snapshot into the top concerns faced by businesses in various states. In Florida, government regulations were cited as the key concern. In California, it’s rising costs of doing business. In Illinois, owners indicated they worried about being too busy with current customers to find new ones, and New Yorkers pointed to the uncertain economy. For Texas, the Small Business Monitor survey findings indicate that business owners are most concerned about finding the right staff.
Results of a survey from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas’ Community Development Office echo these ideas. The Texas Small Business Needs Assessment Poll also found that the number one concern among the small business owners and managers in the state was finding and retaining talented employees. (Interestingly, the top needs mentioned as crucial were largely “soft” skills such as interpersonal skills, trustworthiness, and punctuality.) Most businesses were optimistic about projected sales and opportunities; the poll was conducted in late 2013 and published in May 2014. While the decline in oil prices and subsequent slowing on the economy since that time has likely made finding employees easier for some Texas companies, the very recent Small Business Monitor survey results confirm that it’s still a concern.
The wellbeing and outlook of small businesses is important to the overall economy, since the vast majority of firms employ fewer than 20 people. The U.S. Census Bureau tracks employment and payroll by firm size. First, a quick note about their definitions. The Census Bureau defines an “establishment” as a single physical location where business is conducted or where services or industrial operations are performed. A “firm” is one or more establishments in the same state and industry under common ownership or control. The firm and the establishment are the same for single-establishment firms, but in cases where there are many locations (such as a retail, restaurant, or other “chain”), a firm can consist of multiple establishments.
In the United States, 62 percent of firms have between 0 and 4 employees, and 90% of firms have fewer than 20 employees. These very small firms are still important to the overall economy, providing about 18 percent of jobs. About nine percent of U.S. firms fall in the 20-99 employee size range, with another five percent in the 100-499 range. Only 0.3 percent of all U.S. firms employ more than 500 people (though they account for 52 percent of total employment and 58 percent of total annual payroll).
Clearly, big businesses are a crucial source of jobs. At the same time, most operations are relatively small. For long-term economic growth, it’s important that small firms prosper and grow. When small business owners are feeling good about future prospects, that’s good news for all of us.