The 4 Types of Small Businesses, and Why Each One Matters

By Karen Mills
April 30, 2015
Harvard Business Review

America loves small businesses. A 2010 poll by The Pew Research Center found that the public had a more positive view of them than any other institution in the country – they beat out both churches and universities, for instance, as well as tech companies. As Janet Yellen pointed out in a speech last year, “the opportunity to build a business has long been an important part of the American Dream.”

Governors, mayors and presidential candidates are therefore eager to declare their support for small businesses, but what do we mean by “small” and why do they matter? This is the part where we’re usually told that it’s startups that matter, not small businesses, since they’re the ones that create all the new jobs. There’s some truth to that, but it’s misleading as well. A blanket policy that just tries to create another Silicon Valley can turn out to be a disaster.

Sure, the local dry cleaner isn’t going to employ radically more people next year than it did this year. But these Main Street businesses employ a lot of Americans –as many as 57 million– and the policies they need are not the same as the ones required by startups. If policymakers really want to help small businesses — and they should — they need to understand that not all of them are alike. Each type has a way it contributes to employment and the vibrancy of the American economy.

There are 28 million “small businesses” in America, defined as firms with fewer than 500 employees, and they fall into four different segments:

W150408_MILLS_FOURMAINTYPES

(Note that these segments are not mutually exclusive. They are intended to represent different categories of firms of interest to policy makers.)

Most of these small businesses don’t actually have employees. Almost 23 million are sole proprietorships, covering a wide range of sectors, from consultants and IT specialists to painters and roofers. While only about 15 million of the self-employed earn receipts of over $10,000, recent research shows that sole proprietorships are achieving record profit margins—and numerous indicators predict the number of these businesses will continue to grow as technology allows more geographic flexibility and a continuing number of baby boomers take steps to open their own firms. They provide income to their owners, but by definition are not job creators.

The next-largest segment of small businesses is comprised of what I call Main Street entrepreneurs. These are the dry cleaners, restaurants, car repair operations, and local retailers that are part of the fabric of our daily lives. There are about 4 million of them, and they employ a significant portion of the workforce. Many of these businesses exist largely to support a family and are not principally focused on expansion. While these businesses have high churn rates—opening and closing frequently– they are critical to America’s middle class.

An important but less well-documented type is comprised of an estimated 1 million small businesses that are part of commercial and government supply chains (referred to as suppliers). These businesses are often focused on growth, domestically or through exports, and operate with a higher level of management sophistication than Main Street firms. These are companies like Hooven-Dayton in Miamisburg, Ohio which provides labels for Tide and Mr. Clean products. A robust network of small suppliers is important to the long-term competitiveness of large U.S. corporations and for companies considering moving production back to the U.S. from offshore. For example, a research and supplier park established in Prince George, Virginia in 2010 was part of bringing Rolls Royce production to the area. As Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter and Jan Rivkin have noted, strong supply chains bring “low logistical costs, rapid problem solving and easier joint innovation.”

Of the remaining small businesses, about 200,000 qualify as high growth startups and firms. These are the companies that punch above their weight when it comes to job creation. A study by economist Zoltan Acs in 2008 found that only about three percent of all businesses can be classified as high growth businesses or “gazelles,” but that they are responsible for 20 percent of gross job creation. A recent breakthrough by by MIT’s Scott Stern and Jorge Guzman showed that the 5% of firms registered in Massachusetts that delivered 77% of the growth outcomes could be identified by growth factors evident at the time of their original business registration. These high growth firms have a disproportionate effect on the U.S. economy.

Treating all small businesses the same can lead to potentially misleading declarations, and bad policy. For example, a “mom and pop” Main Street shop has different financing needs than a high‐tech startup. One might need a bank loan while the other might need a patient equity investor like an angel or venture capitalist. Setting up an innovation ecosystem around a university or an emerging technology helps potential high-growth entrepreneurs, while downtown revitalization can help local businesses from the Main Street category. (In a forthcoming article we will review how in several policy areas — access to capital, skills and the creation of innovation ecosystems — the right policy depends on the type of small business you are trying to help.)

Once policymakers understand the different types of small businesses and hear that start-ups drive the bulk of new job creation, they are sometimes tempted to focus solely on those growth firms. That is a mistake. Just as important as differentiating between small businesses is realizing why each one matters.

Suppliers are an important, and underappreciated, part of this equation as they generate high paying jobs in both the small manufacturing and service sectors. And the success of large companies and growth start-ups often depend on a strong cluster of suppliers.

Sole proprietorships and Main Street businesses, for their part, can provide a critical pathway to economic mobility. And while Main Street may not create a lot of net new jobs, it does employ a large number of people. These businesses are also the restaurants, shops, and storefronts that shape and reflect a community’s identity and values.

Each type of small business matters for different reasons. The key is to remember that what helps one group will not necessarily have the equal or any impact for another. Praise for small businesses is warranted because of the role they play in driving an innovative and competitive economy and promoting social mobility, but when it comes to helping them succeed it’s essential to avoid treating them all the same way.

Karen Mills is a senior fellow with Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School focused on competitiveness, entrepreneurship and innovation. She was a member of President Obama’s Cabinet, serving as Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration from 2009 to 2013.