Is Small Business Week Worth Celebrating?

Why some entrepreneurs don’t like the label “small business”

Written by Rick Spence

It’s Small Business Week in Canada. A week to celebrate Canadian entrepreneurship—with a few caveats.

For one thing, “Small Business Week” is a trademark of the Business Development Bank of Canada. (Some competing institutions tried to get around it by declaring October “Small Business Month,” but that never really caught on.) There’s something ironic about a giant Crown corporation saluting risk-taking small business owners. Still, the BDC is mandated to provide financial services that complement those of the commercial banks, and it did increase credit during the 2008-09 financial crisis when most lenders cut back. So we’ll cut them some slack this week.

But then there’s another irony. In recent years, something called “Global Entrepreneurship Week” has sprouted up, based on a U.S./U.K. collaboration. It’s backed by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the legacy of a Missouri entrepreneur and philanthropist that has become one of the world’s most activist supporters of entrepreneurship. It comes a month later in November, when everyone’s spirits need boosting.

Asked to define the phrase ‘small business,’ an entrepreneur expressed his disdain very plainly: ‘A small business is any business that’s smaller than my business.’

Both these weeks celebrate and promote entrepreneurship. They also host numerous events designed to educate business owners and help them network. Last year, some 10,000 entrepreneurs participated in more than 200 BDC-related activities marking Small Business Week. You might say there’s room for improvement: that number represents just 0.5% of Canada’s business owners, and only one-third of BDC’s own customer base. It appears most business owners celebrate Small Business Week the old-fashioned way—by working on their business.

That doesn’t prevent suppliers to small business from using Small Business Week (SBW) to promote their own agendas. The chartered banks typically launch annual surveys examining the state of small business: this year Bank of Montreal’s wealth management group discovered that 60% of business owners worry about whether they will ever be able to retire from their business. Last year, Royal Bank’s SBW survey found 29% of business owners intending to add new employees in the next 12 months, compared to just 25% the year before.

Read: The Real Price of Becoming a Successful Entrepreneur

This year, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business is using SBW to promote its member-promotion campaign, “Shop Small Biz.” Not to be outdone by the BDC, it has designated Friday, Oct. 25 as the first “Small Business Day.” The CFIB says many participating businesses will celebrate SBD by offering special deals and discounts, which is an innovative way to celebrate small business. Too bad. It’s a bit like having to buy your own cake on your birthday.

But should Canadians be throwing a party for small business? The organizers say we should, because, they say, “Small business is big business.” The CFIB says small businesses generate 42% of the country’s private sector gross domestic product and employ 48% of the private sector workforce. BDC casts its net wider, noting that small and medium-sized businesses account for more than 60% of Canada’s private-sector employment.

Yet many of these business owners are sole practitioners who have never created a job. Many are stuck-in-their-rut transportation, retail and service companies, which don’t innovate, don’t create a conscious brand, and don’t really do much worth celebrating. That’s why many people prefer Global Entrepreneurship Week, which celebrates entrepreneurs rather than businesses.

Entrepreneurs are widely defined as people who risk their own capital to create and run their business. They are generally considered to be ambitious, growth-oriented and innovative—as opposed to small business owners, who are basically defined by the size (or lack of it) of their businesses.

Indeed, PROFIT’s research two decades ago found that many entrepreneurs bristled at the term “small business.” (That was a problem for the magazine, which was then titled Small Business.) In a focus group, one entrepreneur admitted to hiding “Small Business” inside another magazine, so no one would see him reading a magazine dedicated to being small. Asked to define the phrase “small business,” another entrepreneur expressed his disdain very plainly: “A small business is any business that’s smaller than my business.”

Clearly, Canada should celebrate growth businesses, innovative businesses, risk-taking companies that create value for customers and new jobs for everyone. By sticking with the label “Small Business Week,” Canadians may be snubbing the businesses that most deserve celebrating.

On the other hand, I have a soft spot for anyone who understands the everyday risks of business. The local bookkeeper, the landscaper or the café on the corner may not be innovators or world-beaters, but they provide valued services to their market. Their owners suffer all the risks and hassles of everyday proprietorship—the agony of red tape, the pain of managing others, the expense of training, and the uncertainties of marketing. Yet according to the stats, they make less than the average salaried worker. Growth entrepreneurs or not, I think all business owners deserve a day—or a week—in the spotlight.

Happy Small Business Week. Anyway.

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