Rumors of the death of the mom-and-pop may have been greatly exaggerated. There are 22 million businesses in the United States with five or fewer employees. Together, they produce more than $1 trillion in annual revenues. Major credit card companies and banks have descended on the sector, jostling to get the business of small business, and several—American Express and Discover Card, most notably—have begun publishing regular surveys examining this corner of Main Street.
Discover's "Small Business Watch," which was first published last August, polls 1,000 small-business owners and 4,000 consumers every month about the state of their businesses and their overall take on the economy. While the small-biz outlook has fluctuated predictably over the course of the year—inventory was flying off the shelves before Christmas; not so much in the summer, when everyone's on vacation—the Discover survey has made one thing abundantly clear: No matter what political candidates may say in their ever more-abundant 30-second spots, the views of small-business people are far more nuanced than you might think.
Some of the most striking findings of this year's surveys:
ON BEING YOUR OWN BOSS: Even if they were offered more money than they currently make, 61 percent of small-business owners would choose to run their own business instead of working for someone else. The fact is, most small-business people aren't trying to be the next Bill Gates: Sixty-seven percent say they'd rather have their company remain small than grow into a big business.
ON "NORMAL"WORK HOURS: Small business people work hard—really hard. Nearly half, 43 percent, work at least six days a week, and a whopping 52 percent take less than a week off from work a year. When they aren't at work, nearly two thirds are still available for calls and E-mails on their "day off."
ON THE STOCK MARKET: The media may hold their breath with every rise and fall of the Dow, but small-business people don't. Nearly 70 percent of small-business owners say changes in the stock market don't have a noticeable impact on their business. More than half insist the stock market doesn't reflect the economic reality they see around them daily.
ON GAS PRICES: The sky may not be falling after all. While 39 percent of small-biz owners said rising oil prices were a major issue, the vast majority—61 percent—say the effects are minor or of no consequence. Surprisingly, nearly half of small-business people say they have no significant energy expenses at all!
ON HEALTHCARE: While gas prices may not be the albatross around the neck of small business that it is sometimes made out to be, there's no question healthcare is: Sixty-four percent of small-business people say healthcare costs affect their ability to grow. A shocking 74 percent provide no healthcare to their employees at all. Meanwhile, their employees are getting antsy: Seventy-one percent of workers say healthcare benefits are either "very important" or "somewhat important" when choosing a job. The solution doesn't make many small-business owners happy, though: Sixty percent say a government mandate to provide healthcare coverage would hurt their business.
ON THE MINIMIMUM WAGE: Every election year, left-leaning politicians call for raising the minimum wage; politicians from the right say it would hurt small businesses. This spring, with the Democrats in control, Congress bumped the minimum wage up to $7.25 an hour, from $5.15, in three installments. What does it mean for small business? Before Congress acted, 70 percent of small-business owners said the increase in the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour would have no impact on their employee costs, largely because most small-business owners are already paying more than the minimum wage. Someone call Washington, will ya?