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(Editor’s note: John Krubski is Research Advisor to The Guardian Life Small Business Research Institute. He submitted this story to VentureBeat.)

In a 16th-floor conference room in the northwest corner of Washington, DC – with the Capitol and Washington Monument clearly visible in the distance – 20 small business owners recently responded to the following question from a researcher: “What do you think of the small business lending act recently passed by the U.S. Senate?”

Nineteen quizzical looks and a few yawns clearly telegraphed the answer, “What bill would that be again?” One participant, the founder and CEO of a 150-person firm, was more specific: “I heard something about some legislation, but I didn’t find it interesting enough to want to know more.”

I was the researcher who asked the question.  And the session was one of the many focus groups I conduct every year with some 300 small business owners, inquiring about the array of issues they face in running their companies. The sentiments I heard from the entrepreneurs confirmed our recent findings – namely that there is a discernible incongruity between the economic “world view” of big business and government and the economic “ground view” of 26 million small business owners.

Most notably, accordingly to a September 2010 U.S. Small Business Administration report, small business owners account for 50 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, 65 percent of net new jobs and 13 times the number of patents for inventions compared to their big business counterparts.

In a nutshell, our research (part of The Guardian Life Index: What Matters Most to America’s Small Business Owners) reveals that “small is not big.”  The reality and expectations of small business owners are very different from those of big business executives and, in many cases, government policymakers who create programs intended to help small businesses.

The key difference is that small businesses are typically “ledger-minded,” while large ones are “capital-oriented.” Small business owners operate on basic accounting principles. You take money in. You put money out.  If the outbox gets bigger than the inbox, your business quickly closes.

Big businesses, on the other hand, employ a different kind of balance sheet – one based on a stream of money that is not necessarily derived from sales or profitability, but rather from the possibility of repaying credit or of creating a return for investors. This focus often becomes an overarching driver of a large business.

The fact that small businesses go out of business when they run out of money, while big ones often stay in business long after they run out of money helps to explain why the Small Business Jobs and Credit Act is largely being seen as irrelevant by the very constituency it was created to assist.  It simply doesn’t address their needs.

Findings from The Guardian Life Index shed new light on this very issue. When we asked small business owners what matters most to them, financing-related issues were surprisingly low in importance.  For example, “having a minimum credit line so I can access it as I need it” ranked only 2.4 on a 10-point value scale. Rating even lower in importance, at 1.3, was “getting loans and/or credit to take advantage of opportunities as they come up.”

While big companies see borrowing and leverage as natural components of doing business, small business owners view debt as a burden, an unnecessary evil to be utilized only in extreme situations. Even worse is trading equity for capital, an option that falls below zero – in the negative range – in The Guardian Life Index of what’s important.

If providing access to credit and capital is not what small business owners need, then what is?  The study’s highest-rated sentiment regarding finances, at 3.5 on the value scale, was this: “I don’t care how big my business is so long as I can make a good living at it.”  This perspective reveals an important insight about small business owners.

Growth as an objective is less important to them than personal earnings.  That’s why small business owners are generally unenthusiastic about government lending programs intended to promote growth, as the cost of compliance is disproportionately large.

Entrepreneurs feel such initiatives view them through the lens – and needs – of big business. Instead, they would prefer that government create laws that are more simplified and reduce the red tape that slows small business down and actually encumbers their efforts to earn a living.


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