Small business owners get a lot of political hype — but do candidates really understand them?
(This article originally appeared in The Hill)
Are you running for office this year? If you’re a member of the House of Representatives and aren’t retiring, the answer is yes. The same if you’re one of 35 U.S. senators. Or if you’re among the 36 governors and thousands of local representatives, council members, aldermen, school board members, judges and other elected officials vying for new terms.
It’s a big election year, this year and you’re going to need every vote you can get. One of the biggest voting blocs you’ll want to go after are small businesses owners. Why? Because there are a lot of us, and together we employ nearly half of the workers in this country. We are active in our communities and impact the livelihoods of not just our employees but our customers, vendors, contractors, partners and suppliers.
To win these voters, you need to know us. But, unfortunately, a lot of the information you read about small business owners is a bit misconstrued. So, as a public service, let me set the record straight so that you can fully understand us.
For starters, the number of actual, real, operating small businesses isn’t 31.7 million. That’s the number many people (including me) use because it comes from the Small Business Administration. But a lot of these businesses aren’t really businesses. The number is made up of tax-filings and includes multiple entities that are owned by single individuals. It also includes millions of shell companies and other passive organizations as well as millions of hobbyists, freelancers and others with side-gigs.
I don’t want to discount these entrepreneurs, as many of them are legitimate and make their living independently. But the ones you should focus on are the 6 million employer-owned firms, because they’re the ones representing more voters and likely have more headaches you want to address.
We’re old and our businesses are boring. Remember the movie “The Intern,” in which the young and beautiful Anne Hathaway — a cool New York City fashion entrepreneur (what else?) — took on the curmudgeonly Robert DeNiro as an assistant? Yeah, no…that’s not really accurate. Most business owners in this country are over the age of the 50. And we’re not “fashion entrepreneurs.” We sell tires, corrugated containers, insulation products, metallic plates, industrial chemicals and all sorts of unsexy stuff. But hey, it’s a living. Sorry to burst your bubble.
There are more Black and Hispanic owned businesses than you might think. There are approximately 3.1 million Black-owned businesses in the U.S. and 4.6 million Hispanic- owned businesses. That makes sense, because using the debatable 31.7 million small businesses number above, Blacks, who represent 12 percent of the U.S. population own more than 10 percent of small businesses and Hispanics, who represent 18 percent of the U.S. population, own more than 15 percent of small businesses. You should be going after these voters. Women too — they own about 20 percent of small businesses with employees in this country.
Running a small business is not a great way to make a living, so no, we’re not living the dream. The typical small business owner makes about $66,000 per year and only 40 percent are profitable. Keep that in mind the next time you raise our taxes.
Twitter is a lousy place to find small business owners. So many politicians and media make the mistake of assuming that Twitter is a valuable source of opinion. Well, it can be, but it’s a certain kind of opinion. The top 10 percent of Twitter users create 92 percent of tweets, and 69 percent of Twitter leans left. Considering that 55 percent of small business owners consider themselves Republican, Libertarian or independent, Twitter isn’t going to be a great place for you to go to get an accurate cross-section of feedback from this demographic.
Most small business owners aren’t as honest as you think. The media like to portray us as dreamers and entrepreneurs and visionaries, and many are. But there are also many cheaters and fraudsters. I know this. I have clients who oftentimes run personal expenses through their business, and I am not surprised when I read that back in 2013 the IRS estimated that 56 percent of sole proprietors’ cash receipts were not disclosed to the tax authorities. Or that some wily cats stole billions from the Paycheck Protection Program, flouted COVID-19 rules, defrauded the government, underpaid their employees and are homophobic and racist. We’re not trying to change the world. We’re just trying to make a living, and some will do whatever they got to do — legal or not — to earn a buck.
Amazon and other big brands help many small businesses. A lot of small business owners like to complain about Amazon’s impact and, sure, there’s no denying that the online giant has decimated brick and mortar stores and disrupted many other businesses. But the company has also helped millions of small merchants, developers and content and technology providers sell their products and services to customers around the world.
In fact, half of the products sold on Amazon come from small merchants. Other big companies may compete with us for employees and customers. But they also employ countless small firms to provide a myriad of services, from landscaping and construction to marketing and accounting. My most profitable clients are big brands, and I know I’m not the only small business owner to say so.
Finally, there’s plenty of capital available for small businesses. Yes, it’s tougher to get a traditional bank loan if you’re a small company with little collateral and a short history. But bank loans guaranteed by the government through the Small Business Administration’s Section 7(a) program are easier to get approved and there are many other sources of capital that small firms can tap from merchant advances, online financers, government and non-profit grants and funds provided by financial services firms made available through the Treasury Department’s recent State Small Business Credit Initiative. The money may be a little more expensive than for a bigger borrower, but it’s out there for small businesses that look hard enough for it.
I could go on, but you get the point: There are a lot of misconceptions — both good and bad — about small businesses, and those running for office this year will need their votes. So, it’s important for candidates to know some of these important facts before they go after them.
Gene Marks is founder of The Marks Group, a small-business consulting firm. He frequently appears on CNBC, Fox Business and MSNBC.