Gene Marks, President of The Marks Group

Small Business Owners’ Definition of Success Fuels Their Optimism

Back in the day, you didn’t just buy a TV set. These were enormous pieces of heavy equipment. Our forefathers and ancestors who bravely watched television before the days of House of Cards and Homeland had to order their set in advance (by phone or even in person!), arrange for delivery and then have someone set it up in the living room for not only the best viewing, but also the best reception.

That’s what Chris Swift’s dad did for many years in Evanston, Ill., a small town near Chicago where Swift grew up. The elder Swift’s small business sold and installed televisions.

“My dad loved what he did,” Swift tells me. “There was a certain pleasure in providing a product and a service that brought such joy to his customers. That’s what running a small business is all about.”

Swift has come a long way since those boyhood days in the Midwest. He’s now the CEO of The Hartford, a 200-year-old leader in property and casualty insurance, group benefits and mutual funds. (The Hartford is also a client of my company, although I am not being compensated to write this piece). The Hartford serves about 1.2 million small businesses, many just like Swift’s dad, though I’m betting few are selling and installing TV sets nowadays.

But as the son of a small-business owner and the CEO of a company who serves so many small-business customers, Swift knows about the optimism that’s part of every entrepreneur’s DNA. And this optimism was demonstrated in the company’s most recent annual Small Business Success Study, released Tuesday.

The study found that small-business owners were about as optimistic as last year and still holding back on hiring. But wait. A whopping 77 percent of them said they feel successful about how their business is operating now — up from 70 percent in 2013. Thirty-five percent of owners surveyed also said that they felt extremely or very successful, a large increase compared to the 23 percent who felt this way in 2011.

Swift understands the reluctance to hire: “Risk-taking is at the heart of what it means to be a small business owner,” Swift says. “Unfortunately, the recent Great Recession has suppressed some of that spirit. It is critical that we recognize this shift in mindset and work to restore some of the confidence lost to help foster small business growth.”

However, he’s optimistic. More optimistic, he says, than most.

Is it because of the economy? Sure, recent data — an increase in GDP growth, a further decline in the unemployment rate — points to a steadier, more stable outlook. Both interest rates and inflation are at historic lows.

Startup capital is available to many. In fact, the Hartford study found that 46 percent percent of small-business owners believe it is “slightly or not difficult at all” to get a loan or other capital for their business — a 39 percent increase from 2012.

Although our national debt remains high (and continues to increase) our government’s deficits, as a percentage of GDP, have declined substantially from just a few years ago. There’s been little talk of shutdowns and fiscal cliffs in this election cycle, which has added to the general feeling of less economic uncertainty.

But that’s not really it. Our economy is growing, but slowly. Many business people face higher taxes than before, more regulations and a general sense of ill will from Washington. Healthcare-reform legislation has raised more questions than answers.

There’s really another reason why Swift is so optimistic. When compared to other countries, “there’s no better place to be an entrepreneur than in the U.S.” he says.

And he should know. As the CEO of one of the country’s largest corporations, Swift spends a great deal of time meeting and speaking with others who lead or work in the financial services industry from all over the world. The challenges faced by entrepreneurs in many other countries are significant, if not overwhelming, especially when compared to the U.S.

Some countries have much stricter immigration laws than us. Others have to contend with governments that can take away control of their businesses. We have more and younger people in our job market. Our capital markets continue to be a safe haven. We have abundant natural resources, particularly with natural gas and oil, and, according to Swift, that self-sufficiency will continue to drive down core prices and foster more manufacturing, creativity and growth.

So where does he see the opportunities for future entrepreneurs? Technology, big data, security, marketing, analytics, real estate, even technical trades such as plumbing and electrical work are all on his list. He looks to growth in these areas. All of this is good. But it still doesn’t guarantee success.

That’s because for Swift, a man who speaks to countless business owners every year and who is himself the son of one, “the small-business owners I know who truly succeed are passionate about what they do. They enjoy helping others,” he says. “They feel proud and they contribute.”

That’s what his dad did. That’s what success really is.

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