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Small Business: Meanwhile, Back in the Real World

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As the numbers roll in -- jobs lost, financial markets fall, bailouts -- I'm sitting in the middle of a 40-person company I started in 1988 and wondering, as I assume so many others are, how bad this is for other small businesses.

I've been through recessions before. I was looking for my first job in 1971, buying our first house in 1982, and moving a company in 1992. In 2001 I laid off five people (of 33) in a single day.

That one was really hard. Our sales dropped steeply when the tech stocks fell, and we waited too long, got into real trouble, before we finally bit the bullet and cut the staff. What I discovered then was 1.) the 28 people who didn't get laid off were relieved to see we were dealing with the problem; they thought our response was long overdue; and 2.) hard as it is to lay off several people at once, it's not as hard as laying off an individual. An individual feels personal failure, but when it's a group, it's the company, or the economy, that caused it.

Now in this recession, which is certainly the worst in my lifetime, there's so much we don't know. I've read a lot of the available information of course, but it's pretty hard to gauge. For example, I've been watching as the official stats showed half a million jobs lost last month. And I followed as ADP showed small businesses increased jobs in September, but lost them in October and again in November. At the same time the SBA released a report showing that small businesses generate 80% of the new jobs.

But things are not that simple. Scott Shane asked Can Entrepreneurs Fix the Job Loss Problem on Small Business Trends earlier this week, and his answer is "the scale of the economic downturn is so large that we can't offset it just by boosting our level of entrepreneurial activity."

And then there are surveys like this one, which supposedly shows that 43% of small businesses aren't feeling the recession, and 4% say they're better off. Which is why I'm suggesting the survey we're going do to here.

One of the most important realities of small business in this country is how diverse and disconnected we really are. Small business owners don't vote alike, don't think alike, and don't respond to business crisis alike either. Four out of five small businesses are personal businesses with no employees. They're freelance writers, business consultants, graphic artists, designers, real estate brokers, butchers, bakers ... well, you get the idea.

While economists and politicians give "small business" credit for creating jobs, and there are several well meaning public agencies and business groups, we're still mostly out here in the trenches minding our own businesses, worrying, and wondering how bad things are and how bad they'll get. And when they'll turn around.

So I'd like to ask any and all small business owners, and yes definitely including those 21 million personal businesses, how are you doing? How bad is (or isn't) it?

With that in mind, please join me in collecting some real information, one person at a time, on what's going on throughout the economy with all those businesses that aren't big enough to attract news media attention, but are still there and, presumably, hurting as much as Wall Street and Detroit.

And to make this work, we want to start with the basics: Do you own the business? Do you have employees? How many people did you have six months ago, and how many today? What do you see happening to sales -- in percent growth or percent decline -- next year?

And from there, the stories. Add your own story. How are you weathering it, how bad is it, when will it turn around, what do you need, what have you done, what surprised you, what are you hoping, and what are you fearing?

And we'll be tracking responses and general results, so you can check back here to see what we come up with!

CLICK HERE TO TAKE THE SURVEY