Staying small and growing slow: why we don’t all have to be Icebreakers

New research shows many innovative Kiwi SMEs aren’t future global giants – nor do they want to be. And that should temper how we do business with them.

There’s a temptation to see Kiwi entrepreneurs as driven innovators, fulfilling a dream they have harboured since their first lawn mowing job aged 16 to found their own company and take on the world.

But it’s not always like that. A new qualitative survey of Kiwi SMEs finds chance, serendipity, and life choices play a big part in why many people became entrepreneurs. 

There are almost half a million SMEs (0-20 employees) in New Zealand and we are rightly proud of the success stories of our entrepreneurial heroes – Stephen Tindall at the Warehouse, Sam Morgan of Trade Me, or Rod Drury at Xero.

But we are wrong if we assume that most SME owners are fired by the sort of entrepreneurial spirit that saw Icebreaker founder Jeremy Moon declare (at the tender age of 24), the “burning desire to build an international brand”, a gene that makes ambition their guiding star and a growth objective that leads to a share floatation.

Recent research in The Listening Project calls these assumptions into question and, worse, suggests we are talking at cross purposes to New Zealand SME owners if we assume they all want to be the next Icebreaker.

The Listening Project, conducted by research company TRA, talked in depth to 13 Kiwi SME owners about their lives and the beliefs that inform their behaviour and decision making.

The project listened to their stories to discover the unique circumstances that triggered their decision to start a business, and found that serendipity and lifestyle choices – not naked ambition – formed the narrative.

“ My girlfriend and I decided to build a business that we could manage ourselves and build slowly as our children got closer to school age.”

I got bored working for a government department for 16 years and decided I needed to move my life forward. I took redundancy and thought what the hell am I going to do now as I had a mortgage and bills to pay.

My husband and I own a business looking after conferences and incentive programmes.We choose to move and start our business in order to live in one of the best destinations in the world and adore every moment of our life here.

I started the business in 20012 … I had been made redundant when the large IT firm I was working for went bust.

But don’t let that lead you to surrender the notion for one moment that these SME owners lack passion or commitment. On the contrary they have taken risks both financial and personal and are driven to make their business succeed. It’s more a case of reframing what success might look like.

Paying the mortgage, pride in their work, balance of lifestyle choices, and a personally rooted commitment to deliver to clients all drive this group to high personal and professional standards – and they believe that the rest of us don’t get that.

We asked who they admired in business and they surprised with local heroes, not the big names you would expect.

Showing respect for their choices and admiration for their output, despite the fact that they never set themselves up to be business barons, is a good way to frame the way you approach SMEs. They don’t necessarily judge success in dollars or size and they want the people they deal with to respect that. It doesn’t make them amateurs and suppliers should be careful how they tread.

  1. Recognize that they have families and may have chosen the SME option so they can watch their son play rugby or pick up the children from playschool – and still treat them like the committed professionals they are.

  1. Respect their skills. Give them credit for their histories – most have had corporate jobs, professional roles, senior positions – small doesn’t mean ignorant or naïve.

  1. Invest the time to understand their goals – not everyone is on a growth trajectory and others may choose to treadwater for a while but have plans to step up later when the life circumstances change – be with them for the long haul.

  1. Acknowledge what success means to them – there are a lot of ‘firsts’ along the way for SMEs. The first year, the first office move. Because they didn’t have the utter self belief of the well-know entrpreneurs small wins are celebrated, certainly with joy and even a bit of amazement.

  1. Join them in making a difference in their community. All our SMEs were involved in community projects and supporting other small business. Being small is scary and getting involved creates support networks that create a sense of being part of something bigger.

And perhaps most important of all, listen to their stories – they will inspire you and enhance your understanding of their business needs.

Colleen Ryan is Head of Strategy at TRA and manages The Listening Project.

The Listening Project provides a window into the real lives of New Zealanders

TRA - www.tra.co.nz