Can SMEs save small cities?

Small businesses aren’t just decoration - they’re essential to creating a thriving city.

Newcastle

What makes a city great? We don’t fully know all the ingredients, and assembling them together in a way that makes the urban environment buzz is an inexact art.

But we do know some of the things we can’t do without.

Coffee to start the day. Hairdressers. Pharmacists. That cute little bespoke clothing shop. Quirky new restaurants. Second hand bookshops. Novelties and necessities, made available by people who are prepared to put their own money, their own effort and their own ideas on the line.

These, and so many more things, are some of the tangible benefits that a vibrant small business sector provides us with.

It’s something that big corporations aren’t going to do. Ever been into a Coles, a Woolworths, a Bunnings, or any other large-scale retailer and felt that you were just part of an increasingly commoditised business model?

There are other, less obvious, functions that small firms also perform for a city. Jobs. Wealth creation. A spirit of entrepreneurialism. New ideas. The sense of ’giving it a go’. They even create the next generation of successful big businesses. Without these, small cities have little vibrancy and little hope of a better future.

Our small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) businesses are an important part of any successful local economy. Newcastle has a long and proud history of great local firms that have gone on to become leading national brands.

Yet there are many things that most of us don’t realise about SMEs. They may be small, but collectively they carry significant weight. More than 97 per cent of businesses in Australia are small or medium sized. In fact, the most common type of business is one that employs very few, if any, people besides the owner(s).

A surprisingly large number are also based out of peoples’ homes. Most of them make only modest amounts of money. The typical business turns over less than $200,000 a year, and profits are even smaller again. They have short life spans and only a handful last more than 10-15 years. Success is rarely guaranteed, and failure an ever-present threat.

Many of these businesses are surprisingly fragile. It takes clever policy to encourage them, and only a few thoughtless government decisions to destroy many entrepreneurial ventures.

What do we need to do to make this work?

First of all, we need to avoid over-relying on the ’white knight syndrome‘ - where bringing in one or two large companies is seen as the solution to all of a region’s economic uncertainties. Cities can’t base themselves, or be anchored, on just a handful of big corporations. Such enterprises are important, but these solutions make us dangerously over-reliant on introducing big businesses whose primary loyalties are rarely to the local town, and who will leave once the cost-benefit equation shifts against the local community.

We also need to regulate our local businesses carefully and cleverly. Many local governments, for example, have encouraged a thriving micro-business and self-employment culture by making it easy to operate a business from home. They’ve made sure that their zoning and planning rules are easy to understand, reliable and stable, backed up by decision-making processes that are prompt and predictable.

Policy makers in smart cities also recognise that new innovative businesses aren’t just found in the technology sector. Whilst the latest app-based business may grab the most media profile, they know that most small businesses are found in much less glamorous, but equally important, fields. They also ensure that there are advisory support services available to all of these SMEs.

We need to constantly look at the latest tools being used elsewhere to encourage SMEs, and be prepared to adopt them quickly if they have shown their worth. Business incubators, shared workstations, free access to business start-up advice, mentoring and help to grow are all innovative tools local regions around the world have used.

In short, there’s a world of difference between communities that regard local businesses as something to be nurtured and valued, and those cities that treat SMEs as a nuisance that must be tolerated at best, regulated at all times, and charged the highest possible fees.

Finally, there’s the invisible but crucially important issue of attitudes towards entrepreneurs. Do our community and government leaders celebrate our local small businesses in their words and actions? Do we foster a conducive climate that encourages people to take the risks and try their hand at being their own boss?

Building a successful, vibrant city that provides plenty of jobs, great retail and customer experiences, and creates a new generation of entrepreneurs isn’t easy. But if we don’t try, we’re all going to be much poorer.

Original article by Dr Michael Schaper, CEO of the Canberra Business Chamber and former deputy chairman of the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission. He is hosting a panel discussion - Can SMEs save small cities? - at the Smaller & Smarter Cities International Symposium in Newcastle on 10 October.

This opinion piece was published in the Newcastle Herald on Saturday, 5 October 2019

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