“There’s no escape”: 12 things I’ve learnt after 30 years of SME research

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Precisely 30 years ago today, I launched my business, Cameron Research.

For 30 years I’ve listened to business owners talk. More than 3000 face-to-face interviews and 700 focus groups (many of which were ‘unfocused’ groups!). I’d hate to think of how many telephone interviews I’ve done, that would make my eyes bleed.

I thought it would be interesting to look back on some of the key learnings. It isn’t easy to summarise 30 years in a handful of minutes, but here are 12 morsels.

1. Business owners have a different view of risk

But they’re not necessarily risk-takers. This is a real quirk because, to an outsider, it would seem that business owners are huge risk-takers. That’s not the case at all.  In many aspects of their life (and their business) they are very conservative.

However, when it comes to their business, they just view the world slightly differently. They’ve seen an opportunity that others couldn’t. Most interestingly, they often think that starting their business wasn’t risky — to them it seemed almost ‘common sense’ because the opportunity was staring them in the face!

2. Business owners are incredibly emotional

They take themselves, and what they do, very seriously. Yet their decisions are so often driven by their emotions, not by what may rationally seem (to an outsider) to be optimal. But what is most curious is the extent to which they will justify their emotional decisions on rational grounds. In their own minds they are making a rational decision … when in fact the decision has been far more emotional and intuitive.

3. Business owners are ruggedly independent

They don’t like being told what to do or how to do it. They will doggedly do what they want to do. They can be their own worst enemy, not seeking the right help when required. Which of course leads us to the biggie …

4. Most business owners do not want to grow their business

I was going to put this first but I’ve banged on about this so much over the years that I didn’t want to bore everyone right up front. But it is the key learning of 30 years, and it supported by both our quantitative and qualitative research.

Around a quarter of business owners want to grow their business … three quarters don’t. It is as simple and as complex as that.

Why don’t they want to grow? Because they’re control-freaks, and they think that growth would lead to a loss of control. So next time you’re looking at growth-focused comms programs laced with a tone of ‘if you’re not growing then you’re dying’ — which really drives business owners wild by the way — take a breath and think it through. How many business owners do you know that, when push comes to shove, aren’t prepared to do what it takes to grow their business? Lots.

5. They define success

This follows the above point. As I have discussed over the years, the three core groups of business owners are Business Builders (circa 25%), Lifestyle Seekers (50%) and Passionate Professionals (25%).

Only the Business Builders really want to grow and to them, ‘business growth’ is the definition of success. To Lifestyle Seekers, it is about achieving a particular lifestyle (often an illusion — see below), and the Passionate Professionals are just hell-bent on practicing their craft.

To project onto business owners an external view of ‘success’ — such as how a big business perceives success — is likely to be disconnecting at best and totally condescending at worst.

6. ‘Work/life balance’ is unattainable

That is probably a little harsh. It’s just that in the past 30 years, I’ve seen so few achieve it that it makes me wonder if work/life balance is an illusion for business owners.

Years ago, one told me that she had stopped beating herself up seeking work life/balance, and had reached the point of ‘imbalance acceptance’!  She wasn’t bitter and twisted about it, but she’d formed the view that work/life balance was a mirage, something that simply couldn’t be achieved if you’re running a business.

7. Business owners are ‘the loneliest people’

This is a sad one in many regards. They are on their own. They’re the mavericks, the challenger-brands. It’s exciting for them and can be very fulfilling, but when times get tough they realise just how alone they are. They can’t rely on others, they can’t necessarily share what is happening with their team, they don’t have anyone to turn to.

In other words, when things are going well, running a business is the best place to be — but when things aren’t going well, they realise there is nobody standing behind them. One once told me that he walked a tightrope without a safety net.

8. There’s no escape

No matter what they do, the business is always in the back of their mind. It’s constant and it never leaves. It’s like carrying a heavy bag that they just want to put down occasionally … but they can’t.

9. Customer interactions provide the oxygen

They revel in the positive feedback they get directly from customers. The interpersonal relationships/interactions with customers are their key source of oxygen, reaffirming their value and providing them with a tangible reminder of why they do it. Customer interactions give them meaning.

Isn’t it interesting that fewer business owners have been able to have such personal interactions with customers through the lockdowns of the past couple of years? This has been tough on them.

10. Business strategy emerges incrementally

Business owners are opportunists; they are nimble and twist and turn in response to market conditions. Rarely does their business follow the path that they thought it would when they started. They note that when they look back on their business, many decisions seem to make sense — in hindsight — but at the time they were largely meandering through, following their nose.

In other words, while rational, fact-laden analysis and strategy is important, business owners generally find that their business heads in a different direction to what they had envisaged.

I recall one business owner saying that the worst thing you can do is say ‘no’ to a client — ‘never say no’ was his motto — his reasoning was that the client can lead them to a great market opportunity that they simply wouldn’t have otherwise seen.

11. Employing an (external) CEO to run the business will end in tears

This is a generalisation and contentious, but once again, based on the past 30 years there is a clear trend.

Some business owners get to the stage where they decide it is best to transition to more of a chairperson role in the organisation — they can be the ‘founder’, the tribe elder, without having to still run the business on a day-to-day basis. I have seen this dozens and dozens of times. It is successful maybe 5% of the time.

Why? Because the business owner is still there! They’re control freaks, and have done things a certain way ‘forever’, and now someone new comes in to do it a different way! How preposterous, how outrageous. It can work but it is very difficult for business owners to truly let go. They need to be either in or out. It’s not in their nature to hedge or do things half-heartedly.

12. They wouldn’t swap it for quids

Business owners rarely — almost never — regret their decision to start a small business. They may reach a point in time at which they don’t wish to continue it. It may not achieve the business or personal objectives they had set. It may have come at a greater cost or taken them far longer than they had hoped. But the reality is that the overwhelming majority would do it all again.


This is something which I could write about for days. How do you condense 30 years into 12 points? You can’t.

Thank you to all who have supported my research and hopefully gleaned something from it. Not sure I’ll still be doing it for another 30 years — but of course, you never say never.

This article was first published by Cameron Research


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3 months ago

All very true.

Leanne Layfield
Leanne Layfield
3 months ago

Lots of truths there I’m sure. Thanks

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