What do you mean by small business?

By DonShook

Most people get their definition of “small business” from personal experience in dealing with small retail stores and service organizations. Most people also have a minimum size in mind and overlook a whole category of small business, the very small operations Europeans call “micros”; furthermore, most people do not realize that quite sizeable businesses are considered “small” under U.S. law. Definitions are typically based on the number of people employed or on sales volume, but in defining small business, there is no “one-size fits all.” More true is the expression: “Different strokes for different folks,” meaning that definitions are based on the economic sector in which a business operates. Small business may also be defined by a way of looking at the world; it has a cultural meaning; it is a way of life. Thus the definition has qualitative aspects the law doesn’t care about. A quite small business may behave like a very large one because its owners have a certain view; conversely quite large corporations are sometimes still run like small businesses and exemplify the values of small business.


In most industrialized countries small businesses are treated in special ways. They are eligible for financial programs or get favored treatment under the tax laws. For this purpose governments publish official size standards. In the U.S. such definitions are issued by the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Size Standards. SBA’s basic definition begins with a listing of common features. A small business must be 1) organized for profit; 2) have a place of business in the United States; 3) make a significant contribution to the U.S. economy by paying taxes or using American products, materials, or labor; and 4) be at or below the numerical size standard for its industry. So what is this size standard?

U.S. Size by NAICS

SBA determines size for businesses in Manufacturing, Wholesale Trade, Mining, and certain other specific industries by employment size. For others it uses revenue size except in Banking, where asset size rules. Manufacturing enterprises with 500 and fewer employees are small businesses, although there are some industries within that sector with higher tilt-points, as discussed below; in the Wholesale Trade sector, the upper limit is 100 employees. This number is widely used as the definition of smallness in ordinary assessments and in eyeballing small business generally. The number is easy to remember; it is easier to get a headcount than revenue data; and Census data on employment by firm are readily available. But the “100-and-under” definition is official only for businesses in the wholesale trades.

For businesses in all other fields the definitions are based on revenue; this makes it easy for the small business to establish its own eligibility but much more difficult for analysts of small business to classify a population of companies as “small” or “large.” In descending order of revenues, the major sectors (as summarized by SBA) are:

General and Heavy Construction, $31 million

Dredging (technically part of construction but singled out here), $18.5 million
Special Trade Contractors, $13 million
Retail Trade and Business and Personal Services, $6.5 million
Architectural, Engineering, Mapping Services, Dry Cleaning and Carpet Cleaning Services, $4.5 million
Travel Agencies, $3.5 million
Agriculture, $750,000.
Businesses in these categories may maximally have the revenues shown and still be considered small businesses. The values thus represent upper limits.

These summaries, however, are not the detailed definitions. Those are published by the SBA in a special Table organized by North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS) codes (see references). The Table lists exceptions, typically showing larger sizes for certain NAICS industries. To illustrate, within the Agriculture Sector, where the top is generally defined as $750,000 in revenues, Feedlots may have revenues up to $2 million, Chicken Egg Production up to $11.5 million, Forestry operations up to $6.5 million, and Logging may have 500 employees. Fishing operations top out at $4 million, and Agricultural and Forestry Support activities are $6.5 million except Forest Fire Suppression and Fuel Management Services where the top size is $16.5 million. The example illustrates that summary data are very general. The business owner needs to obtain his or her NAICS code and then look at the Table for the precise definition for his or her operation.

The Table also includes whole sectors left out of the summary such as Mining (generally 500 employees); Utilities (4 million megawatt hours a year or less); Transportation (1,500 employees for airlines, long haul rail, and pipelines; 500 for water transport; $23.5 million in revenues for Trucking; $6.5 million for others); Information (500 employees for Publishing, 1,500 for Telecommunications); Real Estate and Rental ($2 million is the smallest revenue category for Real Estate Offices, $23.5 the largest for Vehicle and Truck Leasing); Finance and Insurance ($165 million in assets for Banks; $6.5 million in revenues for an insurance brokerage); and there are others.


As reported by GDSourcing, a company that retails Canadian federal statistics, Canada divides its small business into two categories, “small” and “medium.” The small business is defined as one with revenues between $30,000 and $5 million whereas a medium-sized business has revenues between $5 million and $25 million. The dollars are Canadian. Generally, in Canada, the United Kingdom, and other former British Commonwealth countries the small business sector is referred to as the SMEs, which includes both categories: small and medium enterprises.

Based on data from the University of Strathclyed in the UK, the British definition of “small” is sales (“turnover”) of not more than £5.6 million, assets of not more than £2.8 million, and not more than 50 employees. A medium-sized company has sales of £22.8 million, assets of £11.4 million and not more than 250 employees. The definitions were set by the UK’s Companies Act of 1985, as amended in 2004, for tax purposes. The British Bankers Association defines small business customers as proprietorships, partnerships, and companies with annual sales under £1 million.

The European Commission, in its Recommendation 2003/361/EC (May 6, 2003, effective January 1, 2005) has three categories for small business: micro enterprises have fewer than 10 employees and sales and assets both less than ‘‚¬2 million each. Small enterprises are defined as having fewer than 50 employees and sales and assets of ‘‚¬10 million each or less. A medium-sized enterprise has fewer than 250 employees, sales of not more than ‘‚¬50 million, and assets of not more than ‘‚¬43 million.