Would They Do It All Over Again?

It's practically a mantra for small business owners: "If I knew then what I know now, I never would have started a business in the first place." Often delivered with an exhausted sigh, the phrase evokes the long hours, lonely decisions, and personal sacrifices that go along with entrepreneurship. But is it actually true? Not according to a recent Citibank (C) survey of 1,002 business owners, which also showed a majority of entrepreneurs optimistic about their business prospects in 2011. Raj Seshadri, head of small business banking at Citibank in New York, spoke recently with Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein about the survey results. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Karen E. Klein: Almost every entrepreneur with the benefit of hindsight says she would never start a business if she'd known how grueling and personally taxing it would be. But you asked that question in a recent survey and got a different answer.

Raj Seshadri: We did. Our fourth small business survey contacted more than 1,000 business owners with revenue over $100,000 and no more than 100 employees. One of the questions was "Would you start your business again even if you knew then what you know now about the challenges you'd face?"

Three out of four—73 percent—said yes.

This isn't a question that gets asked often. Why did you include it?
Having gone through the downturns and the amount of hardship they've experienced over the last two years, we wanted to get a sense of whether entrepreneurs would do it all over again. The results were pretty amazing.

You also asked whether they would recommend entrepreneurship to their children, and 64 percent said yes.
That number was up from 59 percent when we asked the same question last September.

Were you surprised at the response?
We really were. It's so difficult and you put in so many more hours being a business owner than you do as an employee. If the phones go down, it's your responsibility. If the PC goes down, it's all you. If you have to hang a picture on the office wall, you do it yourself. There's nobody for an entrepreneur to lean on, often.

Why are so many glad they chose this path?
What I think the positive numbers reflect is how passionate they are about what they are doing. Even for the price they pay personally, every day they are doing something they always wanted to do. They control their destiny in a way that a lot of folks don't.

It is very rewarding to grow a business and see the impact of your hard work very, very directly. These small business owners don't feel like they're a cog in the wheel. They are the wheel.

The business owners in your survey are obviously the ones who made it through the downturn and are still standing. So it seems likely that your results are more positive overall than if you'd included people who lost their companies in the recession.
Right. But we've also found that many, many entrepreneurs who fail get up and do it again and again until they succeed. We also found with this survey that small business failures did go up during the crisis, but many small business owners readjusted and stayed afloat.

Three out of four said they had fundamentally streamlined their business processes to emerge as survivors. They thought through their markets, rethought their business models, adapted and changed their marketing. That adaptability was key for a lot of small companies.

The general results from your survey showed increased optimism across the board.
Yes. The majority said they believe 2011 will be better than or the same as 2010, with only 15 percent expecting it will be worse. We also found an increase in entrepreneurs' optimism about both current and future business conditions.

After battling through the recession, it looks like small businesses are finally poised for growth.