Unlocking Growth in Small and Medium-Size Enterprises

With the right support, small and medium-size enterprises could significantly boost economic growth. Governments can help capture this opportunity.

SMEBROctober 22, 19:06
Unlocking growth in small and medium-size enterprises

Sluggish productivity growth is one of the biggest threats to overall economic growth in developed and developing economies alike, with serious implications for citizens’ well-being such as lower income growth, increased inequality, and challenges with loan repayment. In recent years, productivity growth has stalled in many places; a 2018 McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) study of seven Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries found a drop in average productivity growth, from 2.4 percent per year between 2000 and 2004 to 0.5 percent per year between 2010 and 2014.

Small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) contribute to the productivity problem. Within the same sector or within countries of similar size, the productivity gap between large companies and SMEs can vary by a factor of two or more. In construction, for example, McKinsey research found that the productivity gap between SMEs and large companies is 26 percent in France, 41 percent in Germany, and 54 percent in Italy. In the food-services and accommodation sector, the gap is smaller for Italy, at 29 percent, compared with 39 percent for France and 41 percent for Germany. These productivity differences reach 60 percent in Turkey and 80 percent in Greece in many sectors. And a large share of the world’s population works for an SME—between 50 percent and 90 percent of the labor force, depending on the country.

Improving the productivity of SMEs is therefore a worthwhile endeavor. Indeed, SMEs can spur a country’s growth for two reasons. First, integrating proven practices and technologies is faster and safer than testing new ones, and SMEs have a large adoption gap to close. In the same way that emerging markets can grow faster than high-income markets by adopting tested technologies, SMEs can grow faster than large companies by adopting the proven technologies and practices of larger enterprises. Second, start-ups, which are a critical subsegment of SMEs, have become important sources of innovation. Because they are unhindered by legacy systems and outdated strategies, new market entrants are often able to rethink established practices and cut through traditional industry boundaries.

Halving the global productivity gap between SMEs and large companies would amount to about $15 trillion in corresponding value added, or roughly 7 percent of global GDP. Governments around the world can and are helping close this gap through ten approaches tailored to meet SMEs’ most pressing needs.

The need for a thriving ecosystem of small and medium-size enterprises

When enabled by a business-friendly environment and open markets, large companies can thrive; meanwhile, SMEs have a broad range of unmet needs. The limited size of many SMEs means they have difficulty accessing capabilities and resources that would make them more productive, including talented individuals with the latest knowledge of technology, finance, and managerial practices.

Furthermore, many SMEs are young enterprises, which, when combined with their small scale, makes them a weaker counterpart for many standard market players, not only in terms of funding access but also for customers who might perceive small suppliers as too risky. Nonstandard market players such as crowdfunding platforms and venture-capital funds are still in the early stage of development in many OECD countries and often cannot fulfill the needs of SMEs.

Given the challenges facing SMEs and the size of the opportunity, most G-20 countries have created a national agency fully or primarily focused on supporting their growth. However, operating these government agencies is challenging for the same reasons that markets have struggled to meet SMEs’ needs: their small scale and diversity of circumstances.

Our research, analysis, and experience working with SMEs and SME-development agencies suggests that governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) seeking to serve SMEs’ unmet needs would benefit from two actions: first, understanding and improving the SME ecosystem and second, pursuing a targeted approach to serving various SME subsegments.

Specifically, they should focus on promoting three characteristics of a healthy and well-performing SME ecosystem: boosting the business confidence of SMEs, enabling the growth of SMEs—in general and for high performers—and increasing the competitiveness of SMEs. Establishing these three characteristics requires a segmented execution approach. It is therefore important that government agencies design their menu of services after identifying the subsegments prevalent in their country and the differences in their needs. We have identified ten approaches that are used across the world to help meet these needs.

Identifying and prioritizing SME subsegments

In our experience, SMEs typically fall into one of six categories: early-stage innovative start-ups, established successful start-ups, growing medium-size companies, stagnant or struggling medium-size companies, locally focused small businesses, and informal microbusinesses.

While it is important to consider the totality of all SME subsegment needs, we believe that SME-development agencies should focus their limited resources on those with the highest potential for impact, with programs tailored to their specific situations.

Medium-size companies are often priority subsegments. According to our analysis, even though medium-size enterprises make up only 2 percent of all companies, they account for about 30 percent of GDP and employment in most countries.

This can vary by country, of course. A country such as India, for instance, has a low urbanization rate, with hundreds of millions of people employed in the informal sector or in small businesses in rural areas. It is difficult to neglect these segments in India; however, a highly urbanized country with a lower level of informality could have a more targeted approach and focus only on innovative start-ups and medium-size companies.

A country’s economic-development strategy should therefore guide the prioritization. For example, if export growth is a priority, medium-size companies operating in tradable goods and services could take precedence. While such ranking can be difficult, scattering resources among too many recipients may severely diminish their impact.

Providing the right levels of support to small and medium-size enterprises

Government agencies and NGOs with a good understanding of SME subsegments can better tailor their programs to meet SMEs’ unmet needs. We have researched SME support programs across the world and categorized them into a matrix of ten approaches. Some are tailored to a single subsegment while others address one of the six unmet needs for all or most subsegments.

For all these categories, the specifics of how they are implemented matter; therefore it is difficult to draw universal best practices from them. However, it can be instructive to consider the following ways these programs are helping to close the productivity gap for SMEs.

Entrepreneurial culture and education

Besides institutions, regulations, and facilities, the attractiveness of an entrepreneurial career and citizens’ entrepreneurial capabilities are also important in increasing the development and survival rates of start-ups. Many ideas are never prototyped or converted into a business plan. Risk aversion, fear of failure, and lack of capabilities can be just as significant barriers as lacking the regulatory and institutional support. Several governments have attempted to develop an entrepreneurial mindset among their citizens.

Inculcating entrepreneurial skills through formal education is often part of the solution. Poland, for example, teaches elements of entrepreneurship in primary-school core subjects, such as history and math, and upper-secondary students are required to take “Introduction to Entrepreneurship.”

Entrepreneurial education is also thought to promote equity, and many organizations have focused on developing an entrepreneurial mindset and capabilities in young residents of low-income communities. In the United States, for example, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (founded in 1987) delivers multiple entrepreneurial programs and extracurricular activities through 1,882 partner schools. The programs have reached more than 23,000 students across states and approximately 50,000 more internationally. Additionally, 75 percent of the network’s alumni have enrolled in college and 25 percent have started at least one business.

Start-up hubs

Entrepreneurs around the world have chosen major start-up hubs to launch their enterprises, seeking an innovative environment, access to financing, and business support. Many governments have prioritized turning one or more of their cities into a start-up hub, by either branding the city as a start-up hub or supporting start-up campuses. As governments attempt to enable or develop start-up hubs, they can focus on some of the toughest challenges entrepreneurs typically face—navigating the administrative requirements to start and run a company, accessing the competencies needed to run a business, and being able to afford the launch of a start-up as well as the costs of living in a start-up hub.

In the 1960s, federal laboratories settled in Boulder, Colorado, and partnered with the University of Colorado to fund and conduct research on energy, environment, and climate topics. Since then, the city has established numerous important assets, including leading research institutions. Boulder currently boasts 12 active start-up accelerators and incubators.

Moreover, the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT) works closely with the governor of Colorado to offer financial support services—including grants and tax incentives—to selected start-ups. The OEDIT also hosts the Colorado Small Business Development Center Network, which provides technical business support through mentorship, consulting, and training.

Today, Boulder ranks as one of the best 30 start-up ecosystems globally.6 Companies in the tech sector employ 9.7 percent of Colorado’s total workforce and make up 14 percent of its economy.

Today, Boulder ranks as one of the best 30 start-up ecosystems globally.6 Companies in the tech sector employ 9.7 percent of Colorado’s total workforce and make up 14 percent of its economy.

Government venture-capital funds (GVCFs)

Government funds for start-ups first appeared in Europe following World War II. Today, governments in high-income countries are paying more attention to the start-up sector, hoping to boost innovation and stimulate economic impact through venture capital (VC). Setting up a GVCF can contribute to this objective while also providing adequate financial returns for the government. Some ecosystem prerequisites can increase the impact of a GVCF, including a well-developed capital market to maximize exit options (for example, secondary stock market, later-round exits, strategic acquisitions, and openness to foreign ownership).

One important component of a successful government-led ecosystem is the ability to attract investors from the private sector. In many cases, public investment in VC crowds out private-sector investors, given that GVCFs often have more leverage and access to funds as well as limited accountability on costs (see sidebar “The Business Development Bank of Canada: Activating the Canadian VC industry and initiating a growth-driver scale-up program”). A GVCF’s design can also influence its success in important areas such as aligning GVCF objectives with national development goals and aligning the fund governance and operations with its mandate and investment strategy.

The South Korean government, for example, founded the Korea Fund of Funds as part of the Special Measures for the Promotion of Venture Business Act in 2005 with the purpose of providing stable capital for the venture-investment ecosystem. The $2.8 billion fund has a passive investment strategy, focused mainly on seed- and early-stage start-ups. The fund has made approximately 6,000 investments in start-ups and 722 investments in other funds to date, with total fund size growing from 1 trillion won (approximately $840 million) in 2009 to 4 trillion won in 2018.

Following the development of the Korea Fund of Funds, the government established four more dedicated funds: to invest in growth-stage SMEs with high job-creation potential, to support and coinvest with angel investors and minimize equity gaps for start-ups, to finance technology SMEs, and to create a foreign VC fund to support South Korean start-ups that plan to operate overseas.

The South Korean government created a large database and network of angel investors. All funds are invested only in South Korean companies to ensure local development of the start-up segment and the venture capital industry without focusing on any specific sector and are managed by a third party, the Korea Venture Investment Corporation. The South Korean government witnessed a 178 percent increase in seed deals through coinvesting with private players in early stage start-ups.

By measures such as share of GDP, South Korea’s VC investments are the fourth largest of the OECD countries, behind only Israel, the United States, and Canada. At 0.36 percent, its VC investments more than doubled between 2010 and 2017 while other OECD countries’ VC investments declined significantly. A notable sign of success for the government-led initiative is the 9 percent increase in private-sector VC investments due to participation by crowding in investors, which corresponds with a greater number of VC firms and investment managers.

Scale-up programs

Many governments have launched scale-up programs that help medium-size businesses unlock their potential and grow faster. Some programs provide comprehensive support, facilitating SMEs’ access to finance, networking, consulting, and mentorship. Others follow a more targeted approach, focusing on specific sectors or predefined support services (see sidebar “The Business Development Bank of Canada: Activating the Canadian VC industry and initiating a growth-driver scale-up program”).

TURQUALITY, a state-funded scale-up program in Turkey that was launched in 2004, is led jointly by Turkey’s Ministry of Trade and the Turkish Exporters’ Assembly. The program aims to support promising Turkish companies with strong brands, established business capabilities, and high economic potential—to ultimately transform top Turkish businesses into global players that have well-known global brands and generate high value-added exports.

This information was extracted from McKinsey’s official website.