Small Business Index

Wells Fargo survey: More small businesses plan to hire, but face challenges finding staff

Small business optimism levels off in the fourth quarter following a year of gains, according to Wells Fargo/Gallup's Q4 2017 Small Business Index.

Published: November 06, 2017

SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 6, 2017 – Following the largest increase in a decade, small business optimism held steady in the fourth quarter, according to the latest Wells Fargo/Gallup Small Business Index, conducted October 2–6.

In the quarterly survey, which measures the optimism of small business owners, the overall Index score dipped slightly to 103 in October – down from 106 in July when it was the highest Index reading in a decade. A contributing factor to the three-point decrease was how business owners evaluated their current finances. Seventy-one percent rated their financial situation today as very or somewhat good in October, down five percentage points from 76 in July. Despite this slight decline, business owner’s financial situation remains at pre-recession levels.

Hiring remains a top challenge

In October, business owners were asked to identify the most important challenge facing their businesses today. Sixteen percent of small business owners said hiring and retaining quality staff is their top concern, up from 13 percent last quarter and the highest reading on this measure since the question was added to the survey in 2013. While hiring is a top challenge, 32 percent of business owners reported plans to increase the number of jobs at their business in the next year – the second highest percentage in the 14-year history of the survey. Other top concerns this quarter included attracting customers and finding new business (11 percent), taxes (11 percent), government regulations (11 percent), and financial stability/cash flow (8 percent).

“Hiring the workers they need has clearly become a more pressing issue for small business owners,” noted Mark Vitner, Senior Economist at Wells Fargo. “Labor markets have tightened around the country and many workers that had been employed part-time have moved on to full-time positions, making it particularly difficult to fill these positions right now.”

Most other survey measures were unchanged or had incremental shifts in the fourth quarter, including:

  • Steady revenues – Almost half (46 percent) said their business’ revenue increased over the past 12 months, unchanged from the previous two quarters and up from a year ago, when it was 37 percent.

  • Healthy cash flow – Continuing an upward trend, 65 percent of small business owners rated their company’s cash flow as very or somewhat good over the past 12 months, up from 63 percent from the previous two quarters and from 55 percent a year ago.

  • Ease of obtaining credit – Again this quarter, 39 percent said credit was very or somewhat easy to obtain over the past 12 months, up from 34 percent a year ago.

  • Plans to hire – About a third (32 percent) reported plans to hire in the next 12 months, compared to 27 percent in July.

“It’s promising to see that, in general, business owners are maintaining a positive outlook as we move toward the end of the year,” said Andy Rowe, Wells Fargo head of Customer Segments. “Despite this quarter’s modest decline, business owner optimism has improved 23 points year-over-year and is still holding steady at post-recession highs. As we look ahead to 2018, it’s a positive sign that business owners continue to report capital spending plans at the stronger levels achieved at the end of 2016, and that one in three are looking to add new staff.”

Small business marketing and payment trends

The latest survey also asked business owners about their technology use, and found that only about half are making changes to the way they market and operate their businesses. When asked how they use social media in their business, more business owners reported an active presence on Facebook (53 percent) than any other social media platform. In addition, 53 percent said social media is very or somewhat important for marketing to new and existing customers, followed closely by advertising (52 percent). The latest survey also shows that business owners are making small strides to update their online and e-commerce presence. In the next 12 months, 53 percent of business owners plan to update their websites and 51 percent plan to increase their online presence through online marketing and social media sites. About a third plan to increase efforts to interact with customers via online or mobile apps, and a third plan to increase their business’ e-commerce presence.

When it comes to payments, some business owners appear to be embracing new technologies or making changes to the types of payments their business accepts. The top form of accepted payments remains in-person cash or check at 88 percent, followed by mailed payment via check at 82 percent. Thirty-nine percent of business owners now accept in-person credit and debit card payments using traditional point-of-sale terminals, up from 31 percent in January 2016. And 33 percent accept credit or debit card payments via a mobile point-of-sale terminal, such as Square, up from 20 percent in January 2016. Twelve percent of business owners said they accept digital wallet payments, compared to 5 percent in January 2016.

Small Business Index key drivers

In October, the “present situation” score – how business owners gauge their perceptions over the past 12 months – decreased slightly to 43, down from 45 in July when it was at the highest point in a decade. The “future expectations” score – how business owners expect their businesses to perform over the next 12 months – remained relatively unchanged at 60.

Wells Fargo/Gallup Small Business Index Scores: Q4 2016 – Q4 2017

  Overall Index Score Present Situation Future Expectations
Q4 2017 (surveyed October 2017) 103 43 60
Q3 2017 (surveyed July 2017) 106 45 61
Q2 2017 (surveyed April 2017) 95 36 59
Q1 2017 (surveyed February 2017) 100 40 60
Q4 2016 (surveyed November 2016) 80 24 56

About the Wells Fargo/Gallup Small Business Index

Since August 2003, the Wells Fargo/Gallup Small Business Index has surveyed small business owners on current and future perceptions of their business financial situation. The Index consists of two dimensions: 1) Owners’ ratings of the current situation of their businesses and, 2) Owners’ ratings of how they expect their businesses to perform over the next 12 months. Results are based on telephone interviews with 602 small business owners, with annual revenues up to $20 million, in all 50 United States conducted Oct. 2-6, 2017. The overall Small Business Index is computed using a formula that scores and sums the answers to 12 questions — six about the present situation and six about the future. An Index score of zero indicates that small business owners, as a group, are neutral – neither optimistic nor pessimistic – about their companies’ situations. The overall Index can range from -400 (the most negative score possible) to +400 (the most positive score possible), but in practice spans a much more limited range. The margin of sampling error is +/- four percentage points. The highest Index reading was +114 in the fourth quarter of 2006, and the lowest reading was -28 in the third quarter of 2010.

About Wells Fargo

Wells Fargo & Company (NYSE: WFC) is a diversified, community-based financial services company with $1.9 trillion in assets. Wells Fargo’s vision is to satisfy our customers’ financial needs and help them succeed financially. Founded in 1852 and headquartered in San Francisco, Wells Fargo provides banking, insurance, investments, mortgage, and consumer and commercial finance through more than 8,400 locations, 13,000 ATMs, the internet ( and mobile banking, and has offices in 42 countries and territories to support customers who conduct business in the global economy. With approximately 268,000 team members, Wells Fargo serves one in three households in the United States. Wells Fargo & Company was ranked No. 25 on Fortune’s 2017 rankings of America’s largest corporations. News, insights and perspectives from Wells Fargo are also available at Wells Fargo Stories.

Wells Fargo serves approximately 3 million small business owners across the United States and loans more money to America’s small businesses than any other bank (2002-2015 CRA government data). To help more small businesses achieve financial success, Wells Fargo introduced Wells Fargo Works for Small Business® – a broad initiative to deliver resources, guidance and services for business owners. For more information about Wells Fargo Works for Small Business, visit: Follow us on Twitter @WellsFargoWorks.

About Gallup

For more than 70 years, Gallup has been a recognized leader in the measurement and analysis of people’s attitudes, opinions and behavior. While best known for the Gallup Poll, founded in 1935, Gallup’s current activities consist largely of providing marketing and management research, advisory services and education to the world’s largest corporations and institutions.