Success without Upward Mobility: Evidence from Small Accounting Practices
Collins-Dodd, Colleen, Gordon, Irene M., Smart, Carolyne, Journal of Small Business and Entrepreneurship
One dictionary defines "success" as: "1. a favorable result that one has tried or hoped for. 2. the attainment of wealth, fame, etc. 3. a successful person or thing" (Random House, 1978: 885). These definitions make it clear that on one level success is a subjective matter. In our day-to-day world, most often "successes" are portrayed in the media as those individuals who have wealth, fame or power (for example, Donald Trump, Julia Roberts, George W. Bush). Less famous people also see themselves as successful in terms of career, family or community stature.
In the domain of business research, as noted by Goldenberg and Kline (1999: 371) "an agreed on measure of success does not exist." However, with respect to business in general and small business in particular, "success" is often discussed in terms of economic success or business performance. That is, business success normally includes economic measures such as profits, revenues and growth. But, success may also incorporate personal success that is characterized in terms of time for family, personal achievement and ability to control one's life and time.
Understanding how different small business owners define success provides an alternative lens that helps explain entrepreneurship and allows evaluation of the efficacy of a small enterprise. In a relatively new discipline such studies expand what we know about small business by going beyond the traditional and common economic measures that are too simplistic to capture the nuances of entrepreneurship.
Most research that explores "success" deals with characteristics that lead to successful outcomes (for example, Warren and Hutchinson, 2000; Fasci and Valdez, 1998; Goldenberg and Kline, 1999; Moore and Buttner, 1997). However, definitions of success and the characteristics that contribute to success are often mixed together.
Using a sports analogy, a successful team is the one that wins the big game. The characteristics that lead to success would include having talented players, a coach with a winning record and home field advantage. These latter characteristics may help the team win the game, but the characteristics do not define success. In a small business context then, success may be survival of the business. The characteristics of success might include having positive financial results and satisfied customers while the owner feels personal satisfaction. (1)
Furthermore, definitions of success depend on the situations of the individuals being studied. Some previous studies (for example, Gattiker and Larwood, 1988) have examined success for individuals employed by large business organizations where success was defined both in terms of economic success (that is, income) as well as mobility in one's career. For small businesses, where individual owners are either sole proprietors or members of small partnerships, upward career mobility as a measure of either business or personal success is irrelevant.
Our paper focuses on how a group of sole proprietors of accounting practices define success (beyond firm performance) and what dimensions are important in their definitions of success. We think these small business owners are an interesting group to study because of previous research into the personalities of accountants. While some research has found that entrepreneurs may be classified into four personality types (Miner, 1997), evidence for accountants indicates consistency in personality types despite differences in firm size, location and time covered (Wheeler, 2001: 136). Such accountant-based studies indicate that individuals possessing certain personality characteristics self-select into the accounting profession (Davidson and Etherington, 1995). This consistency in personality types coupled with a common business framework (sole proprietor accounting practices) make accountants a unique group to explore.
Examination of only sole proprietors of accounting practitioners will necessarily limit the generalizability of our findings. …