Growth in established SMEs : Exploring the innovative and ambitious firm

Abstract: The growth of firms is a complex but relevant subject for different stakeholders, such as owners, who want returns on their investment, and society, where firms are vessels for jobs and job creation. Despite the vast amount of research conducted on firm growth and factors associated with firm growth, there is no coherent body of knowledge, and the average firm is not growing. This research focuses on growth in established small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), i.e. firms that have passed the startup phase and have established themselves on the market. The purpose is to investigate the characteristics of high-growth established SMEs with special focus on the entrepreneur’s growth ambitions and the role of innovation activities for firm growth.The data was collected from 88 established SMEs in which interviews were conducted with CEOs, owners, managers, and employees. A questionnaire was used which included questions regarding factors previously linked to firm growth such as resources, market factors, organizational factors, innovation, and attitude toward firm growth.The results show that growth ambitions have a limited impact on firm growth, and that growth ambitions alone are not a good predictor of firm growth. When high-growth firms were compared to the average established SME, there was no difference in the level the managers of the firms were seeking growth. Neither lack of growth, nor high growth, can be explained by the managers’ perception of the firm’s possibility to grow. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the difference in growth rates is attributed to different levels of growth opportunities.Instead, this research shows that what distinguishes high-growth firms from the average, non-growing firms are factors associated with innovation, the market, and customer knowledge. The high-growth firms were found to be significantly better at identifying and delivering on unfilled demands. However, no evidence suggests that the high-growth firms had exclusive access to new technology they could leverage as a means to grow faster, and both groups believed there to be plenty of market opportunities and possibilities to create growing niches.If the difference between high growth and no growth in established SMEs is associated with external factors related to innovation, market and customers, it is interesting that when growth ambitions increase, so does the internal focus on organizational structures and systems. Ambitious entrepreneurs who seek firm growth should therefore not lose sight of external factors, and strive to quickly deal with increased internal complexity that accompanies firm growth.