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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now starting this week, MORNING EDITION begins occasional stories about small businesses. They're said to be the heart of America, the subject of countless homilies by countless politicians. And rhetoric aside, owning a business is many American's dream.

But before you can talk about small business, you have to define what it is - which is surprisingly hard, as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: How big is small? Is it just mom and pop shops? What's the upper limit? I recently did a tour around Washington, D.C., to pose this question to various agencies and groups that represent small businesses. And it turns out they, themselves, don't agree about what small means.

First stop? The Small Business Administration, which generally defines a small business as one that has fewer than 500 employees - and well over 99 percent of businesses fit under that marker. But in fact, depending on the industry, there are other qualifications based on revenue or number of assets. It is so complex that there's an office within the SBA that's devoted to defining what a small business is. Khem Sharma is assistant director of that division.

Hi.

KHEM SHARMA: Hey, how are you?

NOGUCHI: Nice to meet you.

SHARMA: Nice meeting you. And...

NOGUCHI: Sharma says the SBA's definitions of small are important because it helps determine which businesses are eligible to get special low interest rate loans or loan guarantees. It can also determine which companies can bid on government contracts that are set aside for small business. The SBA's work also helps inform other parts of the government that have programs aimed at small firms.

Sharma says, believe it or not, things are a lot simpler than they once were. That is, the SBA once had 32 different classifications of small, based on revenue. Now, the agency is trying to whittle the number of definitions down to a more manageable, but still complicated.

SHARMA: For services industry, it's $7 million average annual revenue and that goes to as high as $35.5 million revenue. And for manufacturing, you know...

NOGUCHI: And so on and so forth. But, he warns, don't get too attached to those definitions either. The SBA revises its definitions about once every five years.

Next stop on my tour is the National Federation of Independent Business. Here, I meet Chris Whitcomb, tax counsel for the advocacy group.

CHRIS WHITCOMB: It's really hard to define what a small business is, and there are multiple definitions for a reason.

NOGUCHI: The NFIB defines small as simply not publicly traded. That can be confusing, Whitcomb admits. Eighty percent of its members have fewer than 20 workers, but then again, the group's members include everything from sole proprietorships to Herr Foods, a potato chip maker, with 1,500 employees. Here's another confusing wrinkle: franchise owners can also be small businesses, even if they are part of a big multinational brand.

WHITCOMB: The fact that there's no common definition is at least flexibility, which is a good thing, and complexity, which is a bad thing.

NOGUCHI: The complexity manifests the most, Whitcomb says, when it comes to a small business's taxes. Depending on the size and type of business, tax incentives and structures differ - and more than 90 percent of small businesses need accountants to figure out how to file with the Internal Revenue Service.

WHITCOMB: Once you have one employee, you're starting to think about that. And you have to think about putting things in place to take care of the payroll, and to do the withholding, to file the right forms.

NOGUCHI: Take, for example, the new health care law. It includes a mandate for employers with 50 or more full-time workers to either provide health insurance or pay a penalty. But as we've heard, 50 is far from a standard measure for a small business across the federal government.

And the IRS, like everyone else, does not have a single definition.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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