This article analyses small firm responses to a major economic downturn, based on empirical investigation in the UK and New Zealand. Despite differences in the timing and depth of the downturn, there is remarkable similarity in the sectoral composition of small enterprises and methods of financing in reported recession-related effects and business performance during 2008–2009. While recognising that the study focused on surviving businesses, in neither country did the downturn have a consistently negative impact on small businesses and in both countries a significant minority of firms surveyed performed well. The study provides much needed evidence on small businesse responses to major economic crisis. Conceptually it demonstrates that although many small firms are vulnerable to changes in circumstances over which they have no control, they show underlying resilience and a high level of adaptability and flexibility. Longitudinal follow-up is necessary to show how the types of adaptive behaviour observed impact on business performance.