The last month of 2012 was very much like most of the year. Hiring was slightly down (0.1 percent), according to SurePayroll's survey of more than 40,000 small business owners. Hiring has been inching along most of the year, trending slowly down, and while small businesses remain the engine of growth for the U.S. economy, the economic pressures, and uncertainty coming from Washington have been severely limiting.

The news of the fiscal cliff deal doesn't seem to help us much--it's an underwhelming, short-term fix for a long-term problem. Optimism from the SurePayroll panel was at 55 percent before the deal was reached. I'll be interested to see where it ends up next month. 

With that said, when SurePayroll surveyed small business owners in December, they responded about how they've been able to be innovative and creative to make up for tough economic conditions.

When asked what their best ideas were in 2012, they said:

1. Deciding on the right focus. Identifying the best and most profitable customers, and learning to say no to the non-profitable ones.

2. Using new products, services, and technology to increase efficiency and productivity. Some mentioned online payroll; a dentist talked about using an iPad to show patients close-up pictures of their teeth.

3. Investing in current staff. A number of small business owners talked about training and educating their employees, as well as better communicating with them to make them feel more a part of the company.

When asked their 2013 resolutions for business, here's what topped their lists:

1. Cutting costs to increase profits.

2. Growing the client base.

3. Finding a marketing strategy that works. 

When they were asked about the biggest challenges they foresee in 2013, small business owners came back to the fiscal cliff deal.

The top challenge mentioned by small business owners was dealing with uncertainty about government regulations and the tax environment. This is where the deal fell short. Small business owners still don't know what will happen with major components of the economy, such as the debt ceiling, and spending cuts.

I hope the next couple of months are not filled with the same lack of productivity I saw from the country's leaders in 2012. Small business owners need to see a clear path in order for 2013 to boom.