An improved economic outlook has many small business owners looking to grow now to gain a leg up on their competition.

Nearly half (47 percent) of the owners polled in a recent survey by office equipment maker Brother International Corp said they were willing to spend rather than stockpile cash reserves – an increase of 11 percent over 2010, when they were still facing recessionary pressures.

“They know they can’t stand pat, they can’t stay in the foxhole,” said John Wandishin, vice president of marketing for Brother. “When the clouds start moving and the sun starts coming out, how are they going to be positioned?”

At the same time, small business owners are experiencing stress levels relatively unchanged from a year ago, with more than half indicating their worry is higher than usual, according to the survey, which included 501 interviews.

“There is still uncertainty out there,” said Wandishin, noting troubling headlines about unrest in the Middle East and higher gas prices.