Why Do Some Companies Thrive And Some Fold?

Studies illustrate there are 5 stages of development that every business goes through. I can’t remember where I first saw the chart below, but it’s a great illustration of the five phases.

Notice that, with the 5 stages of growth, there are also 5 opportunities to fail. In other words, getting through the survival stage doesn’t mean you are home free.

There have been hundreds of articles about startup failure statistics. You’ve all seen the numbers, 50% fail in their first year, most never make it to five years, etc. But mature company business failures don’t seem to be given as much attention. Maybe because it’s harder to pinpoint the causes of those failures.

First, let’s agree there is more than one way for companies to fail. They can fail to grow and diversify and still hang on in survival mode for years, or they can completely go out of business.

It seems from my experience the first scenario is much more common. I could name at least a dozen companies that I’m familiar with today that are in constant survival mode. They are of more interest to me because, for some at least, something can still be done to build value in those organizations.

There are many reasons why some companies grow and others constantly struggle. There are certainly external factors like economic conditions, market shifts and competition that impact them. But as I’ve written before all companies in that market experience the same difficulties. Why then, do some prosper and some don’t?

We obviously must examine the internal factors that have to do with operations and leadership to answer that question. In every industry, there are companies that grow and do well regardless of economic conditions, while others stagnate or shrink and ultimately fail.

The following are the areas that I believe most commonly separate the two.

  1. Leadership. This starts with a clear vision of where the company is going and what must happen to get it there. But having vision isn’t enough. You must communicate it and get understanding and buy-in from all stakeholders. Then comes the hard part, you must execute. If you’re looking for change you must be accountable for making sure that change occurs. If you aren’t accountable to yourself, you can’t expect others to be accountable
  1. Lack of a defined strategy.  Call it lack of planning, lack of direction, lack of vision, they all result in the same thing. If you don’t have a clear plan that includes your market, your competition, and how your company has chosen to compete, you can find yourself chasing the priority of the day. This causes increased costs, frustration of key employees, and confusion for your customers. Decide what you do best, and more importantly, decide what NOT to do!
  2. Reluctance to acknowledge the need to change. There have been many articles on this subject, and many state the cause as ego, not wanting to admit problems exist, stubbornness on the part of the founder etc. Whatever the cause the longer you wait to address significant issues, the harder it is to recover. Many times executives don’t acknowledge the need to address issues because they don’t know how to fix them. The thinking being if I admit it’s there, people will expect me to fix it.
  3. Depth of key people. You can’t build a company without the right people. Your job as a leader is to create an environment where great people want to be. If you can’t attract and retain excellent people, you are in trouble.
  4. Lack of process and measurements. Too many companies don’t have documented processes for key functions. If it isn’t documented its people dependent and subject to variation. This causes rework quality issues and increased costs.
  5. Technology. See processes above. Technology can make life easier, but it isn’t a cure-all. If you don’t have a strong infrastructure, technology alone can simply add costs without the anticipated benefits.
  6. Marketing. Many small and mid-tier companies don’t do much marketing. Many of those that do don’t do a great job of it. To me, marketing is about educating your customer why you are the obvious choice for their product or service needs. A key part of that is developing a compelling value proposition. If you can’t articulate that value proposition, what does your marketing message say?
  7. Innovation / investment. Market changes that used to take decades now can happen inside a year. successful companies change ahead of the market, those that don’t react to market changes too late.
  8. Complacency. Maybe the root cause of all the above. You get to stage 3 or 4 above and you get comfortable. if you aren’t constantly reevaluating your organization and it’s role in the market, and how you can add value to your customers, you can be headed for trouble
Martin Harshbergerhttp://www.bottomlinecoach.com/
I’m a business development coach in the with 20 years’ experience as a mid-sized company CEO. I specialize in helping businesses grow and increase value for stakeholders. We focus on the development of a sustainable growth strategy that includes all key business functions. Repeatable business growth requires a clear organizational strategy with performance metrics, a defined marketing & sales strategy, and accountability for execution. We are a member of the Strategy Execution Alliance and a Certified HubSpot partner. We employ a holistic approach using analysis and planning tools coupled with a methodology to identify opportunities and threats, develop solutions and facilitate execution. Recognizing that most strategic and change initiatives fail, we offer tools and process to help you succeed. Having founded and grown two mid-tier companies over 20 and I’m the author of “Bottom Line Focus” how to take your business from surviving to thriving in 18 simple steps. Specialties: Business development, Business growth, Strategic Planning, strategy execution process, and tools. Marketing strategy development and execution, digital content marketing programs and tools.


  1. All excellent points. I have to wonder though if getting bigger is always better. There is something to be said for doing what you do well and doing it consistently. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be change, just that growth is not the king of every decision. I would sight Campbell Soup as a case in point. Trusted and solid name and reputation for generations. Then someone decided that to further grow they needed to put more gloss in their name and product line so they bought Golden Fresh Gourmet and Bolthouse Farms. Now they are bleeding cash.

    Then there is the other side of that same coin. Look at the unprecedented growth of Walmart versus their struggling competitor, Target. What is the difference that drives one over the other? I have an opinion, but I’ll let that sit.

    • Good point on growth for growth’s sake. Campbells chose to do it through acquisition. There are numerous articles that warn that over 85% of acquisitions and mergers fail to add shareholder value. Walmart did it through organic growth. That worked for a while but their huge overhead in brick and mortar stores leaves them vulnerable to the Amazons of the world. But strategic growth in small to mid-tier companies can help their long-term viability.

  2. Martin,

    Thanks for a great summary of the challenges businesses face all along the growth path. I especially like your comment about needing measurements. I once had an executive admit to me that they would not take before and after measurements on a large project because if it succeeded, nothing happened. If it failed, they all got blamed. And in the end they just spent a lot of money that may or may not have paid off.



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