There are all kinds of conflicting statistics and opinions for why businesses fail. The headline of one report might proclaim that “90% of businesses fail in the first 3 years,” while another asserts that by following their tips, “You can enjoy a 90% chance of success.”
It’s difficult to accurately aggregate the numbers and find global statistics on business failures, so we’ll use the United States as a microcosm for trends that are also relevant in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK, and other parts of the world.
Here’s a look at survival rates when viewed at the end of the first, fifth, and tenth years:
- 80% of businesses survive their first year
- 50% of businesses survive 5 years or longer
- 33% of businesses survive 10 years or longer
While these statistics highlight the fact that there’s certainly a risk of failure, they’re higher than some of us might expect. Anytime you’re looking at a vast collection of disparate individuals attempting something difficult, you’re going to see similar trends.
For example, let’s look at how many first-time college students seeking a 4-year degree stay the course all the way to graduation day:
- 33% of students graduate with a bachelor’s degree in 4 years
- 57% of students have graduated with a bachelor’s degree by 6 years
Some of the remaining 43% of students who didn’t graduate within 6 years will likely go on to attain their degree in later years, but it’s too inconsistent of a number to show up in most studies. For thousands of different reasons, hundreds of thousands of students fail to attain their bachelor’s degrees.
So the percentage of businesses that survive 5 years or more is strikingly similar to the percentage of students who earn a degree by 6 years. Sure, things happen that derail many of the businesses and students. But at least half of them are still standing after 5-6 years.
Why Small Businesses Fail to Change
Just as many of those students who earned degrees switched majors during their college experience, it’s critical for business owners to maintain flexibility in their structure and operations. If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the immense value of a well-time pivot. Whether your change is compelled by a new idea or the pressures of the times, never hesitate to innovate.
As Dan Fries explains:
Sometimes a crisis, while always tragic, can force some positive effects. It might not feel like that right now, but by responding to COVID-19 will teach you some valuable skills. In other words, this is not the only crisis you are going to face as your business grows, and the lessons you learn in the next few months will be extremely useful when it comes to scaling your startup further down the road. In fact, some of the tools and processes above are likely to be relevant long after the current pandemic has passed.
When businesses embrace this open-minded approach, they usually find themselves among the 50% that are still strong after 5-10 years. As the old saying goes, “If you’re flexible, you’ll never get bent out of shape.”
Yet many business owners remain rooted in their old ways. It’s understandable that they believe in their products or services, and are attached to the business model. After all, it was these elements that inspired them to take entrepreneurial risks in the first place.
But if you love something, you need to take care of it. And part of nurturing your business is being willing to change directions when outside pressures are threatening it. Stubbornness can be mildly amusing in childhood friends or cranky great-uncles, but it can be devastating for a business.
Why do businesses fail when they resist change? Because they’re refusing to acknowledge the primacy of the customer. Let’s review a few examples of roadblocks to success that arose during the pandemic, and how they all connected back to the role of the customer:
- Lockdown prevents a restaurant from serving customers inside the building. This scenario has played out again and again in nations around the world. It presents many dilemmas, but none larger than the inability of a business to directly serve its customers. Successful restaurants found ways to provide new pickup and delivery options, serve their communities, and even send meal kits by mail. They kept providing a quality product, though it might’ve looked much different.
- The supply chain is disrupted. The inability to source the materials or ingredients necessary for your current model is problematic. But the main issue is that it prevents you from delivering what your customers are seeking. If replacements couldn’t be found for the supply chain, a pivot was required. For example, a bakery that couldn’t source eggs might stop selling baked goods and begin selling dry mixes to customers.
- Depleted finances make it harder for customers to make purchases. With customers in many areas struggling to meet financial obligations such as rent and mortgages, it’s no wonder that some had to curtail purchases. By finding ways to lower costs so you can lower your prices, introducing tiered pricing, or creating new product options altogether to meet your customers’ needs, successful businesses continued to meet the needs of those who historically had depended on them.
Whether you’re struggling with cash flow issues or have a broken supply chain, your ability to deliver for your customers will always be the real issue. And discovering new ways to meet their needs will always be the real solution.
The fact is that pandemics will emerge, trends will evolve, and economies will fluctuate. So if you insist on moving your business forward in the exact same way regardless of these external factors, you’ll instead find your trajectory rapidly nosing downward.
The alternative is to commit to meeting your customers’ needs no matter what occurs. While it won’t guarantee a smooth journey, this North Star will guide you through all manner of catastrophes and downturns.
9 More Reasons Why Businesses Fail
We’ve identified the inability to adapt to their customers’ needs as a major contributor to businesses that go under before reaching their 1-year, 5-year, and 10-year anniversaries. When your customer is kept at the forefront, all your other efforts will steer you in the right direction.
But there are many other specific risks facing young businesses. These are risks that you should anticipate early and be on the alert for as time goes on.
With that in mind, let’s now look at 9 other reasons why businesses fail:
1. Poor Planning
Coming up with a great business idea is only the first step because it can’t go anywhere unless it’s supported by a solid plan. Outline where you’ll go in your first month, first 3 months, first year, and first 3 years. Make the milestones measurable so that you’ll know if you’re on track.
Of course, things will occur that necessitate updates to your plan. But the point is that you have a master document that outlines how you’re going to stand out from the competition, how you’re going to deliver value to customers, how you’re going to build your culture, and how you’re going to ultimately thrive.
2. Hiring the Wrong People
We get it—there’s a lot of pressure to build your team in a timely manner so that you can launch a business. But rushing this stage can kill your chances for long-term success.
You need to find people who believe in what you’re doing and have the skills to improve the ways you’re doing it. In the crucial early stages of a business, negative employees can quickly sink morale and overall performance.
3. Failing to Foster a Good Culture
As you assemble your team, communicate openly about the culture you’re seeking to build. Ask their opinions and make a point of incorporating new ideas from your team. The businesses that prioritize profits over people or have a leaders-versus-employees dynamic often fall by the wayside because their toxicity trickles right out of the office and can be sensed by suppliers, partners, and ultimately, customers.
4. Growing Pains
Plenty of defunct companies launched with a strong culture but lost it as the company scaled. There’s obviously no way to maintain all your team’s perks and traditions as new employees swell the ranks, but you can keep the heart of who you are.
Make sure that you continue seeking your team’s input and act on their ideas. New hires will bring innovative suggestions to make things better, while the old guard can share the things that you should most think about retaining.
5. Failure to Stand Out
Even if your business idea is a gem, you’ve still got to communicate it effectively to your audience. Otherwise, you’ll just get lost in the shuffle.
Using the market research from your business plan, craft a unique selling proposition that boldly articulates what makes you different from the rest. Questions to answer include:
- What unique value do I offer?
- Why is my solution better for customers?
- How can I communicate these important differences?
The more you can differentiate your brand, the better your chances for success.
6. Not Focusing on the Essentials
Plenty of businesses lose their way in the first year as distractions pull them from the very things that give them a competitive edge. For example, if your quirky product packaging is beloved by customers, don’t ditch it as your business grows. Instead, find ways to make the packaging more efficient so that it complements your efforts to scale.
When your business stays focused, you’re better able to deliver on your unique selling proposition and to adapt to unforeseen bumps in the road.
7. Not Controlling Expenses
Launching a business is expensive. And growing that business involves a whole new set of financial demands. So it’s understandable that many businesses struggle to keep up with the pace.
You’ll put yourself in a much stronger position by carefully watching your expenses. If something doesn’t help you deliver an even better experience to your customers, it might not warrant the cost. This goes for everything from Netflix on the breakroom television to the vehicles you rent on business trips.
8. Not Managing Inventory
Balancing acts are hard enough for any person, which is why those who perform on the trapeze are referred to as “artists.” But business owners must control the inventory so they don’t lose sales from insufficient numbers or burn through capital by allowing too much inventory to pile up.
You can avoid these fates by investing in inventory management software that helps you track items through the supply chain, in your warehouse, and all the way to final deliveries.
9. Inadequate Profit Margins
It’s possible to bring in substantial revenue and still find yourself in financial danger. One of the factors that have claimed many young businesses is inefficient processes and poor pricing strategies that lead to low profits.
Your business provides distinct value to customers, so you should feel confident setting prices that reflect this fact.
Get the Skills That Won’t Let Your Business Fail
Want more strategies to help your business excel? We’ve prepared a library of free business courses that cover everything from finance to negotiations to advertising. Taught by proven entrepreneurs from a range of industries, they provide the type of insights that usually take years to acquire. In this way, you can fast-track your success and avoid many of the threats that impact other businesses in their early years.