Growth is the lifeblood of any business. A leader’s job is to take that business to bigger and better places. The dilemma lies in how to get there. You’re often faced with a simple choice: keep growing the existing products or services or expand into new arenas of business. This decision has been at the core of strategy for many years and continues to be a critical question for any serious business manager.
To make an effective decision about whether to keep growing your core or expand into new areas, it is useful to understand the phases of a business lifecycle and to appreciate the nature of the managerial challenges in each phase.
It is also important to be able to pinpoint the phase of the cycle your business is in and to know what your options are for growing it into the next phase.
The Phases of the Business Lifecycle
For many years academics and consultants have recognised that a business moves through different phases of development as it evolves and grows. The sequence and nature of each stage of development tends to be fairly predictable and each is characterised by specific organisational activities, structures and challenges. The movement through different phases of development is commonly referred to as a business lifecycle. As a person moves from infancy into childhood, then into adolescence and adulthood before approaching old age, so a business also moves through different phases of development as it starts up, grows and matures.
|Stage 1 ||Stage 2 ||Stage 3 |
|Initiation||Growth (early and later growth) ||Maturity|
|Organisational age and size||Young and small ||Growing larger ||Large and older|
|Type of structure||No formal structure||Centralised formal |
|Reward system ||Personal |
|Communication and planning ||Informal |
|Becoming formalised |
Rules and regulations
|Method of decision making||Individual judgement |
|Make up of top management staff||Generalists ||Specialists ||Strategists |
|Organisational growth rate||Inconsistent but improving ||Rapid positive growth ||Growth slowing or stagnant|
Key management challenges in different phases of a business lifecycle
The key issues and challenges vary for managers leading businesses in different stages of the lifecycle. Managers in the initiation phase face the challenge of creating a new product or service, then getting that product or service to market and having people test that product or service so that consistent market demand is created.
They often operate under high levels of uncertainty and ambiguity and sometimes need to make snap decisions with inadequate information. During this phase of the lifecycle the business generates very little revenue and managers need to rely on external capital or bootstrapping to survive. Operating in a resource constrained environment means that people often need to take on multiple roles and fulfil a diverse set of functions within the business.
Managers of a business in the early growth phase of development face the challenge of establishing an infrastructure within the business to serve a growing customer base. As the product or service becomes more popular, the leader in the organisation needs to establish systems and processes to consistently deliver a high-quality offering. In this phase, managers need to manage cash carefully because a growing business tends to absorb more money than it generates.
Managers in the later growth phase of a business face the challenge of keeping the growth of the business going. It is difficult for a manager to know exactly how big a business can become (i.e. when will the market become saturated with the company’s product or service?). Managers therefore face the critical decision of whether to invest further in selling the current product or service to the existing market, expand into new markets with the existing product or service, or consider offering new products or services that leverage the skills and competencies developed in the business.
Managers of a business in the mature phase of the lifecycle face the challenge of reinvention. The phase that follows maturity is decline, during which the demand for a product or service drops off rapidly. In order to avoid falling prey to decline, a manager leading a business in the mature phase needs to look for new streams of revenue and new opportunities that will launch the business onto a new growth curve.
This creates a challenge of balance. Managers in mature operations cannot neglect the existing lines of business; they need to continue to deliver these offerings as they are a source of cash for a mature operation. But while they maximise returns on existing offerings they need to invest in new products or new markets that will create growth in the future.
Analysing where your business is in the lifecycle
This is key to using the business lifecycle concept as a strategic tool. By recognising which phase of the lifecycle your business falls into you will be able to make sense of your current challenges and predict some of the issues that are likely to be problematic as you keep striving for growth in the business. In addition to dealing with challenges, the business lifecycle can be used as a tool to assist a management team in making a decision about whether to keep growing their core or expand into new business.
There are a number of clues that can help you identify where your business is in its lifecycle. The most obvious set of clues relate to sales growth and time. If your business is relatively young and sales growth is slow, it is likely that you are in the early initiation stage. As you sense sales are beginning to pick up and new customers are emerging to buy your product or service, it is likely that you are moving into the later stages of the initiation. However, in the initiation phase growth may be irregular and sporadic, meaning that you might have a few months of decent growth followed by a month or two of flat or declining sales. As you move into the early growth phase of the business lifecycle, sales growth will become more consistent. You can generally expect ongoing increases of at least 5% month-on-month in this phase of the business lifecycle. During the early growth phase you are also likely to feel more and more removed from your customer.
As your customer base expands, it is increasingly difficult to feel close to the customer and the focus of the business tends to shift from external to internal as you struggle to deliver on the increased demand. There will come a time when sales growth is not achieved as easily as it once was. You are likely to invest in increased marketing and promotional activities and although these activities yield positive results, it will start to cost more to sustain the growth of the business. At this stage you will begin to get a sense that you are working harder and harder for the growth you are generating. You are moving into the later growth stage of the business.
When growth begins to slow it is a sure sign that the business lifecycle is reaching maturity. It is not always easy to recognise when the business is reaching a stage of true maturity as many other factors can cause growth to slow down temporarily. One of the critical issues for a manager is to assess when true maturity in a market is being reached versus a temporary slowdown caused by an external factor. The mature stage hits when, despite what you do in the existing market, sales don’t grow significantly.
Options for growth
The growth options and strategic focus for a management team will be different depending on the stage of the business lifecycle. In the initiation phase, the focus should be on the core activity of the enterprise and on looking for ways to adapt and tweak the business model and customer offering around that core. Many entrepreneurs are tempted by the multitude of opportunities that appear to cross their paths in this phase of the business. It is foolish to go after any of these opportunities unless they are core to what you set out to do. Being successful as an entrepreneur takes hard work, dedication and focus and it is tough to be dedicated and focused if you are attending to too many things at once. Therefore, the strategic focus in the initiation phase should be to attend to and adapt around the core.
In the early growth phase, the focus of the organisation tends to shift towards delivery. Because sales are growing significantly, it is challenging for the internal operations to keep up. Managers therefore need to focus on building and refining systems so that the growth can continue without service being compromised.
In the later growth phase, the leaders of the organisation should begin to explore options for taking the existing product or service to new markets or diversifying into new lines of business that can be sold to the existing market. Factors that should be considered in deciding whether to take existing products or services to new markets or to diversify include the following:
1. Regulatory or contractual factors. Regulation, legislation or contractual agreements may prevent you from taking your business into new markets. For example, you may have licensed a product for a particular region and be prohibited by the licence agreement from taking the product to new territories. Another practical example relates to many of South Africa’s most successful enterprises, such as SAB, Barloworld and Anglo American; they were restricted from moving into new overseas territories in the apartheid years due to sanctions. As a result, they had no choice but to diversify to grow their businesses.
2. Core competence. Core competence is an activity that a company can do really well. It is usually developed through years of experience in a particular area. If a business is able to clearly recognise its areas of core competence, it may use that as a basis for deciding whether to diversify in existing markets or to move its existing products or services into new markets. This is demonstrated in the South African banking sector. FirstRand Bank’s core competence is in growing and managing a diverse range of innovative organisations each with its own brand and unique culture. The bank has chosen to focus on diversifying into new services in the local market, for example, Outsurance, Momentum, Discovery, Futurefin and Standard Bank, on the other hand, recognise their core competence as managing risk in less stable emerging market economies. They havechosen to take their existing brands and businesses into new markets such as Turkey, Russia and Argentina.
3. Networks and relationships. Networks and relationships are a source of strategic opportunity. Therefore, it is often wise for a business to look for growth in areas where it has developed relationships or strong networks that could open doors and facilitate linkages. This could work in either direction. A business that has strong relationships with companies or people in the same industry in a new market may be better off growing its business in that market, whereas a business with a diverse set of good relationships across multiple industries in the existing market may be better off staying in the existing market and diversifying its business.
4. Market factors. Market gaps and market need could prove to be a key factor in deciding whether to expand into new markets or diversify in existing markets. If there is an unclear need or desire for the business’s product or service in potential new markets, managers may be better off taking a decision to diversify. Conversely, strong market need in new markets creates an incentive to expand into new markets. For example, MTN’s recognition of a deep need for wireless telephony in Africa created an incentive for the company to take its existing offering into new African markets.
Avoiding Errors In Driving Growth
If one understands the concept of a business lifecycle, it is possible to avoid some of the typical errors that entrepreneurs and business managers make in trying to grow a business.
Such errors include the following:
1. Being distracted in the initiation phase.
The initiation phase is a critical time for a venture. It requires focus and discipline to get a new product or service to market. Because entrepreneurs are endowed with freedom and choice they may get distracted by a multitude of opportunities around them in the initiation phase and therefore fail to deliver the core product or service they set out to create.
2. Expecting the growth phase to continue into perpetuity.
The growth phase is a happy time in a business. It is exciting and fun when the market buys your product or service in large quantities. Yet there is the risk of creating an illusion that the growth will last forever and failing to explore opportunities for market or product diversification in the later stages of the growth phase.
3. Not investing wisely in new opportunities as the existing business reaches maturity.
In the maturity phase of the business lifecycle, a business typically generates healthy amounts of cash. No further investments are required to keep the existing business running and the business has a high, but flat volume of sales. It is tempting just to keep generating cash in this phase and not worry about investing in the future.
Yet it is important to use much of that cash to develop new products or new markets so that the business has a growth curve in the future. The challenge for managers is to stay disciplined and focused in the early phases of a business’s lifecycle and to actively look for expansion opportunities in new markets or through developing new products or services in the later phases of the business lifecycle.