After years of procrastinating, I finally read Only the Paranoid Survive, the business classic written by former Intel boss Andy Grove.
It put me in a reflective mood.
The main theme of Grove’s book, which was published in 1996, is what he calls ‘strategic inflection points’, or what people today term ‘disruption’.
Grove explains how the creative destruction that is inherent in capitalism helped Intel become phenomenally successful in the 1980s – and then almost caused its demise.
That made me think about all the famous companies that have either entered temporary bankruptcy or been permanently liquidated. Here’s a dirty dozen:
- Arthur Andersen
- Barings Bank
- Dick Smith
- General Motors
- Lehman Brothers
- Pan Am
That, in turn, made me think about how many companies have died throughout history.
Australia currently has 2.1 million companies (according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics) and represents 1.8% of global GDP (World Bank). If we extrapolate, we could estimate there are 117 million companies in the world right now. That suggests that hundreds of millions – probably billions – of companies have been founded over the centuries.
But how many have survived? Apparently, there are only 5,600 companies that are more than 200 years old (if this Wikipedia entry is to be believed).
So if 560 million companies have been created over the years, only 1 in 100,000 are 200 not out. If 5.6 billion companies have been created, only 1 in 100 million are 200 not out.
The point is this: almost every company gets liquidated at some point – sometimes by choice, but mostly as a result of market forces. No matter how dominant a company becomes, the market (almost) always wins in the end.
That’s because business is so damn hard. Companies not only have to overcome relentless competition, new technologies and shifting regulations; they must also cope with wars, natural disasters and changing political environments. The odds of meeting all those challenges, year after year after year, are negligible.
That’s something to think about as you read this list of the world’s 10 biggest public companies by market capitalisation:
- Apple (founded in 1976)
- Alphabet (2015)
- Microsoft (1975)
- Berkshire Hathaway (1839)
- Amazon (1994)
- Facebook (2004)
- Johnson & Johnson (1886)
- Exxon Mobil (1999)
- JPMorgan Chase (2000)
- Wells Fargo (1852)
Each of these giants appears to have an unassailable market position – but so did Kodak and General Motors.
History suggests that not even one of these companies will celebrate its 200th birthday. Sadly, the same can be said for your company too.
[Bonus read: A corrupt politician can teach us a lot about business]