Must Your Business Grow or Die?

Last Updated Jun 15, 2011 2:12 PM EDT

Relationships are like sharks -- they have to keep moving forward or they die, says Woody Allen in his hit movie "Annie Hall." (He goes on to quip: "And I think what we got on our hands," he says, "is a dead shark.")

Is it the same in business -- you either grow or die?

To begin with, you clearly can survive without growth. Some of the world's longest-lasting businesses have grown very slowly, if at all.

For instance, Bernardino Pelino started Confetti Mario Pelino in Sulmona, Italy, in 1783. In the intervening centuries, the Italian confectioner has grown to only 50 employees. It still makes the sugary candies that were its mainstay when it began. The goodies are sold all over the world. Of survival, Confetti Mario Pelino has plenty. But growth? Molto poco.

At about the same time, Robert Laird was producing his first barrels of applejack brandy in Scobeyville, New Jersey. Since then, Laird and Company has become America's oldest commercial distiller, with an organizational chart still top-heavy with Lairds. Yet it has remained steadfastly a small business, with just 56 employees, according to Hoover's.

True, employee head count is only one measure of growth. But these companies have 50 or so employees after centuries of existence, are still owned and run by the same families, and are still in the same businesses they were when they started. Those traits describe a very restrained attitude toward growth.

You don't have to remain quite that small, of course. Gun maker Beretta has been in the firearms business since 1526. And during nearly half a millennium it has expanded beyond the borders of Italy to become a global company, but its total annual sales are still just 144 million euros, and it produces only 1,500 weapons a day. An addiction to growth, it's fair to say, is not the reason Beretta has been around almost 500 years.

The survival of companies that take a restrained attitude toward growth is not limited to candy, firearms, and brandy. Nor is it restricted to Italian or American companies, or those that have lasted for centuries. Every community has long-lived, often tiny enterprises that are being run by their owners in the pursuit of independence, personal satisfaction, and dependable income rather than a compulsion to empire-build.

Sometimes growth is, indeed, an imperative. If venture capitalists fund your company's growth, for instance, you'd better grow fast and big or anticipate having the plug pulled. But for most businesses most of the time, growth isn't an imperative. It's an option, and it's strictly a matter of personal preference whether you exercise it, no matter what Alvy Singer says.

Mark Henricks is an Austin, Texas, freelance journalist whose reporting on business, technology and other topics has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, and other leading publications. Learn more about him at The Article Authority. Follow him on Twitter @bizmyths.

Image courtesy of Flickr user ianmyles, CC2.0

  • Mark Henricks

    Mark Henricks' reporting on business and other topics has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Inc., Entrepreneur, and many other leading publications. He lives in Austin, Texas, where myth looms as large as it does anywhere.