What Kills Companies?

Paul Stansik
3 min readSep 18, 2023

Building a business is a competitive game. Competition means you’re going to need to differentiate yourself. You’re going to have to figure out a way to explain to people why they should pick you instead of someone else. You’re going to need to get smart on the options out there in the market, where you fit in, and for whom you’re the obvious choice.

This takes work. A lot of work.

But competition isn’t all bad. Actually, it’s kind of a sign that you’re in the right place. It’s proof that there’s demand out there for the taking. That there are people out there who need their problem solved. People willing to pay you for solving it.

This is the fundamental tension in any growing product category. More competition means more potential customers and a greater chance for breakout growth. But it also means a harder, more violent fight.

So when a company struggles, it’s easy to think about it as the victim of the other predatory players in a sort of gladiatorial battle for dollars. But the truth is, every business is a world unto itself, and internal wars can be just as deadly as an outside threat. Negative results blamed on a competitor or the macro environment are frequently misdiagnosed. Cancerous infighting, freneticism masquerading as progress, and the accumulating debt of tiny, tolerated misses can — and often do — weaken a company’s defenses faster than any competitor ever could. And once the negative momentum starts, unsticking things only gets more difficult by the day. As the saying goes, “you encourage what you tolerate.”

This kind of auto-immune disorder eats away at a company’s core until the outward symptoms — the missed deadlines, the dwindling customer base, the disappointing results , the rudderless-ness — become too obvious to ignore. The first instinct when answering “what happened” in these situations is to look for something external to blame. An outside pathogen in the form of a well-funded new entrant, a shifting market trend, or a freshly-gusting economic headwind. But in most cases, the real killer remains hidden, masked by the chaos of conflicting agendas, lack of alignment, and an inability to sit down and fix what’s broken — and in many cases, to even talk about it in the first place.

And so the business, like a body wracked by an invisible disease, withers slowly, leaving behind the worst flavor of regret: That of unfulfilled potential. But the lessons left behind — the importance of unity, the danger of ignoring the problem instead of facing it openly, and the cost of failing to create an environment in which people are not only allowed, but expected to speak up — serve as an important warning to the other survivors who remain.

When it comes to identifying the real threats to your business, stop being so quick to look outside of your own walls.

The call, most likely, is coming from inside the house.

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Paul Stansik

Partner at ParkerGale Capital. Lives in Chicago. Writes about sales, marketing, growth, and how to be a better leader. Views my own. Not investment advice.