The Growth Trap

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Hemispheres Magazine on 1 March 2016

Grass grows, trees grow, even whole forests grow. But they don’t grow forever. So why do we ask our businesses to do the same?

I was asked to speak at a meeting of executive vice presidents of one the ten biggest corporations in the world - a household name that makes household products. Before my keynote, the CEO got on stage to rally the troops. He explained how the company had achieved a respectable 4.3% growth the previous year, but that this was little better than putting one’s money in an index fund. To be successful - to really deliver for its shareholders - the company would have to deliver 6.2% in the coming year.

As he spoke, banners came down from the ceiling emblazoned with the number 6.2. The CEO led his top executives in a chant of “6.2!” more suitable for an MLM pep rally than a meeting of Fortune 100 senior VPs. As laser lights filled the room, the CEO vowed he would maintain a “laser beam focus” on 6.2.

By the time it was my turn (I was supposed to talk about “the future”) I couldn’t help but comment on the behemoth company’s new growth mantra. As one of the ten biggest corporations in the world, weren’t they big enough? If even this company couldn’t be satisfied with its size, then no one ever could.

Besides, as an increasing number of studies have been showing, corporations are actually growing too big for their own good. Companies’ are losing the ability to put that money to work. For the past 75 years, in fact, corporate profit over net worth has been steadily decreasing. This doesn’t mean they aren’t still rich; they’ve simply lost the ability to apply the assets they’ve accumulated.

This is the dark side of our technologized industrial landscape. We get more efficient, we can lay off more workers, we can even increase margins - but when we’re all doing this at the same time, there’s not much left for real people to spend. Companies valuing growth above all else can use digital technologies, robots, and even algorithms to collect all the chips on the game board. It’s like traditional corporate capitalism on steroids. But eventually they become like those muscle-bound body builders, incapable of deploying any of that accumulated mass in a useful way.

Making matters worse, companies that used to look toward revenues and long-term profits are now competing with digital startups whose inflated share values are even more specious than their business plans. It’s almost impossible to sell enough soap or soda water to compete against corporations whose valuations are measured in “likes.”

But those digital behemoths are operating on borrowed time and, more importantly, borrowed money. The way to compete effectively in this hyper-growth landscape is to offer shareholders something better and more sustainable than growth: flow.

That’s right: it’s time to escape from the growth trap. Growth may be a requirement of interest-bearing currency or debt, but it is not a requirement of business. Neither individuals, businesses, or even whole governments need to live and die by their rate of growth.

Almost every CEO reading this column feels the tug on his conscience every time he abandons another long term company goal in the name of pleasing shareholders with short term growth. I understand how this approach gets incentivized with options tied to growth targets, and how they punish you if you miss them.

But there are ways to turn your company from a suicidal growth addict into something much more like a family business, built to last generations. Family businesses, incidentally, enjoy statistically greater longevity and profit sustainability - largely because they eschew growth for growth’s sake, and seek first and foremost to preserve revenue and reputation.

In my new book, a takedown of the digital business landscape called Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, I show how today’s businesses are also uniquely poised to aspire toward a sustainable equilibrium instead of infinite, profit-dwarfing growth. Call it the “steady state enterprise.” Unlike its high-flying digital peers, it’s actually more digital in spirit than any 100x startup. After all, digital technologies are about distribution and flow, keeping things moving throughout a network. So, too, should the businesses of a digital age seek to achieve appropriate scale - rather than scaling up forever.

It’s a lot harder to turn a growth business into a steady state one than to start one from scratch. But it’s not impossible. It begins by having an honest conversation with your shareholders. Yes, they can make money - but they’ll tend to do it through ongoing dividends more than capital gains. (Why the tax code should punish real earnings more than passive ones is beyond me.) Your shares may become more like the “preferred” shares owned by institutional investors and pensions funds, who value earnings over a quick pop.

Or if your shareholders are resistant, consider buying back the company with private equity - as Michael Dell did, most famously, in order to restructure his computer company for the era of cloud computing. Finally, you can adopt the truly digital mindset and rewrite your company’s core code: consider becoming a B “benefit” corp, or a “flexible purpose corp,” structures that allow you to pursue goals other than short-term shareholder value alone. Growth of share price comes to matter less than serving customers, compensating workers, connecting with communities, and - yes- bringing long-term prosperity to shareholders, even if they don’t know that’s what they want.

But most important, it comes down to thinking less about the total value of your company, than the value it creates.