Have you heard the way-too-familiar numbers on small business failures? Supposedly there’s a study somewhere that says seven out of every 10 new businesses started in the US fail within three years. I’ve seen it referred to dozens of times. But is it true? And does it matter to you?

statistics materialsIf you’re curious about the research and business failures, do a good web search. You can start with this Google search on statistics on small business failures. You’ll see there that what we tend to take for granted isn’t necessarily so. What you won’t see there — at least I couldn’t find it — was the supposed definitive study that’s so often referred to.

The truth is that nobody knows. Because business existences and business fates have so many tax implications, statistics are distorted. Lots of businesses exist for tax reports only. Lots of businesses are born and die as statistics only, not real people with real hopes. Some businesses are doing fine but cease to exist because they were sold or absorbed, meaning there was a successful exit. Some businesses move or change their name. It’s really hard to see what really happened.

For some healthy published skepticism on these small business statistics, I recommend Mark Hendricks’ Why the Small Business Failure Rate is 90 Percent Smoke and Mirrors on BNET a couple of months ago. The title describes it pretty well, and so does Mark’s subtext as “the debunker.” Here’s an important quote:

According to well-supported studies by reputable researchers, 70 percent of new firms that have at least one employee survive for at least two years. Roughly half go on for five years. That comes from the SBA, but other studies reached similar conclusions.

And even the 30 percent failure rate after one year may overstate the real risk of starting a small business. That’s because other studies have shown that most firms that close their doors were profitable at the time. They may have closed because the owner had health concerns or decided to do something else more personally interesting. They didn’t, most of the time, go broke.

My conclusion for today is: put down that article. Step away from those statistics. The small business failure that matters is only the one that affects you. Do your homework first, Break your uncertainty down into pieces. Your business isn’t a statistic. Do people want what you’re selling? Will they pay enough to cover your costs? Will your numbers work? Is it real? Are you kidding yourself?

(Image: mac steve, Flickr cc)

Tim BerryTim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Bplans.com. Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.