Each stage of a company’s growth cycle (startup, high growth, maturity) brings its unique challenges. How a company responds to these challenges can often mean the difference between success and failure. During the startup phase, it’s all about survival and developing an idea into a bona fide business venture. There’s a lot to do, and because resources are usually scarce, entrepreneurs must be experts in multi-tasking. Developing a creative idea into a commercially viable product or service, creating a marketing and sales strategy, and finding the money necessary to finance all of these activities are typical areas of focus for a startup enterprise.

For companies that survive the startup phase (which is typically less than half by many accounts), the high growth phase that follows can be equally as challenging. Many companies entering this stage fail because they are unable to make the transition from “shoestring operations” to something that is truly scalable and can operate without the direct involvement of the founder or CEO. Developing infrastructure and managing cash flow to accommodate significant growth are among the key areas of focus at this stage.

If your company has made it this far and persisted through the growth phase, congratulations! But don't bask in your success for too long, since for many companies, the next stage proves to be the most difficult and frustrating. Companies in the mature phase often experience a leveling off in sales, since the revenue trajectory experienced during the high growth phase is often unsustainable. This alone can be a significant source of consternation for an entrepreneur who’s used to riding the wave of dynamic growth and exponential sales volume. Although cash flow is often more stable and predictable, many mature companies now face the difficult prospect of sustaining some level of reasonable growth and profitability. Here are a few things I've found useful for maturing companies to keep front and center.

1.  Continue to innovate. 

2.  Know your customers. 

3.  Know your competition. 

4.  Take a fresh look at profitability.

5.  Manage with the future in mind. 

Continue to innovate.It’s sometimes easy for companies, especially those who have worked so hard to navigate their way through the turmoil of startup and high growth phases, to become complacent and rest on their laurels. Successful companies never stop developing new products and services and creative ways to deliver them. This means continuing to invest in product development so that your customers remain engaged and loyal. Innovation will help perpetuate the brand you've worked so hard to establish.

Know your customers. While earlier stage companies often have close relationships with their customers, maturing companies sometimes lose that customer intimacy. Knowing the needs of customers, and matching those needs with innovative products and services to keep them happy, is critical at any stage; and it can be the thing that continues to differentiate you in the market.

Know your competition. Companies that have been successful and grown large enough have certainly attracted the attention of competitors. Whether they realize it or not, others are studying their business model, customer base, products and services to figure out how they can either replicate or surpass what the company’s been able to deliver. So in addition to innovating and maintaining deep relationships with key customers, it’s also important to keep a keen eye on the competition (existing or emerging) and stay ahead of it.

Take a fresh look at profitability. Successful companies in the mature stage often take a step back to study profitability and develop ways to enhance it. For some companies, there may be opportunities to tweak pricing; for others, better cost management through process improvement may be the answer. For still other companies, a careful study of profitability by business segment or by customer may be warranted. Whatever the case may be, it’s often useful to take a fresh look at how profits might be enhanced. A good CFO (or CFO for hire) will be invaluable in this exercise.

Manage with the future in mind. Finally, mature companies that are successful often are managed with the end in mind. Sometimes this means having an exit strategy – e.g., going public, potential future sale, management buyout, or generational transfer. In other cases, there may need to be a succession plan for key leadership positions. Clarifying the ultimate vision for the future can help a company in creating an action plan to help realize that vision.