Beating the odds

It's easy to be frightened by statistics. Take this week's assertion that one in 56 businesses will fail this year, and one in 50 in 2010.

The prediction, from accountacy firm BDO Stoy Hayward, gave rise to a storm of grim press headlines and seemed to vindicate the prevailing mood of pessimism. But put it another way, and it appears 55 out of 56 companies will survive: hardly armageddon.

A deeper point about the insidious power of data was made by the brilliant science writer Stephen Jay Gould, who learned in 1982 he was suffering from what he described in an article as ‘a rare and serious cancer’. Being an academic, he immediately wanted to get his hands on the best technical literature on his condition, but his doctor assured him there was nothing really worth reading. He soon found out the reason for her reticence: the research proclaimed that the cancer carried ‘a median mortality of eight months after discovery’.

Gould died 20 years later. As he realised, the phrase ‘a median mortality of eight months’ does not mean ‘I will probably be dead in eight months’. His account of how he refused to let the data dictate his prospects of survival makes inspiring reading.

Of course there will always be incurable cancers, as no casual follower of recent news reports can have missed. Gould did not mean to suggest that you can prolong your life through mental power alone: his point is that statistics should be quoted – and read – with caution.

In the next issue of Business XL magazine, we’re speaking to companies that have been all but written off by everyone except the entrepreneurs who kept believing in them. Rather than accept the inevitable, they fought on – and realised it wasn’t so inevitable after all.

So if you’re in that position, take heart from the words of Bob Plaschke, the CEO of mobile phone maker Sonim, who saw his company hit rock bottom before pulling off a remarkable recovery.

‘On any rational assessment, I should have shut the company down,’ says Plaschke. ‘We succeeded because we didn’t give up. At times like this it’s all the more important to trust your own instincts.’

Nick Britton

Nick Britton

Nick was the Managing Editor for when it was owned by Vitesse Media, before moving on to become Head of Investment Group and Editor at What Investment and thence to Head of Intermediary...

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