We Are Human’s short and intense history includes co-founding Kahoot! and showing that when impact investment meets Values-Based Entrepreneurship, profits are not at the expense of purpose. It's a gain for people, the planet, and investors.
It seemed like a great idea at the time. A British government agency decided to let the public name a new, state-of-the-art polar research ship.
“Shakleton”? “Endeavour”? “Falcon”?
The public agreed on R.R.S. Boaty McBoatface.
It was a coup. It is also a divine story about how the old world doesn’t always understand the new – and how we can shake things up just by using the often freely-available tools we have.
Traditionally, firms have been judged on good old brand building and how well they serve shareholders. However, following the global financial crisis of 2008, and with evidence of ecological fallout, corporate ethical crisis and rising social expectations, the traditional focus seemed to offer too narrow a definition of success. Some firms began to rely on healthy relations with a more diverse set of ethically-minded stakeholders. They even emphasized good jobs for employees, a clean environment and responsible relations with the community.
Would the moment last?
Window dressing and greenwashing carries the day
In 2010, as Silicon Valley was making a remarkable comeback. We placed our bets and founded We Are Human. We would invest in and build companies based on what we call Values-Based Entrepreneurship.
Values-Based Entrepreneurship (VBE) is about how companies begin and behave. It involves designing, launching and running businesses that place equal importance on human wellbeing, environmental sustainability and profitability. It is a set of values through which companies and institutions can view themselves as servants of stakeholders and society at large, striving for social and commercial impact.
VBE, in short, encompasses your company’s raison d'être. That means establishing the basic values with leaders and employees, and then taking steps to build an organization culture which promotes ethical behaviour. The final test is to actually make day-to-day decisions and develop stakeholder policies informed by those values.
In 2010, to some, this seemed so naïve.
It certainly was a time for window dressing and greenwashing. Every corporation inserted a chapter on Corporate Social Responsibility into their annual reports. And every elevator pitch included buzzwords like inclusivity and sustainability. Only to be left behind when the elevator arrived at the penthouse boardroom.
And you think Boaty McBoatface stuck? R.R.S Sir David Attenborough carried the day. (To their credit, a small submarine onboard now carries the winning name).
People asked us: Were we just walking around all high-minded and pretending everything was fine, while deep down, inside our shoes, our socks were sliding off?
Teaching the world to learn
So we co-created Kahoot!.
A user-generated trivia and formative assessment platform, Kahoot! was built on the assumption that at the back of every classroom is an extraordinary person waiting to be unleashed. And that inside every teacher stands a great champion of the curious. Kahoot!’s core values are inclusivity and the simple belief that how we learn is as important as what we learn.
We entered a market in which new education technology in reality was helping teachers fit kids to the square - rather than the other way around. For more than five years, we poured heart and soul into scaling the world’s fastest growing learning brand, which now has over 1.3 billion global users in 200 countries. It is loved by students, teachers and businesses, and is a cultural phenomenon.
Technologists and programmers didn’t create Kahoot!. Values did. Code didn’t create Kahoot!. Culture did.
Kahoot!’s simple mantra – Social. Play. Learn. – stems directly from a growing catalogue of Values-Based Entrepreneurship inspiration, including education expert Sir Ken Robinson, play guru Stuart Brown, urban planner Jan Gehl and stretching back to pedagogue Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. Our methodologies and frameworks are influenced by projects such as Business Model Generation by our collaborators Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur; Hooked by our friend and angel investor Nir Eyal; Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo; Lean Startup by Eric Ries; and Innovating With People: The Business Of Inclusive Design by Norwegian Design Council.
All of them will agree: Values-Based Entrepreneurship is not about being nice – in the buddhistic sense. It is about creating sound and long-term value proposals.
Those values, quite literally, have saved Kahoot!
A Disney Tale: Saved by the core values
Disney was looking to invest. Then, we messed up.
We had built VBE into the Kahoot! brand. We practiced it, too, forfeiting on profits to keep building inclusivity and goodwill. So people would vouch for us when we messed up.
And boy, did we mess up.
A technical glitch in our platform created what was potentially the greatest data breach for children under 13 in American history. I was served by American authorities. Disney put the investment on hold.
What happened then was remarkable. The authorities looked into Kahoot! and saw what they themselves referred to as an honest attempt to change education. Kahoot!’s management did a brilliant job demonstrating the values at the company’s core. It had never been about sacrificing privacy for shareholder euphoria. The authorities sent us a letter saying what had happened was unacceptable, but that they would not press charges.
No one wants to trip up the good guy. And Disney came back.
The moral of this fairy tale? Create value, but separate between personal and societal gain. Know where the customer is, but take her on a better journey. The best investment you do is always for the greater good.
In 2017, Jamie and I left daily operations at Kahoot! to build We Are Human into a platform for exploring, practicing and learning about Values-Based Entrepreneurship. For ourselves, our partners, the wider community and the planet.
Paying it forward
The Coronavirus pandemic has made VBE more relevant than ever. The world is learning to work remotely. Mundane errands take on new meaning, now counting as 'going out'. With financial markets struggling again, many companies with a culture centered around shareholder gain struggle to find relevance.
Many of the companies we invest in have instead manifested a breed of resilience centered around humanity, planet, and ego-less entrepreneurship allowing them to face the challenges square on.
Ludenso chose the long road to success (high tech for kids) with its AR-based learning platform that lets kids co-create their own learning environment outside of the classroom. Blueye Robotics built its drone to give people access to the ocean through exploration and fun, still core values as the maritime and offshore industries discovered its many uses. The child-friendly audio platform of Yoto combines the smarts of a connected player with the direct recording of yonder days. The Savvy Navvy app uses data in new ways to let us integrate with the elements, allowing us to sail not just any way, but the best way.
Kahoot!’s user base is mushrooming as learning is going remote and digital.
Steve Jobs told us to put a dent in the universe by setting the users free. We began with the learners. The rest of our voyage at We Are Human has just begun. Welcome aboard.