This article revisits previous thoughts on values-based entrepreneurship and how companies can equip themselves to thrive during turbulent times.
Just up the road from where I live in North London you can see across the whole city - beyond the high-rise buildings to the previously unseen hills in the South. There’s no smog. No planes in the sky.
London’s isn’t the only view that has been refined by the Corona pandemic. Many people are waking up to a new view of entrepreneurship.
A prominent ensemble of world leaders, scientists, and thinkers are voicing a broad backlash against the way we reward companies that view humans as “resources''. Whilst calling for humility and humanity in entrepreneurship, they have been championing businesses “who are pursuing hybrid goals that take financial, social and environmental considerations into account”.
This kind of values-based entrepreneurship has guided We Are Human since we founded the company 10 years ago as a response to the global financial crisis. They continue to shape our most impactful creation to date, the learning platform Kahoot!, which has surpassed 4.4 billion cumulative players as people are learning, working and socialising remotely during the pandemic.
In an article 2 years ago I laid down 4 principles that are helping shape our approach to Values-Based Entrepreneurship.
It is a fitting time to revisit them.
1. Understand what it means to be human
Startups don’t need to become part of the circus that celebrates profits over people, and unrelenting growth over real human consequences. Values-based companies are thriving in times like these. Their culture and mission enables them to adapt to what's most important now.
With financial markets struggling through the health crisis, companies with a culture centered around shareholder gain can stumble around trying to find relevance in adverse times. I don’t mean to knock them, but you’ve seen their marketing emails.
Whilst observing companies we’ve invested in, we see a resilience centered around humanity, planet, and ego-less entrepreneurship that allows them to face the challenges ahead square on.
Like Nyby, a Norwegian startup with a smart collaboration platform that connects public services with citizens for important societal tasks such as shopping for the elderly or delivery of medical supplies. Nyby’s user base has shot skyward during the pandemic.
Companies like Nyby believe in a real opportunity to contribute to something bigger than themselves. As I referenced in the original article, Yuval Harari pointed out that business needs a certain level of spirituality to be able to pose the question: “What does it mean to be human?”.
We’re observing a real moment for values-centered entrepreneurship in the Nordics. It is backed by governments and the investment community, and fuelled by a public perspective on sustainability and our common challenges.
We are setting up We Are Human Nordics to tap into the broad Nordic egalitarianism and public-private efforts to use the position of privilege to “do well by doing good”. We believe, in the coming decades, many more unpredictable challenges will emerge that will test businesses to answer what it means to be human.
2. Impactful businesses change human behaviour at scale
Changing behaviours at scale can no longer be about solely improving an individual’s life, but also our impact on the planet and society at large. If we do it correctly, sustainable growth becomes a consequence, and profits can be reinvested into the mission.
True innovation is about changing human behaviour at scale.
Kahoot! grew because it fundamentally and positively transforms learning behaviours from the established norm. It helped make play and gaming acceptable in classrooms, and made learning a social experience again. It was a human-centred innovation.
What’s become even clearer in recent years is that building human-centred companies alone isn’t enough. We need to start treating the planet as a stakeholder too, and understand what consequences our actions and even some of our greatest innovations are having on the environment.
This is why We Are Human is now also investing in companies that affect the wider planet too, as well as developing concepts around #OceanTech through E/One.
Variable is one startup we’ve invested in that ties the combined human-centred and planet-centred approaches into solid business practice. Variable aims to help companies operationalise sustainability efforts, thereby reducing the financial risk of environmental effects. They represent sustainability from a financial point of view, showing how you can improve performance and future-proof both your company and the planet by behaving differently.
3. To create positive behaviours, act responsibly
Rather than taking a growth at all costs approach, we can learn from the abuse of platforms like Facebook for negative gain, and how having a purely profit-driven approach reinforces that abuse, to build more responsible businesses.
We used our friend Nir Eyal’s techniques of behavioural design to reinforce positive learning experiences, show tangible progress, and create a sense of belonging in Kahoot!. The same methodology has been abused for the sake of surveillance capitalism and addicting people to products in pursuit of greater capital gains.
Tech and social media companies are increasingly questioned on the ethics of their business models and how they design the addiction that keeps people coming back - leading to serious mental health and democratic issues. We have seen very recently how Facebook is seemingly happy to give Donald Trump a platform to perpetuate racism. In the past, their platform has been abused to manipulate the Brexit vote. Facebook, guarding its profit margins, is unwilling to take a stand, thus reinforcing negative effects.
We invest in companies that can build sustainable growth through inclusivity rather than addiction. One example is Tiimo, the app for neurodiverse people with ADHD, autism or Aspergers. The structure and visual guidance it provides those individuals facilitates a wider and more impactful behaviour change in people’s lives - their growth comes from real impact.
4. Design your businesses with thoughtfulness
We need to imagine the unintended consequences our products might have through the process of how we design them. A human and planet-centred approach is needed more than ever during these turbulent and uncertain times.
I question whether asking ‘How do we get them to use it more?’ is still, or ever was, the right question to ask when designing products and services.
We should instead ask ‘how can we create a positive impact on the people who use our product’s lives?’, ‘what unintended consequences might using our products have on them and the planet?’ and ‘how can we mitigate against this?’.
This is the focus at Courier, a media company We Are Human invested in that was recently acquired by Mailchimp. Courier makes modern business accessible to everyone. It makes it relevant to today’s world, and empowers those that live their life through responsible values to build their business in that image.
10 years on from when we founded We Are Human, a human and planet centred approach to building businesses is more necessary than ever.
I’m off to show my young twins the new view of London.