Building a business is an act of generosity

Matt Shanks

Matt Shanks

Principal Product Designer & Author/Illustrator for children. I'm out to improve the quality of life for everyone who uses the things that I make.

As a Founder, I’ve worked with many other founders during my time at Cogent. And, what’s become clear over this last decade is that there’s a disconnect between the vision that capitalism and industrialism paints of The Founder and the reality of one.

The vision of The Founder that we see in the media paints people like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos as it’s spiritual leader. Most of us have day jobs, the ones we need to pay the bills, feed a family, fund our existence on the Earth. We dream that, one day, we stop working for someone else and start working for ourselves. Imagine it: no more bosses, no more terrible sociopathic managers, no more forced social events, no more begging for holidays. We’re told that, as a Founder, we can be our own boss and, if everything goes well, have full autonomy and control in the way we spend our days. Without the anchors of bad decision-making made by managers and leaders we don’t like, we’d be able to grow our own business quickly which would mean that, in a few years, we no longer need that ‘normal’ job. We fantasize about the day we hand in our resignation and walk off in to the sunset and acquire that coveted label “Entrepreneur” because we ‘started our own thing’. A thing that, maybe one day, we’ll grow to such a size that we can exit at peak valuation and attain that even more distant dream of not having to work at all? A life of leisure, little to no debt, an early retirement, perhaps we can finally spend time living.

But, there’s a problem with this vision that no one really talks about. And I don’t mean the bits I’ve seen and experienced myself – the late nights working alone, the stress of having a single, less-reliable source of income to budget with, or the feeling of imposter syndrome that bubbles menacingly below the surface day in and day out. No, we know all those things happen. What I’m talking about is the fact that building any successful business isn’t about me, or The Founder, at all. Building a business is an act of selfless generosity.

Generosity is the only pathway to a sustainable business

Let’s keep this really simple. In this capitalist system we exist in, people pay for their problems to go away. We buy meditation apps to remove stress, we buy gym memberships to help keep us accountable, we get food delivered to give us more time to do things we’d prefer to do instead of cooking. No matter what category or industry – the examples above bring to mind Smiling Mind, Fitness First, Uber Eats – the one common ingredient to every successful business is that there are one more people willing to work incredibly hard to remove problems from another’s life. That, in it’s most basic form, is an act of generosity.

But, before we get all warm and mushy, let’s put a cynical lens on this for a moment. Uber Eats? An act of generosity? Maybe not, but also, maybe. Yes, they are making squillions of dollars, and yes, it’s fair to say that perhaps this particular business’ intrinsic motivation was financial – find a problem, exploit ‘the market’, make money hand over fist, exit. It’s the formula that every start-up bible touts, whichever denomination you subscribe to. But, for thousands of people around the world, Uber Eats removes a pain or improves their lives in some way. Yes, maybe that ‘pain’ is a first-world problem but I’m not passing moral judgement here. Whichever way you want to judge it, for that business to grow as successfully as it has, a group of humans have had to deeply understand another’s pain – why it exists, how people are trying to overcome it at the moment and why the current things in the world right now don’t solve it. If they misunderstand the problem or ‘build whatever they wanted to build because it’s what they were passionate about’, Uber Eats doesn’t become Uber Eats. The business dies.

Listening is key to forging strong relationships with your customers and community.

It’s about listening

If we come down from Uber Eats for a moment and talk about the local baker. Around the corner from where I live, Vicky and her family have been showing up everyday, for 14 years, providing home-cooked, high-quality greek food for the people in our local area who want to eat healthy food but sometimes don’t have the time to prepare it themselves. Every day. For 14 years. They haven’t ‘scaled their business for an exit’, but it is successful. It’s growing, but slowly, sustainably. They’ve built really strong relationships in their community because of this act of generosity. They know and understand what their customers want and why they want it. They didn’t move in to this Greek-dominated suburb and start some weird esoteric jewelry store because Vicky had a passion for jewelry. They did one simple thing, they listened. A cynic might say, “Well, they’re just unsuccessful business owners who don’t how to scale” but the other way to look at it is that they know why they’re doing it, they’re making enough money to live and they’re forging really strong relationships with their customers and community. If we applied the usual saas metrics to their business, their retention and referral rates would have investors salivating. They are, in the truest sense, a product-led business.

The thing is, whether we’re working in someone else’s business, or trying to build our own thing, we will always be in service of someone else. It’ll either be in service of your direct manager, or in service of the customers you need to help so that you can survive. A business simply cannot survive unless you’re generously taking the time and effort to solve someone else’s problem. You may find that by doing this, along the way, you solve some of your own financial or stress problems but those just cannot be the motivation. As soon as we focus inward and begin to make decisions based on selfish questions like, “How can I game my way to a better life?”, the business inevitably dies. When we stop focussing on the people who we need to serve (capitalism calls this ‘the customer’), they’ll stop paying. Once they stop paying, well, like many Founders, we tell the story to ourselves that ‘it wasn’t the right time’ or ‘the market wasn’t ready’ when in fact, it only really died because we stopped listening and because of that, we stopped caring.

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