In most businesses today, the value the company delivers to their customers is still measured by profit. If the profits are good, they are doing well. If the profits are low, they are not. It’s a simple game, easy to understand and scale. It works.
In tech, especially in the last 10 years, another kind of measure started to emerge. The free social media platforms couldn’t measure value directly with profit. The profit came from another source - from the suppliers or advertisers. We started to measure attention. How much time do users stay on our platform? How often do they come back? What do they interact with?
These companies slowly figured out, that if you maximise attention, you can sell that attention to someone else. Instead of playing just one game, that of profit, they play two games. Maximising attention on the one end and maximising profit on the other.
If that sounds a little off balance.. well, it is. Imagine what happens, if we only measure attention and profit? If that’s really the only two things by which we make decisions, how can we ever do anything other than optimise for those two?
What if our customers wellbeing is at odds with maximising attention? Or if our country’s integrity is at odds with advertising revenue? We already know which one wins. This way of building products is a recipe for unintended consequences, around things that matter most (but don't have money attached to them).
How do we move forward? Our concept of value needs to evolve once again. It needs another layer to it. First profit, then attention, then… ?
As an industry, we’re still at the beginning of this conversation. Everyone uses different words for it - empathy, authenticity, values, purpose. It’s easy to get confused, misinterpret them, turn them into a buzzword. Easy to use them up and then go back to the familiar way of doing things. But this is a global project and every company will have to find an answer. And the project itself is actually really simple - to make business human.
Just like every entrepreneur finds their own unique path to build a profitable business. Just like every product team finds their own way to increase attention - a way that works only for them and no-one else, so it is with purpose. Every business will go about defining their purpose in their own unique way. Some will never find it and fade. Some will embrace it and prosper beyond their wildest projections. This is an internal process. No-one can tell you your purpose. A business isn’t born with one. You have to find it. Define it. Create it.
Much like with profit and attention, the process is one of discovery and trial and error. Or you may already know, you may have always known.
After definition comes implementation, where having a purpose really starts making a difference. This is where you’ll alter how you make day-to-day decisions. You will create metrics that reflect this third component, ones that measure if you’re aligned with it. Just like when measuring business performance or attention, there is no right way. These will be uniquely yours, tailored to your products and services.
Then when you make strategic decisions, you can ask:
- Will it make us money? (Short/mid-term)
- Will it increase engagement with our product? (Short/mid-term)
- Will it serve our customers & team according to our purpose? (Long-term)
As you can see, this last question is bigger than people that ask it. It's a question that engages minds and creates futures. It's a question that excites people, one that puts them on your side.
Most companies are pretty low on trust these days, especially in tech. Do you trust that Facebook has your best interest in mind? Or that Uber has their ‘partner-drivers’ best interest in mind? You don’t, because they don’t.
Defining and acting according to your purpose is the most direct way to building trust, both within your company and with your customers.
This is just one of many consequences when you start acting according to your purpose. Others include:
- Increased clarity - there is less options that meet all three criteria (profit, attention and purpose), so you have an easier time deciding.
- Increased creativity - to compensate for having less options, you and your team will get creative. This is a hidden benefit, as it encourages growth, creates excitement and makes great culture.
- Being proud of what you do - including everyone in your team, and even your customers, being proud that they're with you. Companies value this quality very highly, yet very few go about obtaining it by really looking at their purpose. They usually try to buy it with marketing, which is exensive and short lived.
This is an exciting time. We are starting to figure out what role purpose really plays and how to create it sustainably and authentically. The result will be a more human way to do business, one that resonates with both our stakeholders and our customers.