I advise entrepreneurs and leaders on how to build thriving businesses led by the heart. An engineer, and as left-brained as they come, if someone had suggested even a couple years ago I’d be doing this while writing about building from the heart, I’d be inclined to think they were on something (strong).
But here we are. In this essay, I’m going to explain what building from the heart aka heart-led business is, and why I think it matters. My intention is that this stirs something within you, a recognition of something you already know intuitively within, that this helps bring to the surface.
So What is Heart?
I initially struggled writing this essay, because while I intuitively ‘know’ what a heart-led business is and feels like, it took some effort to make it tangible enough for the rational mind to understand. It may help to start by looking at what a heart-led business is not.
This is simpler to describe. Any business where most or all decisions are led by the head. Everything is done logically and has to ‘make sense’. Data is gold. Rational analysis is worshiped. Every decision has to comfort and allay the logical mind. This probably sounds like it describes pretty much every company in existence today.
“When you demand logic, you pay a hidden price: you destroy magic.”
“It is much easier to be fired for being illogical than it is for being unimaginative. The fatal issue is that logic always gets you to exactly the same place as your competitors.”
— Rory Sutherland (Vice Chairman, Ogilvy)
The quotes above are by brilliant thinker and ad man, Rory Sutherland. It’s taking all my willpower from turning this essay into a Rory quote storm. Back to the point, of course logic and rational analysis are important. You won’t have a viable business without it. But most businesses today have devolved to the point where everything is done only on the basis or pretext of it being rational and logical. This leads to monotonous conformity. No wonder most companies end up becoming peddlers of undifferentiated and commodified products and services, locked in battles for marginal market share gains.
Look at the image of the two phones below (I know touting the iPhone’s disruptive history isn’t very original but please bear with me). Does that transition from left to right look logical to you? Nokia was being logical, and would have followed up their phone with more features, and maybe a bit more computing power. It makes sense — I would’ve done the same as their product manager. That’s what most businesses do. It’s only hindsight that tells us their roadmap was leading them to ruin. Logical works until it doesn’t. Interestingly, sans-Jobs, Apple is on the same logical treadmill now. Time will tell how this turns out.
“Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”
- Steve Jobs
So what is heart? We’ll borrow from Steve Jobs again. Love him, or hate him, he was all passion and heart. His attention to detail, nay obsession with the tiniest of details is the stuff of legend. He wasn’t like this because it was logical or made sense. It’s just how he was wired — design mattered to him more than anything else. But the products and innovations Apple churned out under him were nothing short of magical. I’m still a PC guy to this day, but even I have to admit, Apple products have always been a thing of beauty. From the box, to the sleeve, to the product, you just feel something, because you know everything has been meticulously designed to just delight. Jobs had the courage to be passionate, to be his eccentric self, and he poured it all into the company and it’s products. This ethos lives on to this day.
So what is heart again? Heart is recognizing that you’re more than just your rational mind. We’re not robots. We’re complex beings. We feel. We have emotions. We’re prone to creative insights and inspiration. We have gut feelings and something called intuition. We love things. We dislike things. One of the biggest travesties in business has been this idea that feelings and emotions have to be checked at the door. Like it or not, they’re a part of us, and by shutting them down, or suppressing them, we bring only a partial part of ourselves to our creations.
No matter how rational or analytical, I think most people would agree that things like creativity, heart and intuition are important. However, the mind still remains in charge.
I contend that not only are heart and intuition important, but to create a business that truly thrives in all aspects (revenue, growth, positive impact to customers, employees, society), you have to put these at the forefront. Rational analysis is still critical, but it has to follow the heart’s lead.
Heart is passion. Heart is play. Heart is fun. Heart is intuition. Heart is love. Heart is uncertainty. Heart is discomfort. Heart is vulnerability. We limit ourselves from doing our best and boldest work by not bringing heart to our creations. I’ve done this my entire career, relying only on my rational mind, being logical, “doing things the right way”, and being too fearful to feel.
It’s no coincidence that a lot of folks we look up to and admire for building iconic companies or contributing in amazing ways to the world, wax endless about heart, passion and intuition. Maybe they’re not smarter (although they are wicked smart), maybe they’re just more courageous being vulnerable and following their heart?
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
— Albert Einstein
“We were able to combine art and science, AirBnb was the marriage of the right brain and the left brain.”
— Brian Chesky (Founder and CEO, AirBnb)
“I think that’s always been my guiding beacon — let’s figure out how to have fun and if you have fun in the process you will put the effort and time into it.”
“So I started saying if I was going to spend 5 years of my life on just one thing, what would that be? And what kind of environment would I want to create in order to do that? I came up basically with that I wanted to have an environment where I could have fun. It shouldn’t feel like it was work, it should feel like it was fun.”
— Daniel Ek (Founder and CEO, Spotify)
“If you’re concerned about your fiscal state, maybe you’re in the wrong business. I got into this business not to make a lot of money. I got into this business to create awesome products, love what I do everyday, work with amazingly smart people.”
“Success comes not from money. At the end of the day, what makes you happiest are the people that are around you and what you get to work on, whether that’s working on a passion of yours like writing a novel, or painting a painting or creating companies. Focus on the things that get you up in the morning.”
— Kevin Systorm (Founder, Instagram)
“I got to do what I love, and it doesn’t get any luckier than that. You can spend your lifetime, and I’m 80 now, doing things you love every single day. I would be doing what I did, what I do now, and would have done it in the past if the payoff had been in seashells, shark’s teeth or anything else. If you can go to work every morning, I tap dance to work, everyday is exciting!”
— Warren Buffet (Founder and CEO, Berkshire Hathaway)
Okay, we’ve defined what heart is.
How do we ground this into reality? How do we lead from the heart and why does this matter in business?
At it’s simplest, leading from the heart is about doing what’s fun and following your joy. Before doing anything, ask yourself “will this bring me joy”? or “is this fun for me”? Then tune in. Here comes the F-word. Tune in to how you feel. If you feel expansive, then great. If you feel a contraction, then it’s probably not for you.
The mind will want to complicate things, but it’s really that simple. That’s because the heart is simple, and anything done from the heart will feel effortless. As in the quotes from Daniel Ek and Kevin Systorm above, it’s as simple as intending to do things you’ll love and are fun.
In your daily work/practice, it means doing more of what you “want to do” and less of what “you should do”. The former is energizing and feels like play, the latter is draining and feels like work. This takes getting used to, because after a lifetime of being on auto-pilot, doing things we should be doing, it’ll take some time to get back in touch with what you really love and enjoy. The mind will really struggle to understand this and push back — this is an inside game and you really need to feel your way through.
As I said this is simple. But it’s not easy. It c̶a̶n̶ will be uncomfortable. There is a lot of safety in doing things logically, doing things you “should be doing”, things that “others are doing”. It takes a lot of courage to lead from the heart, to be yourself, no matter how that looks, and follow through in your actions. It’s like being uncaged, finally in the wild, vulnerable but free.
Why does this matter and why is this important? Before we even get to outcomes, and possible external impact, let’s consider the personal impact to one’s psyche and way of being. From personal experience, it feels this has given me permission and freedom to really be myself. The more I operate this way, the more the concept of doing ‘work’ or exerting any effort is disappearing. This is embodied well by the ancient Taoist concept of Wu Wei, or “action of non-action” or effortless action. I’m no longer rushing things, and am also comfortable and courageous enough to do just nothing, if that’s what the moment calls for. After all, laziness is known to spur creativity (definitely a topic of discussion for another day!). I was out of a job six months ago, and old me would have (logically) rushed to find another one. This time I waited, not sure what I wanted to do, but I waited, refusing to comfort my logical mind. It was very uncomfortable but this eventually led me back into investing (a long forgotten passion of mine), into writing, joining Jump Foundation as a partner and principal, and also starting my own advisory. And you can bet I’m applying everything I’m talking about to all my new interests and ventures! Hope to write and update about how all this goes in a few months.
In terms of business outcomes, this isn’t a panacea for all your problems. But imagine the potential impact of committing to always build with passion, love and joy for what you do. I can’t help but feel that only spectacular things can come out of being this way. Someone that loves what they do will constantly want to find ways to be better, do better, and create better products. If you’re truly passionate and care, you won’t be able to help but empathize with your customers, and employees. Worries of competition and what others are doing fade because you’re too busy worrying about what you need to do! You will see what you create as art. Pour love into all you create, and this love, passion and authenticity will reflect in your products and services. And you can bet customers will feel this energy.
“You can tell when a product is made by people who had fun making it.”
— Sahil Lavingia (Founder and CEO, Gumroad)
Ultimately, what the competition does or doesn’t do will not matter because if you continue operating this way long enough, you’re going to be so unique and different that the days of competing on marginal feature improvements will feel foreign. You’re going to stand out because instead of doing things only logically like everyone else, you’re putting your unique energy and passion into everything. This can’t help but lead to products and services that are perceived as authentic, unique and loved by customers.
“We truly believe if you can build a product customer really loves, better than any other solutions, no matter how crowded that market is, you have a great opportunity. I think Zoom also proved that.”
— Eric Yuan (Founder and CEO, Zoom Video Communications)
Does being a heart led business mean allowing everyone to run in different directions pursuing their passions? No, of course not. But it does mean being more open and giving people permission to be passionate, to try new and different ways of doing things, to allow them to make mistakes. It’s one thing to say this, and another to apply in practice. It may also mean making people less beholden to short-term outcomes and results. I’m not prescribing a specific structure because at the end of the day, each structure and way of doing things has to make sense for you, your company and business. Follow your heart to figure it out!
(1) Marketing strategy. You want to publish a lot more content because generating more content “should lead to more eyeballs and more leads at the top of the funnel”. This is logical and is probably true. But what do you want to do? What brings you joy? If this is fun for you, by all means keep going. But if this feels like work, you might want to consider alternatives.
Maybe what’s fun for you is taking your time, thinking deeply and generating much lesser volume but more meaningful content. Or maybe you want to do what Whatsapp’s founder did in the early days and not do any content or marketing at all, instead focusing on the product, relying on it to spread by word of mouth. These strategies do not sound logical. But they are authentic to you, and will be authentic to your audience. This is something you will never get by following a textbook or some “best practice”. And who knows, maybe a focus on quality vs quantity leads you to fewer but much higher quality leads that convert a lot better? Or maybe a relentless focus on the product leads you to deliver something that customers love way above anything else, nullifying the need to market in traditional ways.
“Focus on what you’re doing, focus on the product you’re building, focus on the features we need to roll out, focus on making the application launch faster, work more reliably, not crash, and then good things come from that. Good things come from users wanting to use the product, not necessarily having a lot of press or marketing.”
— Jan Koum (Founder, Whatsapp)
(2) Product strategy. You build out your product and roadmap of features with a combination of:
- what customers or the sales team wants
- what a big, important customer(s) say they want
- table-stakes features
- improvements to existing features
- things differentiated from the competition
This gives you a good list of things you “should do” (that last one never makes it on the product roadmap, by the way). This is a surefire path to mediocrity, and your customers liking your product at best. I know, because I’ve done a lot of this in my product career!
Contrast this approach with a Product and leadership team that wants the following:
- customers to love their product
- genuinely deliver happiness to their customers
- deliver magic to their customers
This approach can only be borne from a deep passion and belief in what you are doing and delivering to the world. This is not thinking in terms of competitive differentiation, or a couple of features that may get you short term design wins. This is thinking bigger with a vision of where you want to take customers and how you will contribute to make their lives better. You do these things because they genuinely excite you. You will work on features that are exciting because you believe they are delivering immense value to customers. At the end of the day, product management is simple — it’s about loving what you’re creating, and in turn delivering that love in the form of a product or service to customers. So a process to develop products may look like:
- no public talk about a roadmap in the first place — this tends to distract the Sales team and customers by always keeping the focus on some shiny new thing out in the future, rather than what’s available and working today
- clear understanding of what business you’re in and not constraining it to just your product. E.g. Nike isn’t in the shoe business, it’s in the business of inspiring the athlete within all of us.
- understand customer problems deeply
- understand customer behavior, and what customers do vs. what they say
- brainstorm, develop and test solutions (including seemingly irrational ones, especially the irrational ones!) to solve customer problems
- daily improvement and focus on the process rather than outcomes or moonshots
If there’s one thought I could leave you with, it’s this: just do you :). I’ll end things here with one last but beautiful quote.
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
— Howard Thurman (Philosopher, Civil Rights Leader, Author)