What does it mean for a business to thrive? And what are some things an entrepreneur or leader can do to increase the likelihood of their business soaring and thriving? I answer these questions in this essay, and propose a new philosophy or paradigm for business. I also offer the reader some questions — your honest answers (conscious or unconscious) to these will determine how far your business goes.
So, what does it mean for a business to thrive? I don’t define it by an arbitrary revenue or valuation milestone. While higher revenues or valuations are certainly achievements, a myopic focus on only the numbers to validate yourself ensure you operate only in survival mode (more on this later). I define a thriving business as a purpose and service-driven institution that outlives its founders and has a huge lasting positive impact on its people, customers, community, society, and/or environment. In order to do this, it generates very healthy profits and grows sustainably in pursuit of its bold purpose (profits serve as fuel to fulfill purpose rather than the other way around). It’s an organization that builds products people want to buy vs. one that just wants to sell its products. It’s an organization that generates profits to fulfill a purpose vs. one that generates growth or profits just for growth’s sake. Profits are the life blood of an organization — without it they don’t survive. But once an organization starts generating healthy profits that more than recoup it’s costs, remaining slave to only generating more and more is giving in to the endless lure of the ego.
Profit for a company is like oxygen for a person. If you don’t have enough of it, you’re out of the game. But if you think your life is about breathing, you’re really missing something.
— Peter Drucker (Management Consultant, Educator, Author)
I’d argue Apple under Steve Jobs was once such a thriving company. Under Jobs, their purpose was “to make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind”.
What we’re about isn’t making boxes, although we do that well, we do that better than almost anybody, in some cases. But Apple is about something more than that! Apple at the core, its core value is that we believe that people with passion can change the world for the better. And we believe that, in this world, people can change it for the better. And that those people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones that actually do!
— Steve Jobs on his return to Apple in 1997
Some other examples that I’ve come across so far include Patagonia, Basecamp, Zappos.com (part of Amazon) and Gumroad. You’ll notice all these examples are very, very different in terms of revenue and valuation — as I said, it’s about more than just profits.
Gumroad’s founder and CEO, Sahil Lavingia started his journey intending to build a billion dollar unicorn. That didn’t go so well, and is a great lesson in the perils of the venture fueled growth for growth’s sake model. He’s now focused on building a profitable and successful company that’s really serving and impacting the lives of it’s customers “by helping creators do more of what they love”, and also growing profits at a great clip to go along with it.
The world needs more businesses that thrive. Businesses that aren’t just about the top or bottom line. Businesses that aren’t just about returns to shareholders or investors and maybe a few leaders at the top. Businesses where people are free to really innovate and be creative, rather than doing just enough to not get fired. Businesses that truly care about building solutions for customers rather than just worrying about beating competitors. There’s an imbalance today as somehow business became mostly about financial engineering and the numbers, completely ignoring that real people, communities and our planet as a whole are key parts of that equation. This imbalance has led to unsustainable growth practices and greed at the expense of all stakeholders — employees, customers, the planet, and ultimately shareholders. The world needs businesses that thrive in all aspects — revenue, profits, customers, well being of their people, communities and the planet.
Thrive Paradigm — A New Business Philosophy
So where does one begin? How do you go about building a business that truly thrives? It’s my belief that before you take a single action or change anything externally, you have to shift your inner paradigm. For most of us, our default operating paradigm is survival, or fight or flight. Survival is embedded in our DNA since the earliest days of our species, and also gets instilled in us from a very young age as children around the time we start school. Survival instinct is great because it keeps us alive. But it sucks as a paradigm for building anything that thrives. This is because the primary energy of survival is fear, with the main objective being self-preservation/self-promotion.
What the world is calling us to do, and what we need to do is shift to a higher mindset. I’m calling this the thrive paradigm, for lack of a better word. I recently wrote an essay contrasting the survival and thrive paradigms. While the key energy of survival is fear, lack and competition, in contrast the thrive paradigm is based on service, truth, abundance and love. But don’t mistake the latter for being “nice” or some fluffy ideology. This is about building real, profitable businesses that last and have an impact. Love and truth take incredible strength as they require incredible vulnerability. Acting from this paradigm takes the mindset of a warrior, but instead of fighting a battle “out there”, this is an inner battle to align with one’s wisdom and passions vs. the constant beckoning of the ego, fear and greed that leads one down the survival paradigm.
Every victorious warrior draws his strength from the highest source; his love.
— Tapan Ghosh
Step 0 is awareness and recognition of the paradigm you are operating from. The thrive paradigm is a new philosophy for business. The fact that you’ve read so far probably means that aspects of this paradigm resonate with you. It’s great to understand philosophy, but how does one ground it into practical reality in one’s business? To advance this, I propose some key questions and ideas that I consider the key elements of the paradigm — Purpose, Vision, Process and Truth. Your meditation on and truthful answers to each will determine how far your business goes. Each element deserves an essay on it’s own (to come in due time), but I’ll cover some of the highlights for now.
The subtitle of my book (‘Delivering Happiness’) is “A path to profits, passion and purpose”, and the reason that was the subtitle is because the research has actually shown that companies that have a higher purpose beyond just money or profits or being #1 in the market, or beating their competition, those that have a higher purpose actually end up generating more profits in the long run.
- Tony Hseih (CEO, Zappos)
This is where you begin. Your purpose is your deep WHY. Your purpose is your organization’s reason for being. It’s the deeper meaning behind why you do what you do. It provides meaning and the inspiration to keep going during the inevitable challenges that come up when running a business. It can help guide your decisions, and whenever it is unclear what to do in a situation, you should be able to come to your purpose. A company with purpose doesn’t think of itself alone — it considers the impact of its decisions on its people, customers, community, economy, country and world.
When operating in survival mode, one’s purpose might be to just grow their company or stay alive. While there is nothing wrong with that, the irony is that companies that have a deeper purpose beyond surviving or making money end up performing much better in the long term.
Having a purpose isn’t just meant to be a feel-good or branding exercise. Companies with a deep rooted purpose they truly believe and more importantly feel, will act and operate differently. As a result they will be perceived very differently by their people and by customers, who will immediately sense meaning and an authenticity behind their products and services that is very hard to fake. This can become a source of incredible competitive advantage, with the irony again that companies that do this don’t do it for this reason. If they were, it would not come across authentically.
We saw Apple’s and Gumroad’s purpose above. Zappos.com’s purpose is to “live and deliver WOW”. The purpose of my advisory, ARTHart is to enrich the world by helping entrepreneurs build thriving businesses led by the heart. I truly believe that we can build a better world and better business if more leaders lead and created from their hearts. This is very personal to me and has a very deep meaning for me.
To clarify a purpose isn’t a BHAG or a moonshot. It isn’t too product or technology focused, or about being #1 in a given market. It doesn’t have to be as grand as changing the world, but it is about more than just you or your company.
There is a persistent myth in the contemporary business world that the ultimate purpose of a business is to maximize profit for the company’s investors. However, the maximization of profit is not a purpose; instead, it is an outcome. We argue that the best way to maximize profits over the long term is to not make them the primary goal.
— Ratan Tata, Stuart L. Hart, Aarti Sharma and Christian Sarkar (‘Why Making Money Is Not Enough’)
It sounds obvious, but the successful founders I’ve funded believe they are eventually certain to be successful.
- Sam Altman (CEO, OpenAI and ex-President, Y Combinator)
Vision is your belief in WHERE you’re going. It’s your destination, your direction, whether it’s about the impact you’ll have, how successful you’ll become or whether you‘ll be able to build a thriving business. Having a vision is like setting the destination on your GPS. You then follow it up with the needed actions to get you there. It’s a conviction, a certainty of belief and something you feel before even seeing that vision in reality. It also works the other way, i.e. if you don’t truly believe you can be successful or will have an impact, then that implicitly becomes your vision because that’s what you really feel and believe. This lack of belief and confidence will be reflected in your actions, your mindset until you make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Think and Grow Rich is perhaps the most well known book of our time that expounds on the subject of how our beliefs and thoughts can shape our reality. I think when some people dismiss such thinking as naive, it’s probably because it sounds like you’re being told you can affect your reality with your thoughts alone. A better way to think about it is your thoughts will absolutely influence your daily actions, which will then ultimately affect your reality. Your thoughts also impact how you react to situations. Someone that doesn’t truly believe they’ll ever be successful has already given up on the inside, and is more likely to give up when trouble shows up on the outside. So maybe a more apt title for the book could have been ‘Think, Act & Grow Rich’.
You are what your deepest desire is. As is your desire, so is your intention. As is your intention, so is your will. As is your will, so is your deed. As is your deed, so is your destiny.
- Upanishads (ancient Sanskrit texts)
While purpose and vision deal with the intangible, process is all about the tangible — it’s HOW you get there. It’s the action. While vision and purpose are set once, and adjusted infrequently, if at all, process is about the everyday.
Some of the important elements of a thriving process are perseverance, heart and detachment.
Difficult things take a long time, impossible things a little longer.
Entrepreneurs are no strangers to perseverance and resilience. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Anything worth building requires perseverance, whether it’s a healthy, fit body or a thriving business. This is your daily practice, showing up everyday to move the ball forward, and getting a little better.
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 (Author, philosopher, educator and civil rights leader)
Data. Facts. Logic. Rational analysis. All indispensable to any company and product building process. What usually gets left out is heart. Sure, passion is touted as an important ingredient for success, but I think it’s become more of a cliche at this point. What do I mean by heart? I mean to bring your whole self to a problem or business. We aren’t just our rational minds, we’re complex beings with a wide spectrum of passions, feelings, likes and dislikes. Instead of suppressing or completely ignoring them, I’m advocating we open up to them.
Don’t let your brain interfere with your heart.
- Albert Einstein
I’d like to go even further and believe we should let our heart lead. Doing so opens us up to a non-linear intelligence well beyond the bounds of the rational mind. Ever notice how creative insights just “pop up”, with the mind then making sense of them after the fact? This is opening up to more of that intelligence and wisdom through your heart and intuition. Practically, leading from the heart means doing more of what you love, what you enjoy, doing more of what you “want to do”, rather than what you “should do”. The former is energizing, the latter is always draining. This love and energy you pour into your work transcends space and time — it will show in your products and services, and customers will feel it!
I also wrote a lot more about this here.
If you want something very badly, you risk becoming its slave.”
— Daniel Vassailo (Entrepreneur)
Detachment to outcomes. Detachment sounds cold and uncaring, almost antithetical to heart, passion and vision. There is a fine line between having a vision you live and breathe, and being so attached that any setbacks or delays in realizing it absolutely crush you. In fact, being too attached is probably a sign you doubt you can ever realize your vision, so any setbacks put you in a tailspin as they confirm your worst fears.
Detaching from outcomes is about loosening your grip on the results of your work. It’s about putting in your best efforts, and remaining focused on process over outcomes. Measure outcomes, understand what you can learn from outcomes, but focus your energy on building, rather than worrying about outcomes or believing that outcomes are more important than your process. This is detachment. This is also incredibly difficult!
You’re playing youth sports, what’s the most important thing? Winning the game. I’m in school, what’s the most important thing? Getting the grade. I’m in business, what’s the most important thing? Getting the sale. So everything around us is compounding the outcome fallacy, the idea that outcomes are more important than process. But when you think about life, and when you think about closing any kind of gap, you live your life 99% of the time, not in the outcome. You live it in the process.
- Douglas Vigliotti (Author, “The Salesperson Paradox”, “The Gap: The Little Space Between What You Know and What You Don’t Know”)
This is your WHO. Who is running this business? Time to get honest with yourself. Truth is about being radically real with yourself, and not projecting some illusion of hope or despair on top of the current moment. If your current situation sucks, then you accept that. If that makes you feel horrible and feel like you’re a loser, accept that. If you feel like a victim, accept that. If you’re doubting your vision, accept that. It’s about being you, whatever that is in the present moment. This isn’t easy, and in fact can be quite painful. But you have to face the pain, as running away or hiding from it will only make it worse, or lead to dis-empowered actions to compensate. The only way to the light is through the darkness. This is the warrior mindset.
There is clearly a lot to dissect here, but I hope this gives you a good, starting overview of my thoughts on thriving organizations and how to build them. I’ll continue going deeper on each of these sub-topics above in the coming weeks and months.