Many people consider the purpose of a company to be something static and set at birth, or changing only very rarely. The truth is, the purpose of a company evolves as the founders and the company evolve1.
Here’s a story of how GrantTree’s purpose evolved through time, so far, and through the purpose of its two founders, myself and Paulina, then my girlfriend and now my wife. I hope it shows how purpose can dramatically change over relatively short periods in the life of a business.
Purpose 1: Money
We started GrantTree in 2010 when Woobius unexpectedly ran out of money 6 months early due to a bookkeeping error2. I found myself not quite out on the street, but certainly needing to find another source of income fast. Rent and food are kind of important, you know?
Paulina had been involved in R&D Tax Credits with another company. She said she could sell them if I could deliver them. I looked at what tax credits consisted of and figured it wasn’t rocket science: if I could do a physics degree, I could learn how to do this. I said I could deliver them if she could sell them. And so we decided to get started.
Let there be no doubt: in that first year, pretty much our only concern was the money – and quite naturally so! We were broke, living off credit cards3. We needed to survive. That was our objective. And to survive, we needed money. So we did whatever it took to try and get off the ground (or the shifty quicksands) financially. There was no greater purpose beyond that back then. The key question driving every decision was: will this result in some significant amount of revenue4? If so, do it. If not, skip.
Of course, whatever our values were back then still impacted our decision-making: we tried to be transparent, have integrity, help our clients, be effective, etc. But eventually decisions did come down to money and if there was enough of it at stake, it would drive our decisions. There wasn’t even any focus in what we were trying to do to make the money: at one point we tried to act as a domain broker, just because there was a potential brokerage fee in the tens of thousands for that domain. At the time, that was enough money to shift our priorities entirely5.
Miraculously (to me), we made £89k of turnover in that first year. It was more money than Woobius had made in its entire existence up to that point. Our costs were minimal, so most of it was straight-up profit. I was amazed. You can actually make money from this business stuff!
Purpose 2: More money
The next natural purpose that emerged then was, well, this money thing is quite nice: let’s make more of this stuff! It’s nice not to be broke anymore. In the second year, we did more of the same. We picked up more and more clients, and our revenues continued to go up. We could afford a 5-year old second-hand VW Passat, a Macbook air, and other non-essential-but-nice life expenses.
In the pursuit of scale and better customer service6, three quarters of the way through that second year we hired our first full time employee. Despite being basically just two people for most of that year (plus one remote subcontractor), we made £309k of turnover that year, again mostly profit.
A strange effect settles in when you finally have enough money7. This obviously doesn’t work with everyone (some people never have enough money), but for me and for Paulina, money became less and less important. A great many articles describe how money is supposed to be a “hygiene factor” rather than a primary motivator, but they seem so remote, like science fiction fantasies of cornucopia machines, until it actually does become a hygiene factor for you. When you make £300k of turnover with basically two people, neither of which are big spenders, money does become a hygiene factor.
So, like in Maslow’s needs hierarchy, you begin to shift your needs somewhere else, and your purpose along with it.
Purpose 3: Scale and Freedom (still somewhat connected to money)
The next purpose emerged from a session with Deri, who was our business coach at the time. He is also a trained NLP coach (though not doing NLP coaching anymore) and used a timeline exercise on Paulina and I to explore why we kept disagreeing on schedules to do stuff. It turned out that my natural time horizon is about a week long, which means that if I don’t see something happening each week, I don’t see anything happening at all. Paulina, on the other hand, sees a few months ahead and so is better at making more distant things happen, while my productivity tends to be ruthlessly focused on the next week. This caused a lot of clashes in our ways of scheduling “making things happen”.
Deri also suggested that I should accept that my natural space was focusing on the next week. I’m very bad at accepting limitations, so that felt like a challenge to me. So, a few weeks later, I set about planning our next three years in business.
Luckily8, at the same time, we discovered a source of leads that could help us scale the business. I set myself a goal: to grow GrantTree into an independent company within two years, so that Pow and I could “soft-exit” the business. This involved scaling, hiring more people, and creating a culture that didn’t entirely depend on me and Paulina to continue operating and growing, but the objective was still fairly material: freedom to do whatever we wanted, while being wealthy enough to be able to afford a reasonable but comfortable lifestyle. The idea of travelling around the world for a couple of years came up.
With this plan in mind, I realised that we had an opportunity right now to make things happen and that the opportunity wouldn’t be open forever. Combined with the source of leads, we started hiring and started growing our client base much faster. A sense of urgency emerged.
Over that year, we achieved a turnover just over a million pounds. An awesome achievement – 3x growth three years running.
A side-effect of hiring all these people, however, and trying to get them to act independently and adaptably9 was that I started to care about those people and the fascinating puzzle of how to get them to work together productively and happily (also known in some circles as “culture”).
And another element that crept in unnoticed, also with the people, was that my own purpose (scaling and then exiting the business) was not motivating enough to recruit great people. So we came up with a purpose for the company, which, loosely summarised, adds up to “enabling startups to succeed”. More on this later.
Purpose 4: Culture for its own sake, and impact
As I spent all this time trying to shape the GrantTree culture, I fell in love with it. I found something deeply fulfilling in creating an environment where finally people are treated like human beings instead of cogs in a machine. So many work (and non-work) environments are dehumanising and degrading to the people who have to spend time there. I really starting to feel very fascinated by the fact that this is not the case at GrantTree. We treat people like adults, we try and help them develop as people, not as “workers” or “employees”. We recognise that they are whole human beings, with flaws and with amazing abilities rolled into one.
Over time, it became clear that our plans to exit the company were totally at odds with this sense of love for the company. I found myself falling into that strange state where there is nothing I would rather do than work (though I do naturally do other things too). I shifted from working for some ulterior purpose (make money; free up time; whatever) to working for its own sake. This also taught me something important about myself. I noticed a pattern that I had not seen before: I really feel aligned with my own personal purpose when I help other people grow and develop, when I help them see things from a larger perspective.
At the same time, the company’s own purpose, enabling startups to succeed, has started to take a life of its own. People working at GrantTree bring their own vision of that. This common purpose loosely unites them, but much like I bring my own, uniquely tainted variant of that into the mix, with my focus on culture, other people do too. This is, I hope, a mark of a more mature company: one that leaves room for everyone there to contribute to its purpose, instead of being driven from the top like a slave beast.
An interesting conclusion
Here’s an insight coming out of this, which I alluded to in Episode 7 of On my way to work… the purpose of the company, in other words, the “why” of the company, has an enormous impact on how we actually run that company. There’s a clear mapping between how our purpose for running GrantTree has evolved over time, and the major stages of evolution that the culture has followed. Sometimes the cultural changes trailed the purpose changes, and sometimes they led them. But I can see a clear connection between the two.
When the purpose was to survive and make some money, the culture was non-existent10. The company was reactive and completely informal. When the purpose became to scale, the culture first became top-down, hierarchical11. However, because of our focus on “making the company independent”, the culture of the company started to take centre-stage, and as our culture evolved12, it dragged our personal purpose along with it. And I’m not too proud to admit that it took us (Paulina and I) some time to catch up, and I’m certain that our slowness in evolving our own purpose did in turn slow down the company culture’s evolution.
So here’s the kicker: along with other personal growth limits, the reason you run the company is going to be one of the most effective limiters on the culture of the company. If the only reason your company exists is to make a buck, you’re unlikely to ever create a great culture there. And this is not about the “stated purpose” – I’m talking about your own, personal purpose in running the business.
The good news, to soften the kicker? If you allow it to, your purpose will change during the course of the journey. This “running a company” business? It changes you, if you let it.
Additional complexity: the purpose of a company can be multi-faceted… it doesn’t have to be just one purpose. A company can be aligned with its purpose through a number of different activities!↩
The bookkeeping error was essentially due to not accruing the amounts owed to me, which I was invoicing somewhat haphazardly. When it was discovered, it didn’t take the company down, but did mean that I could not expect income from Woobius for quite a while.↩
One silver lining: the flat I was living in was owned by my Woobius cofounder. Given Woobius’s part in my financial troubles, he was understandably flexible about “not charging rent for a while”… Thanks Bob!↩
Where significant started around the few-hundred-pounds mark↩
We did not manage to sell that domain, sadly, though we got remarkably far considering we had zero experience or contacts…↩
After one too many customer issue that could have been avoided by having someone who was actually good at customer service, I decided I didn’t want to be the only one responsible for that any longer.↩
Having enough money, it must be noted, is as much a function of reducing your needs as it is of increasing your income. Prior to GrantTree, my financial needs had been cut to the bone compared to what I “needed” back when I was working for Accenture. In Accenture, I was losing money every year on £42.5k/y, over £2.5k/m of net pay. By the time I started GrantTree, I was saving money every month on £1.5k/m of net pay. In between, I learned to budget and to cut my expenses down.↩
Or serendipitously… or perhaps it was always an option, but it was only when I needed it that I noticed it… who knows?↩
I believe that change is always accelerating and so a company must be adaptable to survive, not stuck in static ways of working. So I shaped the company culture towards adaptability, empowering people to make decisions, etc.↩
Red, Impulsive, in the Reinventing Organizations naming convention↩
Through Green, Pluralistic, and now hopefully moving towards Teal, Integrative↩