“As sure as night is dark and day is light
I keep you on my mind both day and night
And happiness I’ve known proves that it’s right
Because you’re mine, I walk the line” Johnny Cash
Google recently announced a Global Impact Challenge. The firm invited people to submit a technology-based project that “has the potential to change society on a large scale.” The prize? £500,000 pounds, plus “technical assistance from Googlers to help make their project a reality.”
Meanwhile, just last week, colleagues at Wayra (the accelerator programme belonging to Telefónica, Spain’s biggest multinational), unveiled a collaboration with Unltd, the foundation for social entrepreneurs. Wayra Unltd is seeking “the UK’s best early stage digital social ventures”. Winners will receive “£40,000 of funding, office space in a brand new central London Academy for 8 months, expert advice and support and potential access to Telefonica’s 300+ million customers.” Wayra Unltd is looking for “amazing digital start-ups that have the power to improve society, we want to accelerate businesses that do good (e.g. in Health, Education, the Environment – anything that supports improving people, communities or society as a whole).” Back at Google, they are looking for projects which are “creative and data-driven”, and which “use technology to solve a specific social issue on a grand scale.” Two excellent competitions. Kindred spirits.
One thing which caught my eye was the fact that you could ONLY apply to Google’s competition if you were a registered British charity. In this way, Community Interest Companies and companies limited by guarantee were ineligible. As were private companies limited by shares. By contrast, you can ONLY apply to Wayra Unltd if you are in this latter camp – a company limited by shares. In other words, if your organisation is able to pay out dividends to shareholders, rather than being bound to reinvest all of its profits back into the enterprise.
Google is perfectly entitled to only wish to hear from charities. Likewise, investors in Wayra companies are quite understandably looking for a return.
This is not a post to speculate about which is the ‘better’ or ‘more inspired’ model. It is simply to observe that, as the fortune cookie hoped, we live in interesting times. It is in the best traditions of this mildly ambiguous phrase which I ponder…
Aside from my two examples above, there seems to be a school of thought which believes that the founders of companies are only interested in one thing: profit. Trouble is, this simply doesn’t ring true, when I think of the hundreds of entrepreneurs I have met over the years.
So why DO they get out of bed? To solve problems? Yes. To change the world? Often. To create something of value which people will love and pay for? Of course. To make money? Yes. But at the cost of all of all other things? Almost never.
In fact, the most financially successful people I have ever met will almost always tell me (believe them or not) that whilst money may have been an interesting way to ‘keep score’, it is absolutely NOT their main motivator. And yet the suspicion lingers.
If we’re cagey about founders, then we’re positively paranoid about investors. Someone sticking their hard-earned cash into a company, large or small, must ONLY care about one thing? Maximum return, right? This is the ‘duty’ to shareholders which we always hear about, isn’t it? I’m not convinced. As a potential investor, of course I would like to see a return. But a MAXIMUM return, forsaking all other outcomes? Hang on a minute.
Don’t we also want to know HOW the company has made that money, and to sleep well in the knowledge that it has done so legally, ethically, responsibly? I do. More importantly, isn’t it entirely possible to make money AND make a difference?
Just as George Bush Senior imagined a kindler, gentler America, surely we have to believe in a kinder, gentler entrepreneur AND a kinder, gentler investor. They are not mythical creatures. They are all of us. When we go home, when we spend time with our friends, when we are ourselves.
Just as we shouldn’t judge books by covers, so we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about the motives and feelings of doers, based on the types of organisation they form. Want to know about what drives someone? Ask them, remembering that actions speak louder than words.
Founders, like investors should remember that it’s OK for things not to be black and white.
As Walt Whitman said;
“I am large, I contain multitudes.”
The relationships between founders, funders and those who they seek to influence will always contain multitudes.
As Mark Zuckerberg taught us, so we say…