Why you’re doing something matters

Dot Dot Dot exists to deal with three things that bother me: the lack of affordable housing in London, the swathes of empty homes, and the need to cultivate a sense of community in the city.  I came set it up after spending a couple of years polemicizing about those issues, in print, on the radio, on TV and in real life.  I had done all the talking I saw as being useful, and I had spent long enough thinking about the problems – and being on the sharp end of them myself – to have come up with some ideas about how to actually do something.

Publicity 2012 (16)That sense of mission helped in lots of ways.  Wanting to make an impact on issues I care about kept me going through the hard early stages of getting Dot Dot Dot off the ground.  And the fact that other people and organisations agreed that those problems deserved to be addressed earned Dot Dot Dot some fantastic support from individuals like David Ireland and organisations like Nesta and the Bromley-by-Bow Centre.

But those two benefits could still have existed even if the mission had just been making a tonne of money.  Perhaps the prospect of a pile of cash would sustain some people through the pain and anxiety of getting something started, and would attract supporters and investors just as Dot Dot Dot’s mission did.

But there are two reasons why I don’t think moneymaking alone could be a good motive to set something up.  First, when you start something, you’re making decisions constantly.  Everything has your fingerprints all over it, from tiny questions about what to say on Twitter through to who you recruit and how you treat them.  How do you arrange the desks in your office?  Who makes the tea?  Pensions, bonuses or both? The list is endless, for every domain of the business.  If I hadn’t cared about the problems I was trying to solve and understood them from the inside, I don’t think I could have cared about those tiny decisions enough to give them the attention they needed, and I don’t think I would have had such a clear sense of what the eventual solution to that problem needed to feel like.

And secondly, it’s not only me who has to make decisions constantly about how to do things and how to behave.  As Dot Dot Dot has grown, the shape it takes has been moulded by the rest of the team.  I very much hope that my colleagues work at Dot Dot Dot because they are proud to do so, because being in the office is reasonably enjoyable most days and because they can feel a sense of achievement as our impact on the problems we are trying to deal with grows.  Obviously, they also come in because they want to earn money.  But they do a brilliant job, and I don’t think it would be possible – in practice or even in theory – to pay them enough to persuade them to work as carefully and thoughtfully as they do if they didn’t also care about what we were trying to do and the means by which we are doing it.

That doesn’t mean that all businesses should be social enterprises, although I’m proud that Dot Dot Dot is one.  All businesses exist to solve a problem – customers buy what they sell in an attempt to make their life better.  Unless you believe what you’re selling really is going to improve things, you – and probably all of your staff – would be doing some kind of awful double-think to get into the mind-frame of the people you’re trying to flog your stuff to.  And mental gymnastics of that sort is very hard to get right.  Ironically, caring about some purpose other than making money might even help you to make more cash in the end by helping you craft a product that will really satisfy your customers by solving a problem that bothers you.

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