First Principles

I had the opportunity recently to talk about this blog with a colleague of mine. He’s a trial lawyer I’ve known for several years and he’s been very successful. While we were talking I told him that I am looking for people who will challenge what I’m saying here, which he gladly did. (Life lesson: it can be dangerous to ask an experienced litigator to challenge your ideas).

Right off the bat, he asked me to describe what I’m trying to say in one pithy statement and I didn’t have an immediate answer.

After we said our goodbyes, I reflected on my inability to answer his direct question with an equally direct answer.

It’s the same question I’ve been struggling with over the last few posts. And here’s the answer:

Business should exist to make life less difficult for as many people as it can.

There are lots of moving pieces in this idea so it will take a bunch more exploration to put all everything in its place. But if somebody asks, that’s the point: making life less difficult.

The new status symbol of choice

I listen to Dave Ramsey all the time. My wife has always been frugal (she’s teaching me) and we discovered Dave while I was in law school. It resonated with us immediately, and now we’re trying to pay off my law school loans as quickly as we can.

Dave inspires me partly because he talks about such a boring subject. Seriously, when was the last time you really wanted to talk about how to prepare your own budget, let alone listen to some guy you don’t know tell other people you don’t know how to prepare theirs?

Yet millions of people do exactly that every day.

Dave starts every show by saying it’s the show “where the paid-off home mortgage has taken the place of the BMW as the status symbol of choice.” It’s a powerful idea.

Every one of us defines ourselves by the status symbols we choose. We don’t always do it consciously. Sometimes we associate ourselves with a symbol and other times we react against a symbol. But we all use the things, the people, the ideas, and the organizations around us to identify what we are.

So it’s a testament to the power of Dave’s idea that he has convinced so many people to accept his redefinition of their status symbols.

You see, a paid-off home mortgage is a really crappy status symbol. Unlike a Beemer, nobody can look at you and tell that your home is paid off. Nobody (not even if you drive an Audi) is going to look at you and say “That guy, right there, is debt-free.”

But if you’ve listened to Dave for more than a few hours and you keep listening, people are going to figure it that you’re serious about getting out of debt. They might be impressed by you, irritated by you, and maybe even weirded out by you. But they’re going to figure out how committed to getting out of debt you are because they’ll start to see how your commitment affects everything you do.

Businesses have status symbols too. Every tech startup wants to be cool and fresh and have better food than Google. Every department store plasters its ads with perfectly-coiffed playboys doing blue steel and trying to sell you some new fragrance. Every lawyer wants to drive a BMW.

Being otherish in business means that you’ll be adopting another really crappy status symbol. Unless, of course, you get so serious about being otherish that people start calling you weird every time they talk about you. So serious that it affects everything you do.

So get to it.


Getting it

Shortly before I started writing this blog—really, one of the things that motivated me to start writing it—I saw a TV show about an organization called Farm Rescue. It’s a non-profit started in 2006 that helps farming families who have experienced a major injury, illness or natural disaster by planting, harvesting and haying their crops.

As I watched the show, I realized that Bill Gross, Farm Rescue’s founder, really gets the value of serving other people. I could also tell that his service affects him deeply and personally.

I was inspired by Bill’s decision simply to start doing something about other peoples’ needs. In everything worthwhile that we do, there comes a point where we have to fully commit to making it work.

I’ve talked before about something that Ben Arment said: “A great idea is a spreadsheet with skin on. No dream can be sustained without a profitable financial model. And make no mistake – whether you’re profit or non-profit – the goal is to make a profit. Otherwise, it’s not a dream; it’s a hobby.”

Ben makes a really important point very clearly: if you’re in business, you have to have a viable financial model.

But he’s also wildly wrong. Viable financial model or not, the goal doesn’t have to be to make a profit. And a failure to make a profit doesn’t make your work into a hobby. We can choose other goals. But if we do choose another goal, we have to be fully committed.

T.S. Eliot once asked, “What do we live for; if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?”

Its clear that Bill Gross is fully committed to seeing Farm Rescue succeed. And I think that he’s figured out that making life “less difficult to each other” is enough to keep a business growing.