Values and Vision as a competitive advantage

This is adapted from the keynote address that I gave at Conquest 2016 on 28th August 2016

In Michael Porter’s seminal work, he speaks about how enterprises in today’s world can compete. He lays forward two primary ways in which this can be done:

  1. Cost Leadership (which basically can help you compete by making your products/services cheaper)
  2. Differentiation

Coming to differentiation, companies can do it in many ways.

  • Technology (e.g Google)
  • Proprietary XYZ (e.g Times Internet which has a content partnership with Huffington post)
  • Revenue Model (e.g Slack)
  • Network Effects etc etc (FB, Linkedin)
  • Design/UX (Housing, Slack etc)

I would like to add another to this list.

Vision and Values

But lets take a step back.

I spent my 1st 18 months of employment at Aavishkaar, a venture capital firm investing in rural businesses. During my VC stint what one of the things that amazed me the most about the profession, at least in India (though I believe this applies to anywhere), was about how “data” fit into investment decisions.

Here’s what I noticed.

As far as early stage investments go (up till Series B), data more often than not, was pretty much only used to back the gut call of the investor. The decision to invest often came first and then the data.

It’s almost like the VC says: Hmm I really want to invest in this one.

Then he calls in his associate and says:

Which made me realize that early stage fundraising pretty much was about one thing: A Story

While there are many investors who come with operational expertise in your specific areas of business, more often than not, you will find that investors are good at broad trends. So while an investor would have seen hundreds of “e-commerce marketplaces”, he wouldn’t have much of an idea about your business on creating a “marketplace for agri-produce of cash crops in semi arid regions”

And hence you are best person to know about your core business. The investors can only help you once you are confident about what you’re doing.

As a result during the early days as an entrepreneur you are fielding a lot of change all the frikkin time.

What you start off as, might actually change within the next 3 years. Market conditions can change, your team can quit, your idea might pivot.

But during this time, you’re probably so engrossed and tied in so many directions that you’re pretty much going with the flow

At this time, lets take a little Greek philosophy lesson. The Ship of Theseus was a thought experiment.

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.
— Plutarch, Theseus

In a nutshell, if every ounce of something changes, is it even the same thing anymore? To solve for this, what is that one thing that can never change? It probably has to be something which is in your control.

Now coming back to the startup flux of things changing, especially during the early days (but honestly, it never ends :) ).

When multiple things in your business are changing, its hard to keep the faith and keep up with the change. And when multiple things are changing because things aren’t going well, its even harder to keep up.

Logically, if you think about it, there’s only one way a company truly dies.

Whenever I meet a successful CEO, I ask them how they did it. Mediocre CEOs point to their brilliant strategic moves or their intuitive business sense or a variety of other self-congratulatory explanations.The great CEOs tend to be markedly consistent in their answers. They all say, ‘I didn’t quit’.
Ben Horowitz

Now, what we thought was that, if there’s anything that can prevent that from happening, i.e stopping us from quitting ever, that would be our greatest competitive advantage.

Because when times are low, you remember your values and vision and they remind you why you are doing this in the first place. And as long as you believe in your values and vision, you’ll be ok.

The greatest most enduring companies which customers love exist because the “WHY” is very strong. This is the core. This is the reason you like Apple products. The how and the whats can be built on top of this.

The Why serves as a guide to the how and the what.

This is how institutions are built.

At Belong, we have used our values and vision to a very practical use. That is how we remain so engrossed with it and it stays with us every single day.

We end up using values to take decisions and resolve conflicts.

Our Values

  1. Serve Fast, again & again to be inspired constantly (e.g Makes us go out of our way to help our customers, our team members and any one else)

2. Make people belong, and belong yourself (e.g Everyone person at Belong as a very specific and individual reason regarding why they are here)

3. Create Trust & Transparency, Over-communicate (e.g Every email in the company is shared with everyone)

4. Remember, we are humans, not data, but data is a friend. (e.g We measure everything, but also recognize that gut calls have their merit and can lead to wonderful things)

5. Be Better than yesterday (ofcourse!)

6. Think Long term, don’t procrastinate and decide quickly

7. Make unlimited 1st time mistakes,.

8. Scaling Personalization