Why kindness and generosity in business is not a weakness
The stereotype of a ruthless founder whose actions are driven by pure data is complete rubbish
There’s this fictional guy in economics called homo economicus. He’s this fella who will always act in his own self-interest and will maximise whatever he can get from any situation. In the past, he was used as a model for how a human being would behave in different economic situations. But when economists based scenarios on him, they never seemed match what happened in the real world. That’s because we now know for a myriad of complex reasons, most people don’t base their decisions purely on what’s in it for them.
Similarly, in the startup world, there’s the guy we’ll call homo entrepreneurus, or “Evan” for short. You might have read books about Evan — he’s a perfect model of what a founder should be: driven by data, going from one high-profile meeting to the next, testing and iterating, with growth as the only goal.
Evan doesn’t have time for lending a hand to other founders, for taking interns who need a lot of training but deserve a chance, for collaborating with other companies just because what they do is simply cool or good. Evan organises a summer party for the sole purpose of employee motivation, because people’s happiness translates into productivity. Evan only speaks at events where he will meet potential new clients or raise his profile. Doing the right thing for Evan is whatever will grow the company.
The perfect founder doesn’t exist in the real world
The problem is, just like homo economicus, Evan, the perfect founder, doesn’t exist in the real world. The books might tell you one thing but the truth is that successful companies (outside a small, well-funded, Stanford-educated Silicon Valley group anyway) are built on asking for help and helping others.
Since we launched The Overtake, so many people have helped us — in fact, you’d be shocked at how much of our small success is based on people seeing the value in what we’re doing and giving us a little boost or helping fix a problem we have. And you never know where it might come from — from random people on Twitter donating money for drinking water (that’s a whole other story), to the complete stranger who created our not completely inaccurate Wikipedia page.
Part of the reason for this is that the startup community is full of problem-solvers, experimenters and teachers — people who don’t naturally stay in their lane — who often end up here exactly because they don’t fit well in defined roles in large companies.
The community is also much smaller than it seems at first — you run into a lot of the same people over and over and it’s not long before you realise most people you come across are a friend or a friend-of-a-friend.
Almost all the conversations you end up having at startup events are problem solving, which means people who are cagey, secretive or not willing to share problems and solutions don't get very far.
Simply offering to buy someone a coffee and being honest that you’re asking for their help is completely acceptable
Of course, there are people who take and forget all about it. But those guys are a small minority of arseholes and are easily avoided once you know about them.
What might be surprising is that simply offering to buy someone a coffee and being honest that you’re asking for their help is completely acceptable.
In fact, one of my biggest pet hates is “let’s have a meeting, I think we can work together” when they actually mean “I need something from you”.
When I first joined the startup scene, I naively went into it thinking that everyone who said “I think we can work together” genuinely meant that, so I’d agree to a meeting without even really knowing what it was about. I’ve since wised up (slightly) and now I ask more details before agreeing to meet if it’s not immediately obvious what it's about.
There are no more grateful people than founders who have been done a favour
The irony is, when people outright ask for help, I’ll almost always take some time to do that, as most people would. And I’d like to think my help and advice ends up being useful — especially because when I know what someone wants, I’ll plan in advance. For example, if they’re clueless what to do with their blog, I’ll have a look at it before we get coffee so I can be helpful. It works better for everyone when we’re all honest and transparent.
From what I’ve noticed, there are no more grateful people than founders who have been done a favour.
I intend to pay each favour back — or forward
I’m incredibly indebted to so so many people, I couldn’t begin to start to list them. But I’m trying my hardest to remember who taught me a new thing, who bought me lunch when I was having a bad day, who wrote an article for less than they could get paid elsewhere. And just like virtually everyone I know who is plugging away on a project that may or may not work, I intend to pay each favour back — or forward, because of course, most people aren’t looking for something in return.
There's obviously no guarantee that The Overtake will continue to grow or that it will ever be what some people consider “successful”. But while we’re bringing in enough money to give opportunities to young people who are just looking for a break I consider us “successful”. I know it’s absolutely blasphemous to say this in business but… money really isn’t everything.
Success comes from different places
No founder should ever feel guilty for not being a data-driven robot, or ashamed for occasionally taking time out of their day to lend a hand to someone who needs it, instead of powering on aggressively with their company. Not only is that unhealthy but it’s also bad business.
Success comes from different places and, in the real world outside of startup books written by wealthy VCs, we’ve learned that making friends and connecting with people is as important as testing and iterating.
Plus, there's nothing wrong with being owed a favour by the next Zuckerberg.
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