A 6 year reflection on work and purpose.
About 6 years ago I quit my job in Melbourne and halted a career trajectory in creative advertising.
Advertising is full of brilliant, creative people — creating and selling ideas that aim to resonate with the depths of your emotion and identity. To capture attention and inspire action from a strategically chosen target audience.
Knowing people, understanding influence and creating culture is an extremely powerful thing. I was lucky to learn the skills, but building a career to do this, to further the profit objectives of business for the sake of business is not something I could do for long.
So I did what any privileged, naive, short-term thinking millennial would do. I bought a one way ticket to Thailand to find *something else* that would scratch a growing, deeper itch for purpose more than corporate fuelled creative marketing ever could.
Travelling and working across Asia in your mid-twenties opens your mind in a way there is no going back. From navigating backpacker ghettos in Manilla and Kolkota to teaching English bootcamps in South Korea. From permaculture farms in North Thailand and mega-malls in Singapore to watching cities of scaffolding growing every hour in China and wading through plastic in the Himalayas. The world is big, fast and sometimes, entirely fucked.
More people working on stuff that matters.
About 4 years ago I landed in Wellington, New Zealand. After almost 2 years on the road in Asia, broke, fired up about the state of the world and fixated on finding a way to use my brain and time “for good”.
I knew one thing. Business is shaping our world. From high level governance to daily wage earners, profit drives decision making and influences all layers of society. These decisions define lives and livelihoods, shape culture, our environment and ultimately our future. These decisions are causing planet sized problems that will kill us if we don’t fix them.
In a city the size of Wellington it doesn’t take long to find like minds if you’re proactive. I met Enspiral. A rag-tag collective of about 20 freelancers and a couple of startup businesses, selling vision, purposeful collective entrepreneurship & the promise of something better for the world.
Here was a smart, ambitious group of people people asking really big questions:
- How can we inspire more people to spend their time working on the problems that really matter?
- How can we pay them?
- How can we pay them really well?
- How can we surround them with support?
- How can we set them up for life?
- Can we create dream jobs that bring out the best in people?
- How can we reinvent capitalism to harvest profit to reinvest in furthering impact, not shareholder returns?
- How can we leverage technology to scale our solutions?
- How can we build a radical ownership structure designed to serve everyone, rather than a select few?
- How can we disassemble hierarchy and destroy barriers that stop anyone bringing an idea to life?
- How can we create a place where noone leads all of the time, and everyone leads some of the time?
- How can we build trust and open generosity as a competitive advantage? How can we organise when we burn down job titles?
- What does the company of the future really look like?
And not just asking the questions, but trying to work out the answers to all of these things at once — openly, chaotically, intuitively, a plan so ludicrous no manager would ever, or could ever devise or approve such a strategy. And that was exactly the point.
It was fuzzy and unstructured, it was inspiring and full of outrageous possibility. It was an idea worth buying — or rather, sharing in.
So, what matters?
This world is so full of problems, and within every problem, opportunities to use business to help fix things. How to choose?
Climate change? The food system? Plastic pollution? Social inequality? War crimes? Child prostitution? Corruption? Patriarchy? Capitalism? Disempowerment in the workplace? What is really holding us back from the better world we could create? What is most important?
People who know me and have worked with me know I’m, err, enthusiastic about new things. I’m a self-confessed hound for opportunity. When it comes to new ideas and possibility, I’ve been called a dog with two dicks. And rightly so. The future is delicious and just beyond the horizon, lets go!
Having tried (and failed) and moved on from quite a few things, from social media, to branding to lean startup to gamification to platforms to consulting I learned that whatever you work on — news media, the food system or pollution — starting businesses boils down simply: people working together well to solve important problems.
1) Startup business is a landscape of problems. Customer service, cash-flow, customer acquisition costs, investor leads, funding strategy, analytics tracking, user experience design, browser compatibility, market validation, recruitment, reporting, task management etc, etc. All this work is just problems that need to be solved — in service of some greater mission or ‘bigger problem’ that galvanises a team together to solve them.
2) People working well together solve problems. Inspiring each other, learning, teaching, holding each other to account, bouncing new ideas, giving firm feedback, supporting, getting pissed off, getting in the way, losing their shit, burning out, staying up late, celebrating success. Great businesses boil down to great people with the right skill balance working well together.
So, what *really* matters?
About 2 years ago I failed and folded my first company. Naivety and idealism can fade quickly when you run out of money. Starting businesses is hard work. The opportunity costs, in lifestyle, in finances, in friendship, are large and real. The chances of success are slim. Focusing on business as a vehicle for systemic change, slimmer still — so, when you’re getting back up from a fall with skinned knees and finally have time to breathe and decide what to do next — why stick around?
Deep powerful ideas grow secretly and sometimes take time to really show their magic. Generosity is infectious. Openness is a contagion. Community is powerful. In a couple of short years Enspiral had grown from 20 odd people to almost 200 people and a dozen companies engaged in some capacity, now with a group of nearly 50 members driving the core of the network forward.
I used to think community was a word to describe people who struggle, eternally underfunded, to do the important work that never gets paid well and is always overlooked. Maybe it still is a bit of that, but I’ve learned it is also an extremely powerful, valuable thing.
Enspiral has become a community in every sense of the world. Working together, many living together, building lives together. Openly, generously sharing time, mentorship, money, work, risk, deep vulnerabilities & deep trust. Working hard together, lifting the bar for each other and throwing damn good parties too. In the marketplace, this way of working is a powerful thing with real advantages starting to prove their worth. At a personal level, this is an infuriating thing to try and understand, an intoxicating thing to be a part of and a fertile breeding ground for possibility.
When I showed up we used to talk about creating ‘a virus you want’, when I ran out of money and had the chance to leave, I realised I had caught it.
Loving people who are spending their lives sharing, growing and building a community to help themselves to help the world is not a decision. This was beyond self-management and impactful business. I pushed more chips into the middle and went all in to ‘help the helpers’.
After that first failure invisible threads wove together quickly to catch my fall — support system engaged. Within weeks I was building a new business and, from the dust and ashes and learning of a dead company, was able to help setup and run a social enterprise accelerator programme. Yes, community is powerful.
More people working better together.
Flash forward. I’m back in Thailand visting again after 6 years. The problem landscape of our planet remains broad, bright and urgent.
My journey to focus is unfinished and the lust for new ideas remains unquenched. After another difficult few months of restructuring work and life, rebuilding teams and now clocking 3 years of self-employment I’ve learned enough to share.
When it comes to working on stuff that matters, on stuff that really matters, one thing is clear. For me, this is about people. About humanity. About inspiring more people to keep pushing to work on the problems they care most deeply about, and to sustain and motivate themselves while they do it.
Businesses are made of people. People are the action that this world needs. The solutions, the will to act, the conscious decision to choose this over that. The chance to create a thriving, world that works over a shell of a planet barely habitable lives in the hearts and minds of every person on this planet. This is a chance I’m taking, and it is through that lens that I’ve moved full time into education and a new mission, with Enspiral Academy.
Serving people to build the skills and will for a better world. Building transformative, learning experiences where people can connect deeply, collaborate openly and share their learning and redefine their own sense of what is possible and what they can achieve.
The future is bright! Onwards!
If you’re keen to know more about how we work and you are working to make this world a better place, the question posed to me 4 years ago remains unchanged, how might we be of service?