We are currently living in an era where huge monopolistic companies are controlling vast areas of our lives, from social media to search to e-commerce. And no matter their original intent, it seems clear that their core priority now is to stifle competition and capitalize on our lives, mostly through their misuse of our data.
It’s time to champion a new type of founder to replace that previous generation and help us build positive alternatives that re-imagine the way business works, providing a better balance between humanity and technology.
It’s obvious to us all that we’re living through a major revolution where technology is radically impacting the human condition. Just as the many revolutions throughout history have before this, from the cognitive to the agrarian, the scientific to the industrial. Each time, people have had to change their lives to adapt, and this technology revolution is certainly no exception. Each time, these fundamental shifts create disruptions that require entirely new social contracts to be constructed, to make sense of the new worlds that are emerging.
As humans, we are built to ‘adapt’ (Darwin did not claim the Survival of the Fittest, but the most Adaptive), but we need help from the systems around us to figure this out. And, of course, as our current systems are failing us (from politics to education, religion to journalism), our Nation States are rapidly being replaced by Brand Nation states.
It’s not difficult to argue that the most powerful people in the world today are not the leaders of our nations, but those of the companies that control many aspects of our lives.
And so if, as we believe, that Business is the New Performance Art and the seat of such power and influence, why have we surrendered so much of it to so few, whose motivations are neither clearly stated nor often geared toward our human progress?
I would argue that this is the precise moment for a new generation of founders to step forward and claim the opportunity to build a more positive social contract between people and technology. Not only is there a huge desire for it, and a whole new generation demanding it, but also our future prosperity requires it.
Founders have the opportunity to create the new foundational thinking that is required for us to adapt to this radical technology revolution we are living through today. But founders can only do this if they do so with a clear and Intentional Narrative for the role their company can play in the world.
Having worked directly with so many founders, including these below, it’s clear to me that they are not all created equal…
From early on, Steve Jobs made privacy a central part of Apple’s DNA, to commit to never exploiting individuals’ data (and only aggregating it to improve products). Apple’s position as the world’s most trusted brand for a decade or more is testament to the importance of this to people, the world over.
Brian Chesky’s idealism for Airbnb was to build a community that could help seven billion people ‘Belong Anywhere’. This required an intentional social contract that relied on people bringing their best self to the table and promoted the human value of hosting so travelers find themselves feeling like a local, wherever they happen to be.
Evan Spiegel was brave enough to rebuild his app that purposefully separated your social from your media, so people didn’t confuse influencers for their friends (while others doubled down on appropriating his innovations and capitalizing on access to their users’ data). He intentionally challenged some of the ills of social media where people find themselves ‘Lying to Strangers’ and distinguished Snap to be more about ‘Truth to Friends’.
Of course, there are more founders like these, but what separates them from others is that they all had a very clear vision for the role they wanted their companies to play in the world. They understood that great companies are built on an understanding of how their business impacts culture, and how to weave a narrative around their business that can inspire and direct. And, most importantly, they are built on a fundamental faith in people’s abilities and desires to do the right thing.
Such clarity of narrative often requires conscious and sometimes extremely tough business decisions that have steered those companies to where they are today. As Steve would say, ‘A thousand No’s for every Yes!’
Today at FNDR, having worked individually with the founders above, we have together been working with some of today’s most transformational founders — Emily at Glossier, Howie at AirTable, José at Farfetch, Rachel at Daily Harvest — as well as many other earlier stage founders of companies yet to make their dent in the universe, from Ingvar at Vitrolabs to Jacobi at IRIS.
We have seen a new type of Founder emerge, concerned with building not breaking, and thoughtful about the impact their innovations and behavior will have on society and culture. We work with those kinds of Founders.
In each case, we collaborate with our founders to ensure that the intent of the companies, the role they will play in the world, are built around a clear and positive Intentional Narrative. An Intentional Narrative makes sense of a company’s unreasonable ambition and captures the public imagination so that people aren’t left behind. It draws attention to their current action and lays guidelines for their future growth, while building a new social contract with people around technology.
Today, Founders have the unprecedented power to move culture and people’s lives, but it’s ultimately a choice that founders have to make.
It might sometimes be a harder, less convenient one, but ultimately it builds a company, brand and community that people believe in, because their role in the world is a constructive one and all the decisions they go on to make arise from that positive Intentional Narrative.
Illustration; Calvary Fisher