How can startups have a genuinely positive influence on society?

Entrepreneurs can tackle our biggest challenges if they understand how to put humans first

It’s been quite the month (and a bit). These musings are my roundabout way of sharing the themes that have arisen.

They are pertinent at a time when public discourse is focused around political discontent, climate and environmental issues, the deep rooted prejudices and imbalance in society, or the negative effects technology is having on us.

Split into 4 parts, this post should be uplifting! My hope is you can gain inspiration as to how entrepreneurs and business can tackle some of the major challenges we face.

And, if modern life means you don’t have 12 minutes to read this, you can scroll to the bottom and jump straight to the conclusions 😉


Part 1: Understanding what it means to be human

At the start of September, I joined the inaugural XVoyage; sailing a (pirate?) ship from Oslo to Copenhagen with 60 fellow entrepreneurs over 3 days.

I dread the majority of events in the startup world

Everyone has something to sell (make sure you perfect that 2 minute elevator pitch!). People aren’t always themselves. Introverts are forced to be extroverts. We put workaholics on a pedestal called “hustle”, and celebrate the latest investment round as the primary measure of success. Aren’t we all amazing?
I’m generalising of course, but everything seems designed to give a somewhat false perspective of what it’s really like to be an entrepreneur. It misses the point about why we do what we do. Being a founder is the new rockstar, and it’s not a good look.
It’s perpetuating a movement that places profits over people, and unrelenting growth over real human consequences.
Photos from onboard the Christian Radich, as part of XVoyage from Oslo to Copenhagen, 2nd — 4th September 2018

XVoyage was different

My phone was locked away, there was no alcohol onboard. I had shifts between 4 and 8, am and pm. I didn’t just learn how to sail. I also learnt that being disconnected is just fine — you can be present, listen more intently.

When that happens — and when everyone is treated equally (like when you’re all learning to sail a massive ship for the first time) — people open up, embrace their vulnerabilities or share their perspectives on topics that really matter.

As one example, whilst standing at the very top of the mast (having just climbed up whilst NOT being clipped on!), I learnt about how my behaviours are contributing to the plastics in the ocean problem, from people who are building a company to change these behaviours on a global scale.

I had countless conversations on important topics; naturally often about the ocean itself, but also education and mental health, amongst others, all whilst on lookout duty, pulling ropes or just eating dinner.

The Nordics are a leading light in building impact focused businesses

There’s a real movement — supported by governments and the investment community — but most importantly fuelled by a perspective of sustainability and an understanding of their society’s problems, by Nordic entrepreneurs. The rest of the world can learn a lot from what’s happening there.

XVoyage is the brainchild of my We Are Human and Kahoot! co-founder Johan, as part of the EntrepreneurShipOne platform.

The startup community needs a platform like this; a place to pay it forward and learn from others, to get to the heart of the real problems that need solving, in environments where how to solve those problems becomes more obvious, away from the faux-glitz of the startup world.

The Trampery, our co-working space in London, run their Pathways ‘decelerator’ — a really encouraging initiative that challenges the idea that we need to run ourselves into the ground in order to succeed. I was equally encouraged when myself and Tim recently spoke at the EdTech Podcast Festival (created by the forever inspiring Sophie Bailey), the people there realise we need to collaborate (rather than compete) to improve something as important as education.

These initiatives shouldn’t be the exception, but they are

It’s important to spend time with fellow entrepreneurs, investors or community builders, but if we’re to create truly impactful businesses, I think we need to understand ourselves better first.
We can then meet each other at a more human level, slow down and allow our experiences to shape our outlook, rather than being forced into a world that doesn’t sit with our natural instincts and values, that leads to inadequate solutions and unintended consequences.

Part 2: The most impactful businesses change human behaviours at scale

If we slow down and really consider the role we can play as entrepreneurs, it becomes easier to see the problems that need tackling with more clarity, and understand the ambition needed to genuinely solve them.

In general I’m disappointed with a lot of startups I meet

They often lack ambition or don’t focus on what’s most important. Instead producing incremental solutions that perpetuate the status quo — something I spoke about in an EdTech context in my keynote at Dare To Learn in Helsinki.
Whilst at Dare To Learn, I was full of pride at how often Kahoot! was mentioned as a source of inspiration. Yet, one of the things people often struggle to grasp about Kahoot!’s growth is how it actually happened.
They look at our purposely simple product and misunderstand the impact it has on those that use it.
Dare To Learn, Helsinki, September 2018

News flash - Kahoot! hasn’t scaled because it’s a quiz

Kahoot! has scaled because it positively transforms learning behaviours, no matter the context it’s used in. It takes learning from a passive, individual activity, to something that’s active, social and rewarding. In a classroom, that literally changes the established behaviours of the last 100+ years. That behaviour change is so profound that Kahoot! now effects the lives of nearly 100M people every month.

Still my favourite Kahoot! tweet nearly 5 years later

Yet people sometimes miss this. We often get so obsessed with the technology, we forget to look at what the technology really enables for the people that use it. This creates a disconnect between the problems that we set out to solve and the impact of the end solution.

I’m fed up hearing that artificial intelligence or blockchain is the saviour to the world’s problems. It may well end up being part of the solution, but can we talk about how and what it enables instead?

What does ‘being human’ mean?

A couple of weeks ago I saw the inimitable Yuval Noah Harari in conversation with Natalie Portman. When discussing what spirituality is, Harari stated that with so much uncertainty in the world, “we need spirituality more than ever” because spirituality asks the question “what does it mean to be human?”.
He believes this is a question that engineers now need to ask themselves, suggesting that technology companies need to hire philosophers and spirituality experts in order to tackle the problems in front of us.
I tend to agree. It’s not enough to just look at the technology. We need to understand the consequences our solutions have. We need to look at the wider picture and ensure we’re supporting genuinely positive behaviours, that give us a more sustainable future.

Part 3: To create positive behaviours we need to act responsibly

I recently spoke at the Chief Innovation officer Summit in London about behavioural design. Knowing the audience consisted of people working at corporates, I wanted to challenge their beliefs around what’s acceptable when trying to convince people to use our products.

A slide from my recent talk at the Chief Innovation Officer summit in London

Behavioural design has rightly come up against a backlash

Increasingly, technology and social media companies are being questioned on the ethics of their business models and the techniques they employ to sustain them. Companies like Facebook have used behavioural design to manipulate their users, coercing them to use their products more in order to increase profits.
This has led to very real mental health issues. I don’t think these companies purposely set out to create addiction, but it is a consequence of not taking responsibility and thinking about the wider effects of their actions. Profit over people.

Taming technology

Our friend Nir Eyal stated from the very beginning that the techniques in his book Hooked (the behavioural design bible) should be used for good. And I have seen them used to create positive behaviours. We used them in Kahoot! to reinforce positive learning experiences; to show tangible progress and create a sense of belonging.

Another example is our friends Hold — who are transforming our relationship with technology, encouraging us to use our phones less; focusing our minds on our relationships, work and other day-to-day tasks. The potential for Hold to create genuine global behaviour change excites me, and at We Are Human we are thrilled to be working with them.

Hold, like Kahoot!, use behavioural design in a way that presents users with a choice. The experiences reward our intrinsic motivations to better ourselves, but we’re still given the option to do it again should we want to. Social media takes a different approach, using techniques that instead trick you into coming back (or indeed never leaving in the first place — ever wondered why you can continue scrolling forever?!).

Amusing ourselves to death?

I recently read ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ by Neil Postman, which was incredibly written in 1985 about television, but can just as easily be applied to 2018 and social media:

‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ by Neil Postman, 1985

“The average length of a shot on network television is only 3.5 seconds, so the eye never rests, always has something new to see. Moreover, television offers viewers a variety of subject matter, requires minimal skills to comprehend it, and is largely aimed at emotional gratification.” — sound familiar?

Postman talked about how television has reduced our attention spans, and the effects this has had on political discourse and education, reducing them both to a form of entertainment in bitesize chunks. With the political turmoil of the past couple of years, and social media’s role in both spreading fake news or manipulating voting, it’s hard to argue against the idea that his assessment has only become truer more than 30 years later. A clear case of us failing to take responsibility and think about the bigger picture of our actions.

Self harming?

Harari also picked up on this theme in his conversation with Portman when looking to the future. He highlighted the fear that is often spread about artificial intelligence — “the machines will take over!” — but, what’s more concerning to him is that if our inability to think about the consequences of our actions continues, we’ll end up harming ourselves irreversibly.
He mentioned technology brings him joy when used correctly, but “there needs to be a thoughtfulness that goes into our solutions”. I could’t agree more, and believe this philosophy is needed in order to create a more sustainable society.

Part 4: Acting responsibly means designing our businesses with thoughtfulness

Taking responsibility doesn’t just mean through the products we want people to use, but through everything that goes into creating a business. It’s about how we behave as a company as a whole.

I will always promote human-centred cultures within organisations

When businesses place their own people (and the people they’re impacting through their products) above everything else, they also put more thought into the consequences of their business models too. They understand the business model underpins all decisions made across the entire organisation.
Unfortunately, the startup world is still fond of asking “but how do we get them to use it more?”, and VCs are therefore continuing to fund addiction.
A slide from my recent talk at EduImpactFund’s side event at Dare To Learn on impact investing

Funding impact

Whilst in Helsinki, I also spoke at EduImpactFund’s side event about impact investment. At We Are Human we look at investment cases from an impact-first perspective — is the company purpose-driven? Human-centred? Focused on genuine behaviour change? We believe an impact-first approach gives a greater chance of scalability and ultimately commercial sustainability.

Why? Because when you genuinely transform people’s lives, the impact can be so profound that they actually want to come back and use your products (and even tell others about it!). The scale this approach brings gives you more opportunity to unlock innovative business models. That was certainly the case when we were growing Kahoot!.

The VCs in the room were keen to focus on the final point I made — “Impact investment is a long-term strategy”. There is a general lack of patience with startups, a need for speed (and financial returns). Some of it is justified because the world is so fast moving it can be unforgiving if you arrive in 2nd place. But this also perpetuates an approach that gives us less time to think about the consequences or be genuinely impactful.

Lean Startup and Design Thinking

There’s a reason the Lean Startup is such a successful movement, and we’re believers in it. It forces you to consider whether you’re doing the right things before committing too much time and money to it. When combined with design thinking methods that always put human beings first, it increases the chances of discovering the smartest and most impactful solutions to some of the most complex and fuzzy problems.

Yet, too often you see poorly executed solutions that no one wants to use. This is often a consequence of when companies make major assumptions about their audience, stray away from solving a single value proposition really well, or don’t consider the wider ethics of what they’re doing.

Inclusive Design as a sustainable strategy

We Are Human were honoured to be invited by Onny Eikhaug and Victoria Swane Høisæther (who run the Inclusive Design programme at Doga), to exhibit Kahoot! as part of the Norwegian installation at the “emotional states” themed London Design Biennale, highlighting the inclusive design strategy that’s led to Kahoot!’s growth.

AV1 Robot from No Isolation — solving loneliness in children

We exhibited alongside No Isolation, who are building products that aim to put an end to loneliness. Their AV1 robot is an incredible example of how tackling a real human problem through design thinking, can lead to genuinely innovative solutions.

The robot acts as a child’s eyes, ears and voice in the classroom when they can’t be there due to serious illness or other problems. Not only is the idea innovative (they had no idea a robot would be the solution when they started), but the quality of execution is up there with the very best I’ve seen. It’s a genuinely beautifully designed, easy-to-use, inclusive and transformative experience.

This wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t rigged their business to enable it to happen, allowing them to put thought and time into solving the very real and serious problems at the heart of their mission.
The world needs more companies like No Isolation.

In conclusion…

  • If entrepreneurs want to genuinely impact the world, they’d do well to side-step the startup circus and focus on the most important aspects of being human first — slow down, have meaningful conversations and put themselves in situations that allow them to really feel the problems they’re solving.
  • To create impactful businesses our ambition should be on changing behaviours for the better. It’s not about the technology, but what the technology enables for humanity. To do that we need to understand what being human means.
  • To understand how we can shift behaviours at scale, we need to consider the wider consequences of our work. Business and technology has been part of harming society, but we have an opportunity to right some of those wrongs if we act with more responsibility in the way we create products and services.
  • Acting responsibly means being more thoughtful with how we design our businesses; the cultures we cultivate, how the business behaves, the business models that inform all our decisions, the methods we use to create our products, and the quality with which we deliver them.

If you’ve got this far, thanks for reading… I would hugely appreciate some claps 👏 and shares 🙌 so that others can find it!


We Are Human creates purpose driven organisations striving for social and commercial impact. We are mostly known for co-founding and incubating Kahoot!, “the world’s fastest growing learning brand”, launched in August 2013. By May 2017, we had scaled Kahoot! to reach 50 million people around the world every month, along with our co-founders and a highly dedicated team.