How can startups have a genuinely positive influence on society?

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

Jamie Brooker
Oct 17, 2018 · 12 min read

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

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.

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.

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


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

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

What does ‘being human’ mean?


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

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.

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

Self harming?


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

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.

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.

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

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.


We Are Human

Musings about entrepreneurship, growth, design thinking and leadership from the co-founders and incubators of Kahoot!.

Jamie Brooker

Written by

Building companies that put human beings at the centre. Founder We Are Human & Kahoot!. Design, business, startups, tech, education.

We Are Human

Musings about entrepreneurship, growth, design thinking and leadership from the co-founders and incubators of Kahoot!.