About a year ago, I think offended a few businessmen for saying something to the effect of, “Profits are like oxygen – you need them to stay alive, but they’re not why you exist.”
Now, if you heard this statement in isolation, I guess you’d think I was some kind of tree-hugging socialist. And, of course, I am. But I didn’t say profits weren’t important. I said they weren’t why you existed.
If your absolute and stated goal as a business is to make as much money as possible, you’re basically a pirate (the bad kind). To a pirate, the world is simply a space with money in it. The problem is that there’s more money outside of your ship than inside. The pirate doesn’t have to think about things like creating brand appeal, satisfying customers, or creating unique and interesting products because, to the pirate, other people are simply places containing things that you would like to have.
The non-piratical way of making money is to
- Figure out what people want, need, or could want,
- Figure out what you’re good at doing,
- Do things that satisfy the above conditions, and
- Accept money in return.
If you keep focusing on new and interesting ways to help people, then customers will follow you. If you simply focus on getting their money, you will inevitably chase the customers – with a cannon.
Now, pirates don’t stop being pirates just because they recognize that it is (for the time being) more profitable to obey the law than not. These businessmen were perhaps a touch piratical. I don’t think their company is doing very well, and I’m not surprised. Rather than trying to make people (employees included) happy, they’re trying to extract money from them.
There’s definitely a place at every company for people who have this utilitarian worldview. They are vital, in fact, because they ask the hard questions other people aren’t willing to. But if the company forgets, along the way, that their goal is to provide useful goods and services (and accept money in return), then they’re going to gradually mutate into, say, Apple in the 1990′s.
Now, that brings me to another anecdote, which is particularly funny in this context. I think I was rejected from a job for asking how they intended to make money. That doesn’t make me a pirate any more than the above makes me a hippie. It just makes me a guy who would like to continue to have a roof over his head.