The values-driven startup

The most neglected fact in business is that we’re all human.
— Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre Hospitality

We humans are an extraordinary bunch. When inspired, humans can accomplish amazing things – from enabling flight to creating microprocessors to putting a man on the moon. As incredible as humans can be, we are fundamentally wired to maximize our chances of survival and our social status. This makes us highly susceptible to the cultural norms and principles of those around us.


At the societal level, we’ve created a political and economic system designed to optimize the overall production and consumption of goods and services; to maximize our financial wealth. Yet, over the last 50 years as our per capita GDP has skyrocketed, corresponding measures of well-being, life satisfaction and happiness have flat-lined.

The key assumption that has served as the backbone of our cultural norms and principles for nearly 200 years is no longer valid. Exponential increases in the efficiency of producing food, clothing and shelter have enabled Western society to overcome scarcity – we now have more than enough stuff. It is no longer true that maximizing economic productivity and consumption maximizes our individual and collective well-being.

Try to think of someone you know who goes to work every day inspired and leaves better off than when they arrived. Now think of someone you know who finds their workday draining and detrimental to their well-being.  Which was easier?

Why are we tolerating this? There has to be a better way.

In the startup world, thousands of entrepreneurs focus their ingenuity on finding ways to make millions of dollars. They look for market inefficiencies and focus on questions like: “Will consumers pay for this?” without asking “Will this make people’s lives meaningfully better?” It’s not that we shouldn’t try to make money, it’s just that money should be merely one of many factors we strive for, and it’s played far too central a role for far too long.

So, if maximizing economic output fails to achieve the goal of maximized well-being, what might be an alternative hypothesis worth testing? Here’s my proposal:

When we operate according to our core values and principles, in pursuit of a vision for the future that inspires us, we maximize our individual and collective well-being.

As individuals, this seems relatively intuitive. In those rare moments when we have the audacity to truly be ourselves, we feel energized, alive, and free. When we dare to take a stand for our beliefs or go after what we really want in the face of social pressure, we feel exhilarated. When we take action for a cause we believe in, we experience a deeper, more sustained joy and peace.

I propose that we start testing this hypothesis at the company-level by architecting and building companies from the ground up that are designed to achieve an inspiring vision for how the world could be, driven by a core set of values and principles. I envision a world of values-driven people and values-driven companies. And what better place to start than with the youngest, most innovative companies in the world: startups.

The values-driven startup

The values-driven startup operates according to a set of clearly-defined values, aligned with an inspiring vision and strategy, that drive people’s behaviors and decisions every day.

The core building blocks of a values-driven startup include an inspiring vision, an effective strategy, well-defined values, observable behaviors for each value, and company-wide processes and routines that reinforce the values. The key is that everyone involved in the company truly embraces the vision, and actually lives the values day in and day out. There are already a number of startups beginning to operate this way, and they are illuminating the path for a new generation of companies built to maximize the well-being of all stakeholders. Here are a few that stand out:


Automattic (makers of WordPress, see disclosure below) has a vision to democratize publishing and make “the web a better place.” They define their values in a creed that is included in each employee’s offer letter. When new employees sign on the dotted line, they’re committing themselves to live by Automattic’s core values of learning, taking initiative, embracing change, helping others, humility, impact, open source, maximum communication, long-term focus and perseverance.


Eventbrite’s vision is to empower everyone to create, experience and share live events. They define their key values (“brand attributes”) as Accessible, Empowering, Social, Delightful, Innovative and Genuine. Their values are woven tightly into their hiring process, including an evaluation of each and every candidate for values alignment. Founders Kevin and Julia Hartz operate by the core principle of putting people first, company second and personal interests third. Despite raising more than $50 million in their recent financing round, Kevin and Julia did not take a dime off the table.


Sharethrough’s vision is to build the future of media through their social video platform. They define their values as Optimism, Action, Purpose, Transparency, Respect, Creativity and Personal Growth. In the process of choosing a key vendor earlier this year, CEO Dan Greenberg had all but made up his mind. But when one of the company’s new employees pointed out to Dan that choosing a less experienced vendor would more fully honor Sharethrough’s value of Personal Growth, Dan and the team took a chance on the new vendor and haven’t looked back.

New questions

Entrepreneurs, I invite you to start asking yourselves new questions. What vision of the future truly inspires you?  What values and principles do you want to live by? What will allow you and your team to flourish? In the words of philosopher Howard Thurman, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Dave Kashen is the founder of Quantum Leading, a leadership coaching and culture development firm for startups, and the Unleashed conference series. He writes the Awesome Culture blog.

Disclosure: Auttomatic is backed by True Ventures, an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

Image courtesy of Flickr user cdsessums.