When we founded Wildbit 20 years ago, we wanted to create a company where people could do their very best work on projects they were passionate about, in an environment where respect and support were fundamental.
Businesses exist to serve humans
One of the most counterintuitive ideas about business is that a company’s needs are somehow different from those of the people who run and work for that company — or that companies have needs of their own at all.
Businesses are designed to support human beings. And, as constructs created by humans, businesses should be tools that serve the humans in and around the business. It might sound reductive to describe them as tools, as though we’re likening often-complex organizations to pencils or chopsticks or tape measures. But tools exist to help people accomplish specific goals: drawing a line, picking up food, measuring distances. Businesses exist to help people achieve specific goals, too, but those goals aren’t always obvious in much the same way as who benefits from those goals isn’t always obvious.
When we fail to acknowledge this, we allow “the business” to take over. We end up making decisions based on what the business needs. Except businesses themselves don't “need” anything. They only need what we decide they need. Often, the supposed needs of a company are actually the needs of a small group of stakeholders who stand to personally benefit from those needs being met. Yet we act as though businesses are entities with agency and desires of their own, rather than the tools of human beings they are.
At Wildbit, we make decisions based on what humans need and use our business as a tool to enable and serve those needs. We do this by considering the motivations of four main groups of people, or constituents:
Each of these four constituents has their own goals. Sometimes, the goals of two or more constituents overlap, and that’s when great things can happen. Most of the time, unfortunately, they don’t.
Prioritizing the needs of a single constituent consistently often means sacrificing the needs of at least one of the other three. Here at Wildbit, we sometimes visualize the relationship between these four constituents as a pulley system. Unless we prioritize all four constituents equally, an imbalance is inevitable. Focusing solely on the needs and goals of founders can mean overlooking the needs of communities. Putting too much emphasis on customers often harms the interests of employees. Prioritizing the needs of communities can sometimes make it harder for founders to achieve their goals.
To us, people-first business isn’t just part of a mission statement. It’s a framework that guides every decision we make as a company. Unless the needs of all four constituents are addressed and served equally, we don’t take action. We consciously and deliberately evaluate every decision through this lens, from which features we build into our products to how we interact with our customers.
This isn’t always easy. It’s easier to be selfish than it is to be considerate. It’s easier to follow conventional wisdom than it is to examine the impact of our decisions critically. It’s easier to do things the way they’ve always been done than it is to challenge the status quo and risk failure by trying new ideas.
Focusing exclusively on the needs of a single constituent is much easier than considering the needs of four, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.
Similarly, considering the needs of all four constituents doesn’t mean we get it right every single time. We’ve found that it’s just as important to admit mistakes and learn from them as it is to consider the unique needs and motivations of the four constituents in the first place. We believe businesses are human, and if humans make mistakes, it follows that businesses can and will make mistakes, too.
Employee happiness is not a metric
Many companies tend to focus on the external factors that have an immediate impact on their profitability, such as competitors in their industry or the health of the economy as a whole. This focus is understandable. If a company doesn’t make any money, it probably won’t be in business for long. As competition intensifies, that focus intensifies, too.
But while factors like market conditions are important, the happiness and wellbeing of a company’s workforce are two of the most direct indicatorsof how well a business is likely to perform. And, unlike some metrics, it’s one that is directly within a business’ power to control.
It’s a net positive that employee wellbeing has become a more important focus in the workplace. Generally speaking, we’ve never been more aware of the need for employees to be happy, healthy, and engaged with their work. But despite study after study proving the positive impact of employee wellness on a business’ overall performance, many companies remain firmly committed to the growth-at-all-costs mindset that is pervasive among many companies and technology companies in particular. Some even put it front-and-center in their mission statements.
In recent years, employee wellness has become yet another metric for which businesses should “optimize” to pursue greater growth and higher profit. Conventional wisdom tells us that a healthy, happy workforce is a productive, engaged workforce. This, as management consultants will tell you, translates into happier customers, higher sales, and continued growth.
To complicate matters, some companies mistake — or deliberately substitute — frivolous perks for what people truly need from their employers to be happy in their work. Tapped kegs and pool tables are everyday sights at many startups, but complimentary snacks are no substitute for the opportunity to do meaningful work in a caring, supportive environment.
Many studies have shown that job security and the financial stability of an organization are a priority to employees. People can’t do their best work if they’re constantly worrying about whether their employer will survive the next few months or if their role is in jeopardy.
Unfortunately, many companies take advantage of this understandable desire for stability to justify the very same behaviors that created the toxic, winner-takes-all business culture that has left so many people discouraged and fatigued. Benefits are pared down so that companies can “remain competitive.” Longer working hours become necessary to “meet customer expectations.” Layoffs and redundancies become inevitable forces of nature rather than the consequence of intentional decisions made by real people.
Not only has the cold, dispassionate logic of management been normalized across business culture, but it has also been weaponized against its critics. Speaking up about punitively long working hours can invite accusations of “not being a team player.” Failing to respond to out-of-hours email can be seen as a failure of work ethic rather than a matter of respecting one’s boundaries. Those who can thrive in punishing work environments are often seen as members of an elite team, while those who can’t “aren’t a good cultural fit.”
Put another way, we see our people as people, not “employees.”
Meaningful work is productive work
We’ve been culturally and socially conditioned to believe that the vast majority of work is drudgery that we should endure, rather than a rich, rewarding experience that can bring meaning and purpose to our lives. People truly excel when given the opportunity to do work they’re passionate about, which often translates into successful, lasting businesses.
Deriving genuine meaning in the work we do has a positive impact on virtually every aspect of our professional lives, from interacting with our peers to mastery of our craft.
The desire for meaning in our work has become so intense that it’s often framed as a sacrifice to be made, as opposed to something that every person can have in their daily life. Countless stories and studies published in recent years state that most people would be willing to take a significant pay cut if it meant they could do more meaningful work.
This framing is especially prevalent when we examine the differences between for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations. There’s a romantic quality to stories of people casting off the shackles of their day jobs in the corporate world to pursue fulfilling, meaningful work in the nonprofit sector.
But while these anecdotes often make for a compelling story, the notion that we can either make money or do meaningful work is a false dichotomy. There’s no justifiable reason why rewarding, meaningful work should pay less than any other kind of work.
Ownership is frequently cited as one of the defining characteristics of meaningful work. While allowing people greater ownership and general autonomy can make work more meaningful, companies can also use it to avoid responsibility for enacting broader change. This is sometimes known as “the individualization of responsibility.” It forces the employee to derive meaning from their work, rather than forcing companies to reevaluate how, where, when, and why that work is done.
Not every job can be a vocation or calling, but how we work can be just as meaningful — if not more so — as the work itself. But we have to be intentional in creating spaces in which that work is possible, and that often means asking hard questions.
Lasting change is incremental and intentional
Despite the “survival of the fittest” ethos that permeates most business cultures, companies are social constructs. There is no “natural” order when it comes to how we do business. Companies exist within the cultural frameworks we’ve created for ourselves. They adhere to behaviors and customs we deem acceptable, whether socially, legally, or both. The stock market isn’t a living organism or sentient being, and companies do not exist according to the laws of nature.
Acknowledging the often-predatory nature of modern business is uncomfortable because it forces us to recognize that real people have made informed, purposeful decisions in the knowledge that those decisions are harmful to others. It means acknowledging that the suffering of many has been presented as a necessity to ensure the comfort of a select few. Even leading economists and major investors are beginning to question the sustainability of our current systems. While this is another net positive, it’s just the first step of many toward real, lasting change.
Meaningful change isn’t possible until we acknowledge that real decisions made by real people have created the current business environment — and individual decisions are necessary to make things better for our customers, our communities, and each other.
We also have to acknowledge that achieving real change is often a slow, incremental process that relies upon collective action. Tossing a single soda can into the trash instead of a recycling bin might not seem like a significant choice but can have a dramatic impact at scale. We can’t control what others do, but we can control what we do.
Over the years, we’ve had countless opportunities to accept external funding — as well as the investor expectations that come with it. We’ve made thousands of decisions that have all directly impacted how we’ve grown as a company. We could have cut corners or sacrificed what’s important to us in order to grow bigger or faster. Could we have “generated more economic value” if we’d made different decisions? Maybe, though precisely what that “value” is and who benefits from it isn’t always clear. But we’ve made the decisions we’ve made out of a sincere, genuine belief that there’s a better way to do things, and that’s by putting people first.
Putting people first
You don’t have to have all the answers to acknowledge that there’s a problem. We don’t have all the answers. But we do know that pursuing relentless growth at any cost isn’t a sustainable way to build businesses or help people find meaning in their work. It might work for some companies — and their investors — but we don’t believe it’s a healthy way to do business or build great products that customers love.
We’ve spent a long time thinking about what works for us. What works well here at Wildbit may not work for another company. But it has worked for us, and we hope that other businesses can learn from our journey and that we can learn from theirs.
To us, that’s a big part of what being a people-first business means. It means asking difficult questions, not knowing all the answers, and being willing to say so.
The principle of people-first business is the foundation of everything we do, from the smallest product feature to the biggest decisions about what we do as a company. Businesses are built by people, and we think they should be built for people, too.