How to Figure Out Why Your Company Exists
“Don’t go bust”
That was my rather unhelpful answer when Matt, Matthew, Shannon and I started talking about why Aira exists. It wasn’t wrong but wasn’t exactly what we were looking for either.
It’s something that we’d talked loosely about because we knew what we wanted to do with the company, but we didn’t ever sit down and fully define it in a way that could be explained to others. The truth is, we didn’t ever think it was something we needed to do.
Why we needed to figure out why we exist
The short version of this (which is the one I prefer) is that everyone at your company needs to know two things:
- Why they’re getting out of bed and coming to work every day
- Whatever the answer is, why they should do it at your company
Many people, at least those who are motivated to excel in their careers, won’t struggle with #1, but almost everyone will struggle with #2 at some point, especially if they are very good at answering #1 for themselves.
As you grow, these things will get worse and could start having a noticeable impact on your company such as motivation and focus waning and ultimately, people leaving for what appears to be (but may not actually be) better opportunities.
When you’re a small team, it’s important but in our experience, not as important. For us, when we were less than ten people, it was a very much an “us against the world” mentality because we were the new agency trying to prove ourselves and make our mark on the world. Even as we added more people, this was enough for a while.
It’s hard to know exactly when this changed, but if I had to pinpoint a moment, it would have been when we had enough people to warrant splitting them into teams and having them run by people who weren’t me and Matt. At this point, you start to develop sub-cultures within those teams and then the team leaders will have their own ways of doing things.
This can be quite nerve-wracking as a company founder because you’re starting to “give” control of culture and how you do things to someone else. The truth is, you can’t stop this and you shouldn’t try to control a culture 100%. There are a few things you should be doing though:
- Promoting team leaders who understand the culture well already and see what you’re trying to do (this can make external hires, tricky, but not impossible)
- Working with team leaders to develop them as people and managers
- When it comes to culture and executing with it in mind, making it clear that you have their backs and will back them when it comes to maintaining culture and values
This doesn’t mean that we started to figure out exactly why we exist at that point - it was a few years ago now. Being honest, it’s only now looking back on our growth that we realise these phases of growth meant that changes were happening. As you go through these phases, you don’t really notice them because you’re very close to the business. You're also focusing on keeping clients!
What the answers need to look like
Whilst “don’t go bust” isn’t wrong, it’s not exactly something that was going to work or be a reason for people to get out of bed and come to work for us every day. Part of our challenge with defining why we existed was that Matt and I could probably give you an answer face to face or over a pint or coffee. But this doesn’t scale well, especially when you have teams in different locations.
We knew that our reasons to exist needed to do a few things:
- Short, simple and to the point
- Nudges the team in the right direction when making decisions
- Something that the team can get behind and see the benefits of (for themselves as well as the company)
- Empowering our team leaders to run their teams how they want but with an overarching piece of direction
Don’t underestimate the power of the words you choose here. We had a few variations of the reasons you see below and went through a few iterations of what was essentially the same meaning. But we tried to be careful in making sure that the wording was not open to too much interpretation or meaning.
How we figured out why we exist
Much in the same way that we didn’t sit in a room to come up with our values, we couldn’t just sit down in a room and figure out why we exist as a company. For us, it was about letting the company develop and then looking at what we’d built. From there, it wasn’t actually that difficult to see why we existed. However, it was tricky to summarise it in such a way that we felt could resonate with our team. This is where being good with copy can help!
One of the things that stood out and had always been the case from day 1, was our desire to create a great place to work. But this alone wouldn’t be enough - it would be pointless to build a company which is a great place to work but isn’t able to survive commercially! So there is always a need for balance and focus here.
Here is why we exist
- Deliver exceptional results for our clients, helping them grow their business online
- Create the best working environment in the UK
- Develop the next generation of CMOs and Marketers for leading companies
These are not set in stone forever, we’re very likely to tweak and improve them as time goes on. This for me is a key difference with what we’ve done vs. defining a mission statement which, as most people define, shouldn’t change.
Let’s go into more detail on each one.
Deliver exceptional results for our clients, helping them grow their business online
This goes without saying, but should still be defined in a concrete way. For us, it’s about helping clients grow their businesses online.
This means that it’s not about doing SEO, paid search, link building or digital PR. Of course, these are the things that we do, but the end is the same - grow a client’s business online. This helps the team think bigger than their individual discipline, as well as helps them realise that delivering a technical audit, a piece of keyword research or a link building campaign is not enough. These things need to go beyond that.
Making this practical, this reason for existing can help guide decisions such as:
- How we choose to integrate our teams across the business as more develop
- How we train the teams
- What kinds of hiring decisions we make and the talents we are looking for
- How we position and differentiate ourselves in the industry
There are many more, but as you can see, a tangible reason for existing can help give focus and direction. It helps tell us why we do what we do.
Think you don’t need it? I didn’t for a while. Then we grew fast and I started to see that I was wrong.
Create the best working environment in the UK
Notice that we’re not just talking about Milton Keynes or even anything related to digital marketing. We want to go bigger than that and that is kind of the point of this reason, it gives us something big and bold to shoot for and the truth is, we’ll never be done with this. There will never be a point at which we can say that we’ve done it, but we can always strive for it and given our focus on culture, that makes it a great reason to exist.
What does this mean in reality? It means that we’re always looking for ways to improve how we do things. This ties direction into our culture and the team behind Aira and is one of the reasons that we’re clear on what our culture actually means - because it’s really, really important.
Develop the next generation of CMOs and Marketers for leading companies
This reason for existing shows our commitment to our team and developing them into the best they possibly can be. It also acknowledges the reality of work - no one is going to work for Aira forever. We know that at some point, everyone will move on. Whilst someone works for us, we want to get as much value from them as possible and add as much value to them as people too.
I don’t like it when people leave Aira. We’ve had people leave and we’ve also let people go, but whichever one it is, I tend to see it as we’ve failed at something. Either we’ve not given someone enough career progression to stay, or we’ve made a hiring mistake, or we’ve not done a good enough job of getting someone into the right seat on the bus.
This isn’t the right mindset. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always going to think we could have done better if someone leaves and that’s a good thing, but I need to accept that it’s going to happen and that it’s ok.
I’m ok with this if we’re developing people to become CMOs of the future because this isn’t just adding value to their career, but it will be adding a lot of value to Aira clients in the process.
How these reasons tie together
At first glance, you may think that these are mutually exclusive, but they all re-enforce each other in different ways. It’s tricky to explain in a blog post, but let me give you a few examples which may help illustrate the point:
- Delivering great results for clients requires a team with the talent and desire to deliver what they need - focusing on hiring people who can become CMOs of the future helps with this
- Clients want to enjoy working with us. Ultimately, we don’t work with clients, we work with people. If we provide a great place to work where people enjoy being, this will translate to clients too and enable better projects. Enabling better projects makes it more likely that we’ll deliver exceptional results
- Creating the best working environment means that we can attract existing, experienced talent who will add more value to the company and team around them - both making people happier at work and by improving the results we deliver
You get the point!
Can these reasons change?
Yes, they can. You could define these reasons for existing as our company vision or mission - they get mixed up all the time! But a vision statement is often presented as a single statement, phrase or short paragraph. It’s also described as something which can guide a company for 100 years or more. Whilst a mission is more short term than that and may last 3-5 years.
My view - I don’t like either mission or vision for a few reasons which I’ll write about one day!
Defining why we exist, I believe, answers the questions that mission and vision are designed to answer, but is far simpler and easier to change and adapt as time goes on.
So in summary, it’s likely that these reasons will adapt and change as time goes on. I don’t think they’ll change drastically, but I can see us refining them and making them more tangible as we grow and learn more about what each one means in reality.
To wrap up
For us, coming up with reasons why we existed was quite tricky - when we were looking 100% forwards. When we looked back at what we had, then combined this with what we wanted to continue building, it was far easier to see.
If you’re looking to do this for your own teams, I’d highly recommend looking inward at what you have and what has developed naturally. Start to observe things, make notes and things will start to appear - but don’t put yourself under pressure to come up with the answers overnight because that’s unlikely to happen.