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9 Principles for Building an Authentic Business

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I started my company because, I wanted to know whether a company built on the principles of service and selflessness could really work. And, perhaps most importantly, I wanted to show our nascent community what could be accomplished if a group of high-minded individuals were willing to make the kind of ironclad commitments to each other that every authentic community, like Mepkin Abbey, must be built upon.

In the very beginning, there were just six of us, including my brother Tom. We didn't have a business plan beyond what one of my partners described as, "We're smart guys -- we'll figure out something to do." We may have been vague on what we were going to do, but we were crystal clear about who we wanted to be. As Citizen Kane did when he bought his first newspaper, we came up with a statement of principles that we intended to live by.

  1. Our first principle was setting a company culture where personal growth, honesty, integrity, and selflessly putting people first were more important than making money.
  2. Our second principle was high expectations. Starting a business based on higher values didn't mean setting low bars and rationalizing away failure as just one of the inevitable costs of trying to do authentic business in a profane world. Instead, if we were truly in business for a higher purpose, our goals should be higher than the goals of those who were simply in it for the money. For example, we decided to begin work each morning at seven-thirty in order to get a jump start on those heathens better known as the competition. We maintained that start time for the next seven years.
  3. Our third principle was compassion. This didn't mean that we would never fire anyone. It meant that we would do everything we could to help everyone get over the bar -- without lowering the bar. While more would be expected of some than of others, all would be expected to carry his or her own weight.
  4. Our fourth principle was a corollary of the third. We wanted our company to be a community; the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts. A community capable of extending compassion to individuals must also be composed of people willing to sacrifice for the good of the community. Carrying one's own weight, for example, is one way for an individual to show compassion for the community.
  5. Our fifth principle was keeping promises through a management system that formalized accountability. We decided to wage a relentless war against the ambiguity, equivalence, and outright double-talk that we all use to get off the hook. We wanted a goal-setting culture that eschewed "I'll try" in favor of "I'll do."

    Keeping promises was often inconvenient. For example, we paid every one of our vendors on time, even when it was very tempting to "stretch" our payables. We did this even when, especially in the early years, it meant that my partners or I didn't get a paycheck. We always paid our vendors on time simply because this is what we had promised to do.

  6. Our sixth principle was open communication. Professionally this meant having all those "awkward" business conversations that usually end up under the rug. To keep the lines of communication open, we also had to give everyone permission to make mistakes. On the personal level, this meant that our employees would always find a sympathetic ear when issues outside the business were impinging on their productivity or merely weighing on their minds.
  7. Our seventh principle was honesty -- no hidden agendas and trumped-up business cases designed to mask selfish motivations. We were perfectly sympathetic to someone who needed or wanted more money, a bigger office, or a window office. What was intolerable was sitting through a three-hour presentation ostensibly designed to make the sales force more efficient but really designed to slyly get the presenter a bigger share of the pie. Put another way, our seventh principle just meant no B.S.!
  8. We called our eighth principle "Anybody can fight." Bickering and political infighting are easy. Compromise and conflict resolution are hard. From the very beginning, we made it clear that if any two individuals or departments couldn't resolve their differences on their own, both parties would suffer regardless of the eventual outcome.
  9. Our final principle was to embrace a "back against the wall" mentality. Peak performance is usually a delicate balance between inspiration and desperation, and from the very beginning, like Cortés burning his ships, we wanted to build a sense of urgency into our company. As a result, though one of my partners and I were relatively well off, we invested only enough capital for one month's office rent and phones. This came to only a couple of thousand dollars, and we decided that if we ever couldn't bring in enough money to pay the next month's expenses, we would close the company rather than prop it up with continual cash infusions.

I saw building a company as a demonstration project, a way to put all the principles that I espoused and lessons I had learned from the Monks at Mepkin Abbey into practice. I saw it as a way to create opportunities for personal growth in real time under the pressure of real-life challenges.