Now, it's one thing to identify customer requirements and quite another to understand them. And what I've realized of late is how disconnected I might have been--and how disconnected many company leaders are--from internalizing the reality of our customers and the impact we've had on the larger landscape.
The idea of social impact may date back to Benjamin Franklin and his attributed aphorism of "doing well by doing good." But the term social impact is a later arrival, in vogue with the consultant set these days, and often cited by leaders of large corporations trained to proclaim that their companies actually care about the effect their products and profits have on the world--the same leaders who've been tsk-tsk'd about the fact that, oh, yeah, financial success for these companies is actually in opposition to values such as health, happiness, a clean environment, and a flourishing community. At that level, minding the social impact of a corporation often amounts to a Band-Aid, one applied by a marketing department hoping to gloss over bruised customers and industrial-scale consequences.
Many founders want to chart a better course from day one. Sure, some founders trot out the "make the world a better place" song and dance while scouring for any angle that might yield a competitive edge. Yet many of us start a company not just to make money but also to make a difference--and we intend our companies to be our legacies.
That's why there's no better time to think about the social impact your company will have than when you are starting to build it. Before the shareholder demands, before the board considerations, it's possible to build values into your business as you build your business. And that doesn't require being a benefit corporation, or conforming to some other structure that many entrepreneurs might perceive as tying one hand behind their back. (Which, by the way, is not necessarily the case.) Rather, social impact demands only some longer-term thinking: If our enterprise succeeds on every level, will the net result be positive or negative on our communities and society?
This is easier for some companies than others. At GoodRx, the mission to save people money on health care dovetails neatly with social incentives. But in many other sectors-- enterprise, finance, real estate, retail, manufacturing--it can be a lot more difficult to anticipate the impact a company may have at scale. After all, Facebook started as a way for college pals to connect; no one imagined a social network could eventually become a tool to topple governments.
It's still necessary for entrepreneurs to consider what their wildest dreams may reap. Yes, you should and must focus on your product, and find your market, and navigate your way toward real revenue and a reasonable profit margin. Every founder needs to choose his or her North Star and be guided by it. But, every once in a while, consider where that path will take you and your company--and its users, and their communities, and the world at large.
Because, when we go home exhausted and spent at the end of the day, that's the world we all go home to.
From the Winter 2019/2020 issue of Inc. Magazine