Building a successful business doesn’t automatically make you a good guy.
I keep finding myself going back to this thought. Despite the heroic image that society paints of entrepreneurs who’ve “made it”, the real measure of their worth should be the positive change their company has achieved.
And positive change is only achievable when grounded in values.
After all, a founder’s decision to solve a particular problem is anchored in his or her values. So is how a founder chooses to build their business. They assemble a group of passionate people to challenge the status quo and do the impossible, gathered around these mutual values; this is the simplest definition of a startup.
Unfortunately, too often in the busy tech environment, these values become empty words that languish in onboarding documents or gather dust on a forgotten part of the website.
But it is now, more than ever, that founders need to return to their ideals. When fundraising is tough. When you have difficult conversations with customers. When unseasonably warm winter days remind us humanity needs change fast. These values should always serve as a guiding light, a way to ensure we collectively pursue actual change — with no shortcuts, even when times are tough.
The cost of neglecting your values
As the world, and the tech industry in particular, ride through challenging times, many leaders will be tempted to turn their back on everything they once cherished and go into bunker mode, doing what they think they have to do to survive as a business. And what is the first thing they dismiss? The values they’ve worked so hard to implement.
If you don’t believe that young women can build successful companies — not even after seeing concrete proof points — we simply should not be working together
It takes courage to hold onto your values when times get tough. Walking away from potential investors because their values aren't aligned with your own might seem like madness. But, otherwise, you will pay the price further down the line.
It wasn’t long ago when, on a foggy London day, I heard these words come out of an investor’s mouth as we ended a pitch: “Linnéa [Einride’s CMO, deputy CEO and founder], as a young woman, is not good for the business. If you want us to invest, you should reconsider her role in the company.” I didn’t have to think twice; just quickly said goodbye and left the room. If you don’t believe that young women can build successful companies — not even after seeing concrete proof points — we simply should not be working together. These decisions are not easy, but they are critical to protect your company’s mission and vision.
Your values encompass everything that your company represents. Neglecting them has a knock-on effect — first, your company loses its purpose, then every stakeholder is out the door along with their trust, and finally you lose your team, the people who dedicated their lives to your business and helping you realise your dream.
Europe still has a long way to go
So often, founders give up on their values when times are tough because it’s the easier way out. At the same time, they try to simplify the problem in front of them.
European tech leadership is particularly guilty of this bias towards simplification. As a region, we have a lot to learn — our instincts to avoid confrontation, our tendency to be too literal or not confident enough, and how we ignore cultural differences in favour of doing things in the way we’re accustomed to (the simple way) can come back to bite us.
You can’t solve problems just by simplifying them
Businesses benefit from navigating complexity, learning to embrace uncertainty and facing challenges head-on. The impact of simplification is especially faulty in response to a crisis. You can’t solve problems just by simplifying them. Yes, breaking it down and picking apart every filament of the thread is important, but you must remember to simultaneously work with the entirety of the challenge, accepting the tangled mess for what it is.
But remember, values are a torch to guide you through the chaos.
Founders, take note
Nevertheless, you will be presented opportunities that challenge your beliefs and situations where you’ll have to choose to stick to your values or neglect them. Here are a few things I remind myself of that might be useful to you:
- Remember where you came from. You started a tech company because you wanted to do things differently, give life to innovation, and be part of building a better world. Sure, you may have other motivations, but thinking back to the original spark that convinced you to take the leap and found a company can be helpful if you find that, in the midst of a snowstorm, you’ve lost your compass. And when I find myself in tough situations, I go back to my collection of old books — they help me take a step back and remember what matters to me, and why we created our company in the first place.
- Stick to what you believe in. You cannot lead a team if you no longer share the same ideals that helped you start the company in the first place. Your team won’t take you seriously, nor will they respect or trust you if you don’t practice what you preach.
- Never go for the easy way out. It might be tempting to find a simpler route when faced with a challenge, but often, a shortcut today will lead to a bigger problem tomorrow. Force yourself to take the harder road. To get out of a crisis, you’ll need to inspire those around you and offer them the means to reach their goals. Neglecting the values that brought you together for a quick win will lead to lasting damage.
Every piece of the leadership puzzle boils down to the values you uphold — holding these as your North Star ensures that your team remains engaged and focused on the output, even if there are bumps on the road… and there will be plenty.
Part of our jobs as leaders is to remind people that we have a responsibility to create something greater than our self-serving interests. To take another look at those values you’ve written down and remember they’re not just words — they are the key to building a better, more resilient future for all.