The business of everything

We live in a commercial world. Nearly everything in our lives today is run on the business principles of return on investment, cost minimization, and increasing profitability. This includes many things still considered community services like education, the arts, hospitals, transport, sports, your local kindergarten fete, and religious activities. The idea of community service runs second to the commercial imperative, and in many cases a distant second. A strong commercial backbone is a necessary part of many activities but we need to be careful not to lose the principles of a venture when we embrace its commercial reality.

Facebook exists and has nearly a billion users because it provides a better way for people to connect and share their lives. Those are the original principles on which Facebook was founded. In the beginning there appeared to have been little or no thought given to Facebook as a commercial enterprise. It simply set out to be the best version of itself and became popular because it achieved that end. Yet when large amounts of people begin to congregate anywhere in today’s world, commercial influences quickly come calling. The initial investors bought into the “cool” technology aspect of Facebook, it’s stellar growth, and the as yet un-articulated commercial possibility of it all. They saw potential and lots of it, and no one seemed overly worried about how it would become profitable.

Going public as a company, and subsequently losing over 50% of its market value from launch, has sharpened people’s focus on Facebook and whether it can deliver to its potential as a commercial venture. On the face and facts of it Facebook makes money (in the billions), employs lots of smart people, and would have to be considered a positive addition to society on balance. Yet suddenly we’re reading about disenchantment with Facebook as a company because it hasn’t lived up to its potential to “monetize” itself as a business, and that’s no longer OK in our commercial world.

I recently read that there is also growing disenchantment with professional sport because people recognize how commercially driven it is. Playing for the passion, joy, camaraderie, and challenge of sport is no longer the biggest driver for any professional sportsperson. This is not to say that most professional sportspeople aren’t still driven by the challenge of being the best at their chosen sport. Just that the commercial machine that surrounds them is now the first consideration and trump card in any decision making process.  The principles of the sport itself are time and again superseded to second place behind what the money wants.

As a former corporate executive and current entrepreneur, I’m a long way from the altruistic view that it is better to starve than compromise your principles. I recognize the need for ventures to be solvent, growing and properly monetized. I get equally excited about a business’ potential to improve people’s lives, as I do about the ability to make money off the back of that. I note from my own experience that business’ that only exist to make money are often short lived, while those that genuinely work to solve a problem or fill a need are most likely to make money for the long term.

Perhaps we need to be careful about the line where founding principles give way entirely to the commercial reality of our world, and be more awake to preserving the principles of why we’re doing something in the first place. If our focus is purely on a commercial world we may lose sight of something very important in how this becomes a better world for us to live in, and how we become better people.

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