Run Your Business Like a Community


Welcome to my TED Talk not endorsed at all by TED and with no talking.

Last year, I wrote about the benefits of running your life like a business. It’s a convenient framework to organize tasks and goals on a personal level, while borrowing the efficiencies and teamwork inherent to a business with multiple departments.

But lately, I’ve been thinking about the type of business you’d want to base your life on in the first place.

I doubt anyone with a moral compass would want to model themselves off a company that makes products and services which prey upon people’s weaknesses and insecurities like cigarettes, weight loss pills, or adjustable-rate mortgages.

Instead, the best place to model your business from would be a company which focuses on community first. I don’t mean a charity or non-profit either. The biggest and baddest companies in the world could do this and still have profits follow as a byproduct of investing in the people on their payroll, the cities they operate in, and the clients buying their products – their communities.

Interestingly, the internet has been a gift and a curse towards community building. While it has allowed new support groups to form unbounded by geography, it is also exponentially accelerating the rate of change we experience on a personal and systemic level. Unfortunately, our primate brains are not naturally wired to process this exponential increase in communication and connections.

Of course our ancestors had to deal with numbers like probabilities and solving physics-based problems while hunting and fighting on the African Savannah, but those were in fairly small tribes of about 100 people. That doesn’t give us a great mechanism to understand the ramifications of a globally shared and viral consciousness on display via Twitter or TikTok 24 hours a day.

Instead, we need to focus on what we are inherently good at. We need to take those aspects of tight-knit communities that our hunter-gatherer ancestors flourished in, view them as a strategic advantage instead of an expense, and reap the rewards and while also doing the most good for humanity.

In order to do that, the business has got to be about helping people at its core.

Here are a few ways you can help people by running your business more like a community:

Help your employees.

retail workers

What a concept.

At a minimum, you need to pay your employees a livable wage, double down on safe and healthy working conditions, and help them grow professionally so they in turn help your company grow.

A silver lining of COVID is that it caused a re-prioritization of our front line workers and I hope it sticks. Wage increases, respect, and greater protections.

But what else would a community-focused business do for their employees?

A semi-formal mentorship program would go a long way towards helping younger employees find their way in the company. The best versions of these are opt-in. Which means if I’m a cranky, disengaged mid-level manager, I don’t have to mentor someone just to check a box.

The folks in your company truly interested in guiding new employees could opt-in and help out. Pay for these mentors and mentees to go out to lunch or give them time to meet during work hours to talk through situations and goals.

Another area that completely lacks a communal mentality is the firing process. If you need to fire someone because they just aren’t needed or aren’t working well with the team, that’s fine. Fire them. You have every right to be Darwinian with your headcount, but you need to be generous when you fire someone too. You hired them after all.

I’ve never been fired before, but I have quit a job without another one lined up and it was one of the scariest moments I’ve experienced. That goes double for someone unexpectedly fired, as they’ve just been kicked out of the tribe and had their main resource taken from them – their paycheck.

Offer a severance package big enough so they know they will have time to get back on their feet before the rent is overdue. Offer to pay for them to take an online certification. Offer paid career counseling to help them look for a new job and refresh their resume. Be compassionate, generous and kind to them at every step.

A nervous employee is an unproductive employee. If you’re in the middle of a restructuring, practice Herculean transparency. Make sure that those that should feel safe, DO feel safe.

Imagine trying to give best-in-class customer service with the sword of Damocles hanging over your cubicle. The quality of that customer service would be about as good as my shoehorned analogy.

Help your clients solve problems, not just escape them.

The least sustainable businesses are the ones there to make money as a means and an end.

They’d rather sell you a band-aid than teach you how to hold the knife. They open yet another payday advance center instead of funding a financial education workshop. They give you a free app just so they can harvest your data and feed your brain digital junk food.

Instead, put your clients ahead of your shareholders for just one quarter. Give away your best content for free, without ads. It’s okay to charge for a premium service, but don’t bait and switch people. Be up front with what you can and can’t do for them.

As a consumer, I’m far more likely to support the merchant that sold me a fishing pole rather than gave me a fish that rots after 3 days (when the free trial ends).

Help competitors (to a point).

competition in business

If I haven’t lost you yet, I’m betting this could be the point where you hover over the little X at the top right of your screen.

Why the hell should you want to help competitors? Hear me out.

Those “competitors” are your brothers and sisters, your fathers and daughters. Don’t act as if we aren’t all just bipedal primates sharing the same big blue ball floating through an infinite cosmos. (Reading that last line makes me think someone slipped me an edible. Thankfully, it’s just an extra cup of coffee.)

You’re probably thinking, “Kevin, think global, act local has been around forever, where have you been?”.

Fair enough, but what good is a rising tide if it’s just going to sink all the other boats? I’m not saying save the pirates, but when you see a fellow tribe doing good work, form a partnership rather than trying to put them out of business by copying their product with lower margins.

You don’t have to work for my company to benefit from my ideas. We can ALL benefit from sharing breakthroughs across businesses, industries and cultures.

If we needed a wake up call that our livelihoods (and supply chains) were all interconnected, look no further than this pandemic we’re still in.

Of course you need to have incentives to develop anything new, but I’m confident the smartest companies will balance that tight rope for the greatest amount of good.

Like Seneca said, “Without an adversary, virtus shrivels.” There is a place for loving your enemies even in the corporate world.

Help your literal communities.

A simple way to see how good a company is going to be with all these new diversity and inclusion pledges is to look at what they’ve BEEN doing in their communities and for their people, not what they say they WILL do.

What did they do before the riots started last year? What did they do before the ACLU threatened a class-action lawsuit? What tangible benefits have they given their communities without the pressure of what’s trending on social media?

I’m not just talking about what they’ve done for people of color either, although that’s highly necessary to see. But what have they done for the handicapped, the mentally challenged, gender equality issues, and youth groups in their cities?

This is also about cleaning up the cities your company operates in. Giving employees time and money to help NGOs and charities. Building a culture of care for the less fortunate, the environment, and the animals we share it with.

Not that a company can’t turn this around if they’ve neglected it, but the leaders who really understand the importance of this are on mile 10 of this marathon and the losers are still stretching at the starting line.

The Takeaway

Authenticity is hard to fake. My hunch is that when done genuinely, this community-first approach will be incredibly difficult to replicate and will keep you in business where imposters go bankrupt.

Thanks for coming to my non-TED TED talk.

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