Jim Collins’ “Built to last” has been out for 12 years now, but it’s insight into what makes an enduringly great or “visionary” company remains fresh as ever and brilliantly applicable. If you’re not familiar with it, the book was written on the back of a 6 year research project exploring what it takes to make a visionary company by going through a lot of raw data from some of the world’s most successful companies and working out which characteristics put the very best above their near, but not as successful rivals.
Striving as we do to be the best possible company we can be, we decided to measure ourselves up against the 12 different criteria Collins puts forward as being definitive. What follows are some of my reflections from that comparison, an assessment of some of the areas where I think we’re excelling and some general advice for pushing your own company towards greater things.
Very often it seems web or app development companies begin out of necessity. Someone’s doing some freelance development work and maybe they partner up with a designer or hire a couple of friends to help take on a big project and suddenly, with very little forethought, a company is born. The company can handle the workload in front of it, but it lacks any particular vision moving forward. Without taking some time out to define who they are and what they’re aiming towards, they’re unlikely to be able to sustain that initial growth.
From it’s inception Ekreative has always been intentional. We’ve got and have always had some very specific goals guiding our growth and development as an organisation. To use an idea from Simon Sineks’ ‘how great leaders inspire action’ TED talk, we’ve always had a “why” at our core rather than a “what”.
Why do we do what we do?
Social action is at the centre of Ekreative’s identity. From the very beginning, 100% of our profits have gone towards charitable causes. To some that sounds crazy and it’s true that at times (especially in our earlier days), our commitment to giving has left us just barely scraping by. But that drive to see lives lifted up out of poverty and transformation happening on a local, national and international level gives a bedrock of purpose to every project we work on.
Furthermore, as well as being an overall corporate approach, that same desire to see and bring about transformation attracts people who have the same goals. Whether it’s teaching at a free IT skills course, handing out food packets to local refugees or traveling to the other side of the world to engage with international aid projects, a lot of Ekreative programmers, designers, managers and testers are personally involved in the projects we work so hard to fund and support.
Collins noticed that some companies would build something successful and when they realised they had a success on their hands their business model would become increasingly focussed on milking that one project as much as possible. This inclination to become a one trick pony can bring impressive results and profits over the short term, but over the long term it’s a toxic approach which is likely to kill a company, especially in the ever changing technology market where it’s easy for an new product or service to be groundbreaking and disruptive one year and redundant the next.
Initially Ekreative started out as a web development outfit. After a relatively short period we started getting enquiries about mobile development too. Today apps make up the large majority of our new projects. Does that mean it’s time to sit back on our laurels and focus purely on app development? Of course not. We continue working on and improving that core product, but at the same time experiment constantly with new technologies, from wearables to the internet of things and from GPS trackers to drone technology.
Business longevity in the tech sector requires a commitment to innovation. That in turn implies a constant process of experimentation and trialling of new options, ideas and technologies. By allowing space to try new things, even if many of them turn out to be non-starters, we can be confident of maintaining our relevance on an ongoing basis.
Preserving the core
I mentioned this in passing in the last section and in many ways innovation and preservation are tightly connected, despite seeming at first glance to be opposites.
However exciting new prospects might be, however much potential a new technology seems to hold, we can’t let innovation and exploration of the new detract from the quality of the service we already offer.
Our core business remains above all service based. We’re here to address the problems and pains of our clients with humility and expertise. Cutting corners can never be an option we leave open for ourselves, even if the client won’t notice. Ensuring ongoing quality by investing in training, conferences, peer support and networking and other worker development opportunities is essential. This is one way that innovation is tied to preservation, when we expand our understanding of the field by experimenting with new technologies our core skills are enhanced and can be used from a position of much deeper perspective.
Investing in your team is essential to preserving your core business. Your team is more than just a money-making machine though.
It would be easy to wind up taking that approach, where profit is not only the top kpi, but improving it at any cost becomes your focus. Of course profit needs to be a top kpi for any business, but not at the cost of your team’s wellbeing and development!
Over the long term, those two factors (profit and team wellbeing) are deeply interconnected. In addition, at Ekreative it would go against the culture that we’re trying to create if we put our profits into lifting other people out of difficult life situations while simultaneously pushing too hard on our own employees. That’s why Ekreative operates a wide ranging and generous selection of worker benefits, from professional development courses, conferences and events through to things like maternity leave, family sick leave and honeymoon bonuses.
We try hard to ensure that at the end of the working day, team members can focus on their life outside of work, without constant distraction about work commitments. Ultimately this doesn’t just boost job satisfaction, but also productivity. That’s why in the last 7 years (since the company restarted), we’ve hired over 80 people yet only a small handful have transitioned onwards to other things. That high rate of retention of skilled workers is something that we’re very proud of and attribute to our team-centric approach.
Having impressive goals
One of the criteria that Collins picks out is that a visionary company that’s built to last has bold and impressive goals. The goals should be SMART (there are several versions of this system around, we use the acronym Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time Bound), but the expectation of what’s achievable is set high.
Ekreative has 6 key mid-term goals that we aim to have reached by 2020:
- Be generating at least $1 million a year for charity
- Run a team of at least 200 people
- Enjoy double digit growth year on year
- Have a thriving sales office in all major markets where we operate
- Dedicate 50% of the company to developing our own products
- Build technological solutions which solve pains experienced by our country – this is more of an ongoing effort to improve the quality of life in our community. At the moment we’re achieving this goal by developing a free transportation app for our city, but there are lots of great ideas for what we might do next.
We feel that these goals represent impressive, yet achievable steps forward from where we are at the moment. A company which doesn’t make impressive plans is unlikely to develop in impressive ways. As time moves forwards and some goals are achieved, new goals also need to rise up and take their place.
Comprehensive company culture
Company culture is a concept which incorporates many of the ideas we’ve already discussed. From an inclination to charity through to a team centric focus, from a commitment to quality through to having big goals, the characteristics which define our company are characteristics which we aim to inspire more and more in each other individually as well.
In most cases it’s a company’s leaders who set the tone for the pervading culture. That doesn’t just mean top management though, we’re especially careful about hiring, promoting and selecting team leads, managers, mentors and anyone else with a leadership role. We want to ensure that they reflect key company values such as discipline and honesty, as well as being comfortable operating under a very horizontal structure where their leadership is visible through the service they perform for their team rather than through a shiny badge and dictatorial decision making.
Ultimately, we’re more likely to choose a junior-level developer who fits in well with our culture than a senior who doesn’t, because while we can help someone to become a better tech professional, if a hire’s not on board with our way of working it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to form a solid team together.
Trying a lot of ideas
Yes, I know, I already spoke about innovation. Earlier I was focussed on technological innovation and market diversification, now I want to focus on a different side of innovation which focuses more on the procedures, processes and habits of daily, working, office life.
Here at Ekreative we’ve experimented with all sorts of aspects of our working process, from trying out different communication channels, to setting up effective kpi measurement systems and a system for running performance reviews.
Employee seating has shuffled round several times to trial the effectiveness of different approaches (team based, department based, and with certain departments being closer to and further from the physical center of the office space). We’ve tried hiring specialist managers and also promoting people up from other roles. The experiments are always happening, whether its “work from home wednesdays”, quiet hours (when communal areas become noise free), health week, lunch with the boss, work breakfasts or any of the other ideas we’ve trialled.
Some of those ideas are tested once and then left by the roadside, others become an ongoing and well integrated part of our office life. By having a culture of experimentation with these sorts of things though, new ideas are welcomed and encouraged and we come across really good ideas much more often than we would if we became stuck in a rut of doing things always in the same way.
“Good enough never is”
A visionary company never settles for ‘good enough’. There’s always room for improvement. Always somewhere to grow next. The companies that stay at the top are the ones who keep on pushing, relentlessly pursuing excellence and becoming better and better. This means an overarching commitment to keep working on all the areas being discussed in this piece, continuously measuring kpi’s and finding ways to improve them.
In the end, the title of “visionary company” is something we can only aspire to. Time alone will tell whether or not these different strategies and approaches will produce the desired result: a company which leads in it’s field and continues to do so over the course of many years. The process of looking at the state we’re in now though, measuring ourselves against the standards set out by Collins, has been an encouraging process. It’s highlighted many of the things we’re doing right and pushed us to carry on in the same spirit.
As you try to build a visionary company of your own, I recommend Collins book to you and wish you every success in your efforts to achieve the standards it sets out. Be sure I’ll be sharing more stories from my own journey there here on this blog. If you’ve got tips or stories of your own about becoming a visionary company, let us know in the comments below.