Creating Positive Social Impact at Remarkable – Alan Jones

Alan Jones is one of Remarkable’s valued Entrepreneur in Residence. Alan works hands-on with the founders of early-stage startups and new product development teams within the enterprise. He coaches high potential individuals on lean startup skills, product management, pricing, sales, brand experience, growth marketing and capital raising. Alan shares with us the importance of creating a positive social impact and reflects on how Remarkable has contributed to his view.

“I don’t want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do”

Gavin Belson, fictional CEO of Hooli Corp

The concept of making the world a better place through building a successful tech startup is such a commonly-used expression that it’s a trope, a meme and one of the funniest industry insider jokes on the HBO series “Silicon Valley”.

When Gavin Belson says it, he and his company are using every dirty trick they can find to beat their competitors. And Belson is prepared to compromise whatever moral principle is required in order to make the world a better place than his competitors do… or so he believes.

This happens in the real world of tech startups too, of course. Barely a week goes by without unplanned slip-ups such as privacy breaches and malicious hacks exposing private customer data and banking information. Using software and technology hardware can harm our eyesight, affect the quality of our sleep, addict us and make us depressed. They can also cost us a lot of money we can’t afford to spend.

Some tech startup accelerator programs are focused solely on acceleration – helping startup founders make greater progress in less time on turning their idea or prototype into a growth machine. Working hard on validating lean canvas hypotheses, finding and converting customers, exploring marketing and distribution, and of course, raising capital.

The social impact they have on the world (the way they’re going to make the world a better place) may still be important, but it is often deferred until later, because building a viable startup is hard and the most likely outcome is that a startup will fail and shut down before it even has a chance to adversely affect any of its customers.

Although I’ve worked with many accelerators in the past, Remarkable is the first I’ve worked with in which developing a plan for positive social impact is a part of the curriculum and one of the expectations of the program is that each startup graduating from the program develop and implement a plan for achieving a positive social impact.

Frankly, that’s been a difficult adjustment for me to make, even though I’m ideologically left of centre. It’s taken me some time to trust that Remarkable’s commitment to developing a positive social impact is more than just a marketing slogan, to be sacrificed if other program goals need priority.

Much of the art of growing a startup is about developing business processes that are simple enough for a small team to work with, but adaptable enough to scale at the speed of a high-growth business. How we recruit staff, how we drive sales through marketing channels, how we track and report key metrics – they all need to be able to scale rapidly if we hit product/market fit.

If the struggles of Google and Facebook to turn around their social impact teach us anything, it is that positive social impact is much easier to design into a business from scratch than it is to apply as a patch later, when the company is larger. Particularly in the case of Facebook, each successive patch seems to last a shorter period of time, and when the glue holding the patch loses its grip, the corporate culture throws Facebook back into compromising social good in order to make even more money.

At this point, I don’t think anybody really believes that Facebook can change, no matter what measures Mark Zuckerberg announces next. There’s a growing barrier of scepticism and disbelief that Facebook would have to climb over before it would be able to show it was really making positive social impact the core goal of the business.

There’s a great podcast interview with early Facebook employee Dave Morin where he describes an inflexion point in the company’s history, when faced with choosing between safeguarding user privacy and maximising revenue with Facebook’s Pages product, the leadership was divided into two camps: the money camp and the social responsibility camp.

Needless to say, the money faction won. But why did the money faction win?

Going back through the different public versions of Facebook’s history, the reason seems clear to me: creating a positive social impact in the world was a secondary goal at best, an afterthought much of the time, and a marketing slogan the rest of the time. Like the fictional Gavin Belsen, Facebook’s leadership only needed to make it seem like they were making the world a better place because it helped them hire the best people, inspire investors, and win the misplaced trust of users.

If you truly want to make the world a better place, it can’t be a secondary goal.

Sometimes it’s going to be at odds with the rest of your business goals, and you and your team will need courage and determination to choose your impact goals over revenue and customer growth. But as the struggles of the tech giants show, once demoted, your social goals don’t stand a chance. So develop and refine them early and stand by them, or lose them forever.