YOU SEE this all the time:  A company once respected and admired has become a shell of its former self.  Employees wonder why they’re still around, other than to pull down a paycheck.  Customers turn cynical because there’s no longer any credibility behind the high-minded words.

You can probably name as many examples as I can.  But why would we struggle to name even one company which has gone the other direction?

There are myriad forces working on a company to compel it to become more ordinary, more safe.  More boring.

  • The company founders retire, die, or move on to their next challenge.
  • In order to grow the customer base, the business expands its products and marketing beyond the point where the core principles are crisp and clear.
  • A publicly held company is required to place return-to-shareholders above other needs.
  • The expansion of locations and number of employees makes it increasingly hard to keep people tightly focused on core values.
  • Analysts and press rarely reward companies which have goals out of the ordinary.

From these examples, it would seem that the way to remain true to your values over the long term is:

  • Stay small, in terms of number of employees and locations.
  • Never go public.
  • Have the founders run the company for many decades, and only pass the reins to people who have a deep passion for its mission.
  • Stay true to a tightly-defined customer base who will reinforce your focus.
  • Ignore the nay-sayers out there who don’t really care about your vision.

In fact, I see many small companies like this, and it does seem to be a successful formula.

So how is it that large and growing companies manage to stay true to deep values as I’ve described them here?  Basically, it takes a lot of hard work and dedication.

  • You stay away from the lure of using other peoples’ money, because it always comes with strings – they want to steer your business in a direction which will make THEM happy.
  • You develop a powerful employee culture, and reward the people who are the best examples of promoting that.  You dismiss people who can’t buy in.
  • You set up measures and rewards to reinforce the values, while giving wide berth to those which would drag you away from your mission.
  • You grow the company only as fast as you can remain true to your values.

As you might know, I spent many years with a large publicly-held company which is now being pilloried for having lost its values and vision.  I’ve seen several generations of discussions as it grew by a couple orders of magnitude.

This can happen to the best of them.  In fact, it’s most likely to happen to those who become media darlings, and grow too quickly.  Is this what’s happening to Google and Apple right now?  I’m watching.