What is a business? By Andrew Hunt
Wow. What a ride the last few weeks has been for Aduna. From pitching The Inspiring Possibility of Baobab directly to Sir Richard Branson and gang in the #VOOM Finale last Friday, to winning Social Impact Investment of the Year from the UK Business Angels Association last night. It feels like our little Africa-inspired baby is finally ready to be known to the world.
Amidst all the excitement of our #MakeBaobabFamous campaign and subsequent events (yes we did get tweets from Jonathan Ross, Annie Lennox and Billie Piper!), there has been one underlying theme which just keeps on coming up. And the theme is best approached with what seems like a very simple question: what is a business?
“A business is simply an idea that makes someone else’s life better” declares Sir Richard on the Pitch to Rich website. We like this definition. It makes a lot of sense to us. Aduna has in fact been created as a virtuous circle – simultaneously improving the lives of consumers (through improved health) and producers (through sustainable livelihoods). In fact, this is what ‘Aduna’ actually means.
We also loved what the brilliant Justine Roberts (CEO of Mumsnet) had to say immediately before the live pitches: “Businesses nowadays have to be a lot more human than they used to be. They have to be prepared to engage and have a personality and a voice. The ones we really relate to have a bit of humanity.” In fact, on hearing Justine’s judging criteria we felt certain Aduna was about to slam dunk the competition.
However, when the judges came out from their deliberations, it seemed there had been a shift in mood. “There were differences of opinion.” explained Sir Richard “It was trying to work out: Are we choosing who is going to be most successful? Are we choosing who is going to be most worthwhile? In the end we decided to go for who we thought was going to be most successful in their business.”
On hearing these words I must admit my own heart sank. Not because Aduna cannot go head-to-head on the "commercial” aspects of business – we certainly can. No, it was the fact that The Great Man - who has inspired me so much - was seeing things in such a binary and old fashioned way. Two buckets had been created. One was “worthwhile causes” and the other was “successful businesses”. The assumption, it seemed, was that one must either be one thing or the other - and never the twain shall meet. From that moment on, the writing was on the wall for both Aduna and the other brilliant and transformative social venture in this contest, Hegarty Maths.
It was also clear from Sir Richard’s language that “success” itself was to be both defined and measured in the hard currency of pounds and pence. A business that makes a lot of profit for its founders, therefore, is a successful one, whereas a business that creates value for society but does not make anyone rich, is not. Sadness was felt in the room as these words and this philosophy sank in. And not just by the Aduna team.
How is our society measuring “success”? And how is it measuring “value”? And what changes do we need to make to ensure the long-term wellbeing of our already too-widely-separated world?
I love Sir Richard because he has been a lifelong innovator, creator and disruptor and an inspiration. But is it possible that his definition and model of business is now ripe for disruption itself? I believe so. Along with Bill Gates, Sir Richard is part of an “old school” of mega-successful entrepreneurs, who have spent their lives amassing vast personal fortunes through strictly commercial businesses, and are now in the process of giving it away through charitable foundations. Let me be clear. There is nothing “wrong” with this. These guys are making a HUGE positive impact on the world and they are brilliant. However, the binary model whereby making money is the domain of business and doing worthwhile things is the domain of charity is analogue technology in a world that is now digital.
Aduna is part of a rapidly growing community of “social businesses”, including our wonderful partners at Clearly So, who are out to prove that, if you are creative enough, the commercial and social can be completely aligned from day one - with spectacular impact on both fronts . We don’t need to wait until we’ve “made it”. Let’s start changing the world today.
We also believe (as Jim Stengel has proven in his brilliant book ‘Grow’) that businesses out-perform in every way when they are ideal-driven rather than profit-driven. And for the doubters out there, please put a reminder in your calendar for five years’ time – because we are going to prove it.