Recruit and Retain Employees by Answering this One Simple Question

Why Does our Company Exist?


The last 5 years in the tech industry have been a very competitive labor market to say the least. When I have sat around with my management and recruiting teams over the last few years, I have referred to it as the Global War for Talent. If you are running any tech organization, you are competing with the big guys like Google, Facebook, Apple and the new big guys, the Unicorns and Decacorns. And frankly we have also been competing with people going to start their own thing in an environment flush with funding.

We have spent a lot of time debating and honing, pay levels, equity percentages, vesting schedules and refresh grants. We have spent an even greater time talking about benefits and perks including the number of web enabled beer kegs and the breadth of the selection of flavored waters available in our newly remodeled employee kitchens. And we have spent a lot of time establishing and maintaining the right culture. I am not making fun of those things. They are very important. But I think we have not spent enough time on answering the most important question that employees will eventually ask.

That question is simply. “Why does this company Exist?”. They don’t ask it that way. In fact, I have never had an employee/recruit ask it outright. But almost everyone is searching for and crying out for meaningful work. It is not just millennials. Everyone wants his or her work to matter. If they do well and the company does well, what will we have achieved? Will it have been worth it? We are all going to spend an inordinate amount of time, talent and treasure to try to achieve something. There are going to late nights and early mornings, redeye flights, brutal competition,  and demanding customers. There will be incredible highs, but also soul sucking lows. And when your recruits and employees are exhausted and down. They will ask themselves “ Why am I doing this?”, Why don’t I take a cushy job at Hewlett Packard or IBM and catch the company bus home at 4:30pm. And when they ask that question, their compensation, flavored water and autonomous culture won’t keep them going. They will have to answer in their hearts “Is this worth doing?” and when they get to that point they should know in their hearts the story of why our company exists. And why the mission we are on is meaningful and important. If what we are simply achieving is moderate improvement in the status quo or something even more esoteric like “creating shareholder value”, then why bother?  Why not just punch a clock somewhere else?

But few companies, founders and executives are really good at answering the question: Why does our company exist? And those who do, tend to distill into down into a meaningless mission statement that will be discarded by employees even if you go through the trouble to laminate it on nice paper stock.

What is needed is a compelling story to answer the question. It can be put into a few powerpoints if you like, but it is best told off the cuff and from the heart.

Over the past 15 years , I have been called on the deliver the “rally the troops” speech many times or have  been asked to help close the star recruit or save the key employee who has a bigger offer. And over that time through hundreds of speeches and even more one on one chats, I realized there was a formula for telling the story and answering the question “Why do we exist?” So here is my formula. It is not scientific, it was not developed at any prestigious business school, but it has worked for me. So let me share it and feel free to give it a try.

Step 1: Identify the Problems of the Paradigm that You are Trying to disrupt.

We are good at this in tech. We founded and run new companies to burn down what was have built before. We are never happy with the status quo. So describe the status quo in painstaking detail and get good at telling others how intolerable that status quo is. Here’s an example from Uber. If I were developing their story several years back it would have been easy to talk about how bad the taxi industry was. Dirty, poorly maintained cabs; poorly trained, unmotivated and rude drivers. An intolerable dispatch system or sidewalk hailing system that was unbearable. Poor payment systems. And a complete mismatch of supply of cabs to demand especially in peak periods, Need I go on?

You need to develop you own horror stories of the status quo. Make the list long. Punch it up with humor and concrete stories. Make everyone feel the pain of the status quo.

Step 2. Develop Concrete Impact Statements on the Consequences of the Status Quo

Simply listing the problems of the status quo is not enough. If you are not careful your long list of problems will seem trivial and unworthy of serious pursuit. They might ask “A better taxi service, really? Is that it?” Is that what I really want to write on my headstone as my major life accomplishment? So you need to take it the next level. Let me continue with the Uber analogy:

The taxi industry is so bad, that X% of the population uses their car even when they know a taxi would make more sense. And that causes: a) greater traffic congestion, b) chronic parking problems and most importantly c) increased carbon emissions of X %. Also, the unreliability of the taxi industry causes business lost productivity of Y %. And perhaps most importantly, the incompetent taxi industry causes many people, especially younger people to drive their cars after drinking. Drinking and driving kills 10,000 Americans every year. We have to stop this!

You need to develop impactful statements of your own to compel those around you to join you in your mission. It takes a little work, but if you nail this, then you have something that really works.

Step 3: Position your Company/Product as the Only way to Stop the Status Quo from Continuing to Wreak Havoc.

Here you list the features and benefits of your product or service and show how they solve the problems you outlined in Step 1. Again to use the Uber example:

You will be able to hail a ride by pressing a button on your phone without the need for a dispatcher or by mindlessly waiving at speeding cars.. The app will tell exactly where the cars are and how soon they can pick you up. It will help the driver navigate efficiently to you and then your destination. It will have an integrated payment system that will do away with the need for cash and tipping. And it will have a patented demand based pricing system that will allow for the free market to match supply and demand, especially in peak periods. And so and son on.

Can you do that with your product or service. You need to be able to concretely show that your company can/will solve the problems you outlined in Step 1.

Step 4: Show that You have a concrete plan

Saying you have an idea or an early version product will be good enough for some employees, but many others will want to here the concrete steps that must be taken to get to the end game. You don’t need all the answers, but you need to not come off as a dreamer company that is short on specifics. Also have a plan to fight when the status quo belatedly fights back or when another new emerging startup launches a similar service.

Step 5: Tell Them that it will be Hard and that You Need their Help.

Don’t forget this last step. Every executive, founder knows they can’t do it alone. But we too often come off as people who think they know all the answers or have all the plans. Be prepared for closing with a story and a plea for help. “It will be hard, there is much we do not yet know and hurdles that we know we must overcome, I need help and the right people on our team. We need your unique skill sets, and your perseverance to carry us through. We cannot let the status quo perpetuate itself and we need to ensure  a new and better way wins the day.”

It seems easy . Five simple steps. But I think we need to spend more time on building and telling the compelling story of why the companies we run should exist. And if we spend time to develop the story, then maybe, just maybe we can get by with only three flavors of water in the employee kitchen.

If you want to read about a concrete Enterprise SaaS of one of my stories click through to my blog and read an additional supplement to this post. How I creating our story in the Gmail versus Exchange cloud battle.