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His feet are the wrong size for his shoes

150footshoeThe title of this piece comes from the classic radio show The HitchHikers Guide To The Galaxy, and an episode in which the heroes are being pursued by a 'foot soldier' employed by the Dolmansaxlil Shoe Corporation. When asked why the soldier is limping, an executive responds that "his feet are the wrong size for his shoes."

The backstory to this is that the planet they were on had once been "a thriving, happy planet - people, cities, shops, a normal world." However, there were slightly too many shoe shops on the high streets of the planet, and the number of shoe shops was steadily increasing. The more shoe shops there were, the more the shops had to make. The more they had to make, the worse and more unwearable the shoes became. And the worse and more unwearable the shoes became, the more the people had to buy, and the more money the shops made until it became economically impossible to build anything other than shoe shops. The result was collapse, ruin, and famine. Scary stuff.

And why am I mentioning this? Well, the story was a commentary on corporate power and how we do business. The author, Douglas Adams, had spent a day on Oxford Street in London, failing miserably to buy a new pair of shoes. Despite all the stores and brands, it was impossible to find the right combination of colour, style, quality, etc. The shoe companies were more concerned with selling what they had than with meeting the needs of customers.

200procrustes1We see this all the time. Banks, airlines, schools, fast food restaurants, they're all concerned with 'processing customers' rather than serving people who need something. Every transaction is optimised for the benefit of the business, not for me or you, with the result that we are never happy.

It's time for a quote from Ray Anderson, founder of Interface.: "For those who think business exists to make a profit, I suggest they think again. Business makes a profit to exist. Surely it must exist for some higher, nobler purpose than that."

Let's put it another way. You start a venture because you are driven to do something cool and/or meaningful. And in order to do that, to reach your real goal, you need some income. You may even need to raise money from investors, and they usually expect to see a profit. You need the profits in order to do the cool, meaningful thing that inspired you when you started, not for their own sake.

Unfortunately, as companies grow, the founders often lose control and are replaced by people who get bonuses for maximising profit. It's called the agency problem. Instead of making great shoes, they have an incentive to sell cheap shit that needs to be replaced every six months.

If you're passionate about what you do, how are you going to ensure it grows without destroying itself or the community you serve?