The Public’s Interest

Back when Bob and I started CitySquares, we did so based on some very important founding principals. We felt very strongly about serving the needs of local communities, local businesses, local artists, among others. Oftentimes we even contemplated the idea of establishing the business as a not-for-profit. We felt very strongly about serving the community, first and foremost. To the customers, to us, to the users, and to the organizations we partnered with, that’s what the brand was about, it was our brand promise. As we raised money from investors, as we felt the pressures of our preferred stockholders, and most notably when Lehman went under and the global economic crisis started, those values were tested, time and again. Our focus changed, our priorities changed, and like so many of the stories told in Bo Burlingham’s Small Giants (see my Sure Shot blog post on Small Giants), we learned some tough lessons. Even now, more than three years later, I clearly remember heated board meetings and arguments about what we “needed to do” and for whom we needed to do it.

Here I am now, starting Influential, a new business with an emphasis on the public good, with a focus on community, on people, on civics. While I have the benefit of history and its lessons, isn’t this the definition of insane? Alas! There’s a shift happening in society. Whether it’s because of Lehman, and the other institutions deemed Too Big to Fail, or because of the Occupy Wall Street movement, there’s a backlash against corporations that don’t serve the interests of the people, of community, and of the public in general. There’s a backlash against prioritizing shareholder value over the public good. And now there’s a model for corporations who want to legally commit to putting the public good ahead of shareholder value. Thanks to the good people at the 501(c)3 B Lab, there’s the Benefit Corporation.

So what is a Benefit Corporation? While I highly encourage you to learn more on your own, I’ll quote the Benefit Corporation website,

Benefit Corporations are a new breed of corporation that are required to create a positive material impact on society and the environment and to meet higher standards of accountability and transparency.

At the time of this blog post, 19 states have passed benefit corporation legislation, allowing for the creation of benefit corporations, with several more pending.

And with that, I’m happy to say that Influential has incorporated itself as a benefit corporation. We are officially Influential, PBC. This, in and of itself, is not a terribly big deal, but what is exciting is that my co-founders and I agreed that we want to commit to these ideals, to the principles we feel so strongly about, and to lock-it-in, if you will, and literally make it part of our corporate charter and bylaws, to hold ourselves accountable and to enforce transparency. We’ve fully embrace the implications therein. We’re not done though. It’s not as simple as just deciding and incorporating as a benefit corporation, there are requirements, there are policies and practices that need to be implemented. And surely we’ll screw up. Old behaviors don’t change easily, but we will learn and we’ll get it right over time.

Last night, on the heals of reviewing the incorporation filings, I sat down to catch up on some reading, specifically this article from The Washington Post, titled “Maximizing shareholder value: The goal that changed corporate America.” The timing was perfect, it only validated our thinking, our decision, and our commitment to restore, in some small way, the ideals of the corporation. The following quotes really leapt off the page,

Across the United States, as companies continue posting record profits, workers face high unemployment and stagnant wages.

and

… a deep-seated belief that took hold in corporate America a few decades ago and has come to define today’s economy — that a company’s primary purpose is to maximize shareholder value. The belief that shareholders come first is not codified by statute. Rather, it was introduced by a handful of free-market academics in the 1970s and then picked up by business leaders and the media until it became an oft-repeated mantra in the corporate world.

and

“We don’t build companies to serve Wall Street,” said Margaret Blair, a professor at Vanderbilt Law School. “We build corporations to provide goods and services to a society and jobs for people.”

and cited from an article by Daedalus – American Academy of Arts and Sciences,

“Corporations have a responsibility, first of all, to make available to the public quality goods and services at fair prices, thereby earning a profit that attracts ­investment to continue and enhance the enterprise, provide jobs, and build the economy,”

[and]

“The long-term viability of the corporation depends upon its responsibility to the society of which it is a part. And the well-being of society depends upon profitable and responsible business enterprises.”

and

The mantra that executives and corporate board members have a duty to maximize shareholder value has become so ingrained that many people assume it must be codified somewhere. But legal experts say there is no statute in state or federal law requiring corporations and executives to maximize shareholder value.

and finally

“Let me be clear that this pressure comes from the media, from shareholder advocates and financial institutions in whose direct interest it is for the company to get its share price to go up,” Blair said in testimony before a House hearing in 2008, “and from the self-imposed pressure created by compensation packages that provide enormous potential rewards for directors and managers if stock prices go up.”

I could go on. And on. It’s a long article but very much worth the read for anyone interested in such topics. But there you have it, them’s the facts.

Anytime I’ve made a career decision because of money, I’ve regretted it. I’m not on this earth to make money. I’m not sure what I’m on this earth for, frankly, but it’s certainly not to make money. The time I have here is finite, and if I can work with purpose (let alone live with purpose), I will. And I’m thrilled about doing so through Influential, PBC. I’m especially thrilled about the moral commitment that I, and my co-founders, have made to stay true to ourselves, to our founding values, and I’m excited about tackling some huge problems, building a responsible company, building a company culture based on these values, and ultimately taking our time to do it right.

With this ideological commitment and framework underway, there’s another one I’m excited about – a management methodology called holacracy. But I’ll save that for a future blog post.

 

WGBH Innovation Hub Gadget Review – August 2013

Kara Miller invited me back to her Innovation Hub program on Boston Public Radio for another gadget review. This time we discussed the ThermaCell Mosquito Repellant, the ATN Night Scout night vision binoculars, and the Garmin Oregon 600 handheld GPS device. Certainly a strange variety of products, I’ll give you that, but that’s what makes this segment so much fun. Check it out…

 

And in case you missed the last segment a few months ago, when we discussed the Fitbit One, the Kindle Paperwhite, and the Canon EOS M, check it out here.

Subscribe to the Innovation Hub podcast feed here on iTunes.

 

It’s the Little Things

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Amazing how such a simple thing like a handwritten thank you note from a business can mean so much. I recently opened a new bank account for Sure Shot Labs, at Cambridge Savings Bank. CSB is one of a few banks that are recommended by Move Your Money Project. I received this in the mail and thought to myself, “Self, how about that! And people say handwritten thank you letters are dead!”

My experience with Cambridge Savings Bank has been a total pleasure thus far. From my first phone call to them, an actual person answering the phone who was polite and friendly, to being greeted when I walked into the branch, and now several days later with follow-up emails about my web banking and punctuated this evening with a handwritten note.

Am I making a big deal out of nothing? I don’t think so. Am I realizing something that some of you already know about banking with a good local institution? Probably. Am I (annoyingly) asking myself questions to illustrate this point? Yes I am.

Oh, as a noteworthy aside, if you’re looking to open a marijuana dispensary in Massachusetts, Cambridge Savings Bank is probably for you. I heard some chatter about a few dispensary startups applying for accounts there. Hey, that’s cool too!

You Can Be Very Abrasive!

That’s what she said to me. It was around 2004 and she was a mentor to me. I held her in such high regard, I admired her and when she spoke I listened. We were having lunch on a beautiful spring day in Harvard Square, dining on a restaurant patio. She was cultured, she had the pedigrees, she’d been around the world and back, and she’d totally kicked ass over her highly entrepreneurial career. Now, in her early 60s, she was as wise as she was inspiring. And she said, “you know, you can be very abrasive sometimes.” My fork stayed steady in my hand while I paused and humbly and sheepishly responded, “I know.” I sat back to hear her out.

A few years later I find myself far from the guy I was then, yet very much still that guy. I feel like I’ve come full circle in many ways. And only when you go on that journey do you really learn. A pattern has been revealed.

Today I start a new stage of my career. After two and a half years at Litle & Co., as their Vice President of Marketing, and through their late 2012 acquisition by publicly traded Vantiv, I’m getting back to what I do best – startups and entrepreneurship. My experience at Litle & Co. was nothing short of educational and enjoyable. I learned so much. Most of all, I proved something to myself, and that was the biggest gain.

For the most part I’m taking time off, to enjoy spring and summer, to see friends and family, to enjoy life, but also to make my next move a smart one. The next stage of my career is an important one. At 37 it has to be wise. Not conservative, mind you, but wise. I often fantasize about a totally different career path, one of journalism, or of science, always something that might make real change in the world. As one of my best friends often says, “the last thing we need is another app to help me find the pizza, review the pizza, get a deal on the pizza, take a picture of the pizza, and clip recipes of the pizza.” I’m often frustrated by the lack of real innovation out there, truly transformative stuff, specifically in the digital space. Stuff that really makes a difference. But it’s not enough to be frustrated, that breeds apathy. Instead I’m embarking on something new here. I’m also often frustrated by what I’ll call the cult of personality that’s come out of and surrounds the Internet’s entrepreneurial scene, here in Boston, in NY, in Silicon Valley. Scenesters, hipsters, hangers-on. Me toos. That stuff is just such a turn off. And none of it even really matters. But again, it’s not enough to be frustrated and annoyed by it.

So with that I’m launching an experiment, if you will. I call it Sure Shot Labs. Sure Shot Labs will be the vehicle that helps me navigate this transition, these bumpy roads. Through Sure Shot myself and a few trusted and passionate colleagues will try something new for all of us. We’ll build products and invest in ideas we have, on our terms. The traditional start-up model is gone. The lean startup is here. We will consult, yes, we will make our clients happy indeed, and we will take the proceeds from those engagements and invest them in the lab, in our experiments, in innovation and in products. This will be fun.

When I think about that conversation with my mentor nearly 10 years ago, I think about the young man I was. I think about how “abrasive” I was. It was unearned confidence and it was fear. Back then I had to compete with others who were smarter, bigger, stronger, more experienced, more wealthy, more well connected, and more educated. Today I still have to compete with those people. And they still might be bigger than me, stronger than me, smarter than me, wealthier than me, more well connected and more educated. But what they lack, and have never been able to compete with, is my endless tenacity, my ability to wear them out, like a wolf and its prey. And the street smarts, the innate will to work smarter, to work harder, to out-think and out-smart, to out-play, to outwit and out-will. I’ve always been out of my league. I’ve always been in over my head. I’ve rarely done things their way. I don’t plan on starting today.

 

How Do You Engage Your Representatives?

No matter your political leanings, your position on, say, gun control, or the government’s use of drones abroad and domestically, or on the matter of e-commerce taxes, or the sequester, or the death penalty – you have opinions. And oftentimes, especially in times like these, or as we get older or perhaps just more involved in civics, we want to engage our local representatives, our senators, or our town hall, mayor, aldermen, and make ourselves heard, influence change, or organize a petition.

When you have a cause or when you want to affect change, how do you do that? How do you engage your local representatives (or senators etc.)? This is not a rhetorical question; I’m genuinely looking for honest and candid responses. So I guess the questions are as follows:

  • Have you ever written a letter or an email to your state reps or senators?
  • Have you done so more than once?
  • Did you ever receive a response?
  • How meaningful was the response (versus a boilerplate ‘thank you’ letter)?
  • Did he/she take action based on yours?
  • Have you ever gone above and beyond writing a letter (i.e., organized a protest, or a petition, or otherwise)?
  • How do you keep tabs on your representatives and ensure they’re representing you well (i.e., how do you know what they vote for/against, what legislation they sponsor, where they truly stand on specific issues, how ‘in the pocket’ they are with lobbyists, unions)?

 

I’d truly love your thoughts, and those of your friends, family, neighbors, co-workers. Comment below and please, share this post (click here if you don’t see the comment box).

 

About Ben

Hello! I'm Ben Saren and this is my blog. I have another website where you can see my professional bio and stuff like that. If that's what you're looking for just head over to BenSaren.com.

Check out my blog and stay for a bit. I'd love hear from you too, drop me a line.

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