A common-sense manifesto - Issue 161 - Magazine | Monocle

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Scouring the pages of most newspapers this spring won’t fill ceos, entrepreneurs or business owners with much hope. The US titles are flapping about the country’s economic challenges; the prospect of recession looms large in Europe; much of Asia is still moving gingerly after coronavirus. Straitened times? Perhaps. But the storm clouds could yet clear enough to reveal some silver linings – among them, a more common-sense approach to business.

The bursting of the dotcom bubble in the early 2000s and the 2008 financial crisis reshaped the global economy. This year might mark the moment when the rules of running a business revert to those of a simpler time, when bulls and bears mattered more than unicorns. It’s already starting: technology stocks have tumbled to their lowest point in a decade and boring financial probity is replacing fanciful valuations. Investors are thinking twice. Whatever your business, you should too.

A company is about more than just branding, margins and efficiency. It can be about doing things better and capture a mood or time. So we should ask ourselves: are Tesla, Twitter, Meta, Alphabet or Uber nice places to work? Are they good for society? Are they fair contributors of tax? Are they good for the public discourse? If the answer is “no”, we have a problem. 

At last, we’re discussing such shortcomings a little more openly. A well-funded company that loses money for years should raise eyebrows. Doesn’t the “reach-before-revenue” model feel a little like the emperor’s new clothes? How about some more scrutiny for companies that sell your data or exploit land and ocean for rare metals? Or the consumer electronics giants and textile manufacturers flogging poorly made rubbish that’s destroying the planet? That’s before we enquire about your cryptocurrency holdings or new nft collection. We should have known that it was a swizz.

What’s to be done? While newspapers pore over the peaks and troughs, inflation rates and financial thunderclaps, we’ve whipped up some rules of thumb for the business-minded. When all else fails, a little common sense can come in handy. 


Beware the big-number valuations
Just the facts
There’s more than one way to value a company, some more speculative than others. The “add-a-few-zeros” approach of recent years feels a bit off in retrospect: 2022 was a torrid year for technology stocks, which fell with the market mood as the sector faced regulatory hurdles and antitrust issues. A takeaway for those of us who don’t manage a Fortune 500 firm? Hyping yourself a little is fine – we’ll call it salesmanship – but believing your own hot air will lead to disaster.


Your values are more important
Responsible capitalism
Whether you’re a customer, employee or ceo, you should care about how and where things are made, stored and disposed of. While the logistics snarl-up caused by the pandemic has resulted in some reshoring, we’re still a long way from demanding traceable or trusted supply chains for most of the things that we use; batteries and consumer electronics spring to mind. Not every start-up needs to save the world but it should at least be able to explain the steps that it’s taking not to muck up the planet. Does the company that makes the phone in your pocket, laptop on your desk or shirt on your back pass the test?

Fame is fickle
Cooler heads
Reputations are hard-won but easily squandered. The notion of delivering consistently might sound boring but it’s what successful brands are built on. Social media and the internet are amazing for marketing but less so when it comes to forgiveness if you make a mistake with your messaging or say something silly online. What we need is a little more compassion in the conversation, as well as space for calm discourse away from our screens. Popularity can fire success but airing grievances online can cost everyone dearly.

Start your own business
Greener pastures
Founding a firm requires plenty of hard graft but risk can breed reward. Just as the last financial crisis turfed many out of their jobs, forcing them to try something new, the current economic unrest could create opportunities for people to reinvent, revive and strike a better balance between their passions and their vocation. The lesson? If you hate your job, it might be time to retrain and look again. Get it done.

Offices are more important than ever
Come together
Companies have long been flogging hot-desking and co-working as perks rather than the cost-cutting devices they are. Then, many ditched the office altogether with the rise of remote working after the pandemic struck. The upshot? Greater flexibility for some but a growing disengagement and rootlessness for others. A good office is a place of collaboration, community and care that can serve as a physical manifestation of what you believe, an embassy for your brand. No, not everyone needs to be in all of the time but a great work culture and a nice office will continue to attract talent, add to the vibrancy of our cities and result in happier staff. And treat people like adults: surely the age of the office slide and ping-pong tables is over?


Be part of the community
Bigger picture
A decent office is only the first step. How it fits into the neighbourhood is equally vital. It’s no coincidence that a swath of the world’s biggest companies occupy a small sliver of California around Cupertino: proximity matters and so does feeling like you’re part of something. Not all communities have migrated online. No matter what the scale of your work – whether you’re a technology titan, a food retailer or printing a local newspaper – being grounded in an area and having some neighbourhood fans who support you won’t hurt.

Get out more
Spot the difference
The pandemic has been accused of catalysing every trend imaginable but, in truth, wasn’t it more of a speed bump? Now that the skies are open again and borders are easier to cross, it’s important to scope out the competition, get a sense of what’s happening and go beyond the drudgery that algorithms serve up for you. The unspoken issue? It’s that everyone like you is directed to “like” the same things on social media. By turns, the planet becomes samey, two-dimensional and dull. It’s a big, beautiful world out there. Shall we take a spin?


Forget the founders
Origin stories
We’re also questioning the founders who once captured our imaginations but evaded our scrutiny. Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and their ilk have built huge companies but more because they’re committed capitalists than philosopher kings who have thought through what happens next or fully weighed up the good and bad of their work. They’re skilled at selling themselves and their services but they don’t have all of the answers.

Have a mentor (and listen to advice)
Sounding board
And then there are the bad apples. From the fraud conviction of Elizabeth Holmes, founder of discredited biotech start-up Theranos, to the charges against Sam Bankman-Fried, the disgraced ceo of cryptocurrency exchange ftx, plenty of slick, celebrated start-ups appear to have been run aground by unchecked bosses. Maybe we were too willing to believe the myth of the charismatic leader? Perhaps they were too? One solution: have a trusted network or decent mentor to bounce ideas off. The humility to change course and admit when you’re wrong will come in handy too.


But go with your gut
Trust your instincts
If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. An angel investor offering everything you want in exchange for a seemingly trivial clause in the contract? Alarm bells should ring. A tip, fund or ground-floor investment that’s “guaranteed” to go big? Pull the other one. It might not literally pay to be sceptical but it can save you money and embarrassment. Sorry if this advice didn’t come sooner for those of you with late-bought bitcoins.

“Meaningful ventures offer a promise of contentment that isn’t measured in likes, impressions or column inches”

Do the right thing
Moral compass
Sounds simple, right? But this might be the hardest bit. To conduct your business in good faith, in a way that’s transparent, rigorous and fairly managed is a job in itself and everyone makes mistakes sometimes (remember, it’s OK to forgive people). That said, planning to decarbonise by 2050 or improve the gender balance of your board within a decade rings hollow. Isn’t it better to get going right away, even if that means making a few missteps, and reach your goal rather than kicking the can down the road?

Success is relative
Lasting treasures
At monocle we have long argued for the importance of caring about what you do, how you do it, who you do it with and where. That hasn’t changed. After all, what’s the harm in setting your sights on starting your own restaurant or your dream of reviving Grandad’s factory rather than world domination? What about creating something that you can pass on rather than just flip for profit? Meaningful ventures such as these offer a promise of contentment that isn’t measured in likes, impressions or column inches. Getting on with your work, doing your best and not obsessing about staying in the spotlight sounds like common sense to us.


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