Building an open business

Over a decade ago, when I was working for a large multinational, I was deeply concerned that so many of my colleagues were unhappy. I decided I would one day build my own company. It would be founded on one key principle: a company exists as a way for its team to lead whole and happy lives: providing purposeful work and a comfortable livelihood. If it cannot do that, it should not exist, because its constituents would be better off doing something else. And a company of happy constituents simply had to be more effective than an unhappy one. The happiness of our constituents would be our competitive advantage.

One of the keys to running such a company would be transparency, particularly transparency about our supply chain, how our products affected the lives of customers, and how our finances worked. The more you know about the company you work for, the happier you are, because you can make informed choices: about what to focus on, who you’re working with, and whether or not to work for that company at all. And since a company’s constituents are not only its staff but its suppliers and customers, that transparency would have to extend to them too.

I began building that company in 2006 when I co-founded Electric Book Works, but am only beginning to really get it right at Paperight. We bake some of it into our employment contracts:

By joining Paperight, you’re taking on joint responsibility for the company’s financial, social, and environmental successes and failures, including how wisely it spends money on its team. You’ll have access to the company’s financial records and bank-account-balance details, so you’ll be fully informed at all times. It’s your responsibility – and that of every team member – to understand and engage with the financial affairs of the company. You should be a part of every financial decision, although final decisions are made by the company’s CEO.

We don’t hide salaries. (When you hide salary information, you’re planting a grenade in your company: because the day someone feels unhappy, they’ll dig up that hidden salary info specifically to have something to explode over.) Our job descriptions are three bullet points long, and describe areas of functional authority – not narrow, forgettable KPIs – so we can all easily remember each other’s priorities. We let anyone join Paperight, even tiny self-publishers and solo entrepreneurs running a printer in their shack. If a customer, supplier or journalist asks for financial information, we provide it (unless disclosing it requires disclosing a customer or a supplier’s private information). We own up to our mistakes as individuals and as a company. We celebrate audacious failures (a failed experiment teaches us much more than doing the safe thing over and over). We love watching and working with competitors (believing always that we can and must do better than them). We all wash dishes.

In short: we go out of our way to share. Actively sharing makes our transparency meaningful. It’s easier to make decisions and move quickly, because we don’t have secrets to worry about protecting. When we share, others share back. And all of this makes us happier to do what we’re doing. And that is what it means to run an open business.

Still, we’re not fundamentalist about it. We don’t take open for granted. In recent months I’ve actively explored and discussed and toyed with aspects of closed business models: strategic exclusivity partnerships, creating artificial scarcity, and raising barriers to entry for our members. We must know what we’re missing out on – what our opportunity costs are. If we want to put every book within walking distance of every home, would elements of closed – opacity, secrecy, scarcity, exclusivity – get us there faster?

OpenVsClosedBusinessModels

In small, strategic doses, perhaps. So we’ll experiment in small doses. For instance, we’ll deliberately make our Young Writers Anthology hard to find in places other than Paperight outlets. We’ll make short-term exclusivity deals to entice new partners to join our movement. In our communications, we’ll try holding back certain numbers in favour of others, just to see how people respond. In other words, we’ll carefully and deliberately sample what most other businesses do every day. And then we’ll be happy to share what we find out.

As I’ve talked to friends, funders and fellow entrepreneurs about this, it’s clear that transparency, tied as it is to sharing and openness, is still the key to our competitive advantage. And a transparent, happy company is the only kind we want to build.

4 thoughts on “Building an open business

  1. I’ve lived through the process of ‘transforming’ a small, dynamic education institution of about 600 students into being a cog in an organisation of about 38000 students. The concept of ‘team’ collegiality was vitiated in favour of competition between colleagues. The bureaucratic hierarchy proliferated. People lost their joy in their work, mainly through anxiety about targets, which, when met, were ratcheted up. Innovation stalled; it had to fit the structures.

    Paperight’s principles bode well for the future of humanity – Go Arthur and Team! Small is beautiful. I hope you thrive.

  2. This is so awesome & I hope to learn a lot along the way from you Arthur, while also helping in any way I can in return.

  3. A breath of fresh air in a business world where “shareholders” are all that business is about and stakeholders (employees and often customers) are expendable.

  4. Pingback: The anthology done, promising bulk sales, and a raft of coverage | The Paperight Story

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