Every time I write about conversations with entrepreneurs, more than one person will email to ask some version of, "Why do you glorify greedy capitalists?"
I'm used to it, but it still bugs me. For one thing, while complimentary -- I don't write about people, or products or services, I don't like -- the primary focus is on what other entrepreneurs can learn from that success. Tips. Strategies. Perspectives. Cautionary tales.
But what bothers me more is the assumption that achieving massive financial success at any cost -- in short, "capitalism" -- is the only reason people start and build businesses.
I've never been able to think of a decent response.
People don't fully understand the definition of capitalism.
Capitalism isn't just about trying to make as much money as you can. Capitalism is the opportunity to get the outcomes that you want, that give you personal reward. It could be making as much money as possible. Having the greatest amount of impact in one way or another. You get to make that choice.
That's what makes capitalism the best system, but sometimes people get caught up on the money.
No matter how "greedy" you might be, you can't make money unless you first solve a problem or meet a need. Money is always a byproduct.
Snipe at Jeff Bezos and his billions all you want, but he clearly met a need shared by millions: wide selection, low prices, fast delivery. Achieve those things -- meet a genuine, widely shared customer need -- and the money follows.
Vuori founder Joe Kudla set out to solve a problem. While women's brands had long made products that could transition from (exercise) studio to street, nothing like that existed for men. So he created clothing men -- and now women -- can wear to the gym, to a café, to the grocery store. First, he solved a problem. Only then did the money -- including a $400 million investment from Softbank that values the company at $4 billion -- follow.
Dharmesh Shah realized that traditional marketing -- interrupting customers with ads -- was not only annoying, it was increasingly ineffective. So he and co-founder Brian Halligan found a better way to "sell to humans": Create content that provides value and builds a relationship with potential customers. First HubSpot solved a problem; only then did the money -- HubSpot's market cap is currently nearly $14 billion -- follow.
Caitlin Crosby met a homeless couple and realized they needed jobs, not just food. So she asked them to be partners in her fledgling jewelry business. Today The Giving Keys has provided more than 130 jobs for people to transition out of homelessness. While definitely a business -- keys are sold in thousands of retail outlets -- the cause was the motivating factor; the business supports and sustains the cause.
And then there's my friend Ian. He started a construction business that was by every objective measure a huge success. But he wasn't happy, because success changed the nature of his job: He wrote proposals. He reviewed estimates and contracts. He coordinated supply chains. He supervised people who supervised people who supervised people.
So he decided not to replace employees who left for other jobs, or to start their own businesses. He matched the number of new projects he took on with his company's slowly decreasing capacity. Within a few years, he was down to two crews and could "only" handle two concurrent builds.
People assumed his business was failing. Yet his business is thriving.
Because Ian is thriving. Sometimes he gets to spend the entire day working on job sites. Some days he has to break away for a few hours to meet potential customers, write proposals, line up materials, and coordinate with other trades. (He enjoys that aspect of the job; he just doesn't want to do it all of the time.) He gets to spend time personally training new employees and developing longer-term employees.
And -- and this is really important to him -- he gets to drive by certain houses and think, "I helped build that."
To countless entrepreneurs like Joe, Dharmesh, Caitlin, and Ian, capitalism isn't about making as much money as they can. Money is nice, but money wasn't the sole motivation.
First, they decided what they wanted their businesses to deliver. What needs they would meet or problems they would solve; sometimes for customers, sometimes for people in need.
Meeting those needs or solving those problems? That was the initial outcome they wanted. That was the initial reward. If the goal is then to make money? Great. They get to make that choice. If the goal is then to make the biggest impact they can? Great. They get to make that choice.
Maybe, if they're lucky, they can do both.
"Capitalism is the opportunity to get the outcomes that you want, that give you personal reward."
That's the best thing about capitalism: You get to choose the outcome. You get to choose what need you will meet, what problem you will solve, what kind of business you create.
Best of all, you get to choose how you will work and live.