It’s a principle we all ascribe to in theory – that human beings matter more than money in hand. Yet how many businesses are really built around putting people before profits? How many of us can say that, in the way that we run our businesses, we are treating the world in the way that we want it to treat us?
But putting people and principles at the heart of our business doesn’t mean missing out on the opportunity to make money. Far from it, though it’s seldom acknowledged, putting people before profits is one of the most powerful and enduring paths to success.
Providing for a tribe
As Seth Godin has pointed out, innovative artists and businesses succeed not by creating fans and customers from scratch, but by connecting in with an already existing tribe of interest, a group of people who will want the product you are putting out there.
The obvious route for business, the one too many take, is to try to grab a chunk of the largest pie. They look to sell their products to the whole of humanity as an anonymous mass, despite the fact that none of us are interested in the same things. They try to enter into already crowded markets, concerned not with people and their interests but with head count and with drawing attention.
Far better to start with what interests people, what you are passionate about and believe others will be passionate about. Find a tribe that is under-served by existing businesses, one you feel a connection with, and provide for them. Give them what they want and they will come to you. The profits will follow, but only if you put people, their passions and their interests, first.
Fair trade – people above all else
A great example of this is the Fair trade movement. Starting in the 1960s, but really taking off in the 1980s, Fair trade is not a single business or brand but a network of businesses and organizations following a set of principles. Initially the work of a small handful of commercial activists, the movement sought to ensure that fair wages were paid to the producers of goods. For them, this overrode all other concerns, including profit margins and the unmatchable quality and pricing standards many businesses achieved by squeezing producers at the bottom of their supply chain, most of them in the third world.
Fair trade took off not because of any concern for profits, but by putting people first – both the producers who earned a better wage from the system, and the tribe of socially conscious consumers who wanted to be able to buy products in ways more fitting with their personal values.
The Fair trade movement, and influential businesses within it such as Traidcraft, have proved sustainable and enduring despite being driven by people rather than profits, and despite the economic squeezes that have faced us since the 1980s. Just as the hardhearted capitalism of the 1980s pushed us towards putting profits before all else, they saw an opportunity to put people first, and they took it.
So ask yourself, who are the people you serve? What is your tribe, and what do you provide for it? How do you cater to their values and interests, rather than just your own commercial instinct?
If you can answer that question then you aren’t just helping to create a better world, one run by people, for people. You’re laying a solid foundation for your business, built on the loyalty and interest of that tribe, one that will see you through whatever may come.