Why I prefer working for a zebra, not a unicorn

Growing up in Philadelphia, I was blessed to be taught humility and generosity at an early age by my parents who adopted several children during my childhood. Helping others came to the people around me naturally and so seemed to be a part of our DNA.

As I made my way up the career ladder, I’ve always kept in my heart an eagerness to make the world a better place and aimed to put it to work in the various companies I joined. To me, there is no divide between generosity and business growth.

So when a seemingly new breed of companies emerged in recent years, obsessed with the "get big fast" philosophy, I was taken aback. I could not see past the valuation frenzy every start-up jumped into in hopes of becoming the next “unicorn.” Would these company leaders operate with generosity? Would they ever “give a stick of butter and a smile?”

In a recent article on Quartz, Mara Zepeda and Jennifer Brandel wrote that companies should strive to be zebras, not unicorns. For them, “unicorn companies are bent on ‘disruption’ rather than supporting businesses that repair, cultivate, and connect."

Unlike unicorns, zebras are real, mutualistic and are both profitable and improve society. As the chief commercial officer of a company that pioneered a way for people to gain access to affordable legal protection, I could not agree more.

Tech-focused companies like ours are in the driver’s seat of the most powerful of vehicles: innovation. We have at our fingertips the necessary tools to write a story of economic success that has a positive impact on society. I like to hear from the field and get reports from our associates. They tell me how our provider law firms helped out this mother of two with her mortgage, gave this aspiring entrepreneur the right advice on how best to incorporate, or how our private investigators helped a victim of identity theft recover their identity. We create and market products that change people’s life in a favorable way.

But it seems that some tech companies are engaged in a fast and furious race toward a goal that does nothing for the people. To the question “What do you want to do when you grow up?” they answer, “I want to go public.” Is this acceptable from a growth-strategy standpoint? Of course. But is it enough? Not to me, no.

I am anything but naïve; I know very well the importance of doing well. I’m pointing out, as others have done before, that doing well can, and should, also mean doing good -- and that doing good contributes to a company’s growth in major ways.

Values

Attract and retain talent that shares similar ethics

A company is more than the sum of the individuals who work there: it is a collective being with personality and a set of values that should fuel every aspect of its life.

When a company is actively engaged in making our society better, this priority becomes part of its brand. I am not talking here about pretend engagement for the sole purpose of marketing. If failed efforts at corporate greenwashing have taught us anything, it is that truth will win out and insincere efforts be exposed.

A company that is authentically true to its values will attract talent that shares similar ethics, increasing internal collaboration, reducing turnover and incurring goodwill that translates into sales. Working with like-minded individuals is a strong growth driver.

Heightened awareness of customers’ needs and long-term goals

Looking only at results quarter over quarter is a sure way to lose track of what makes a company’s offering unique and appealing to its customers. Taking the short view can only lead to being short-sighted.

But focusing on long-term goals -- which becomes impossible when a company is in the IPO race and thinking only of potential investors -- allows for increased agility and takes the pressure off. This creates head space for a company’s C-suite to think more proactively about its future, to stretch and stand on its toes rather than on its heels, and anticipate and adapt to market shifts more easily.

 

James Rosseau is chief commercial officer of LegalShield, the leading provider of legal services of affordable legal plans and identity-theft solutions for individuals, families and small businesses, covering more than 1.6 million families and serving more than 4.2 million people across North America in 50 states and four Canadian provinces.

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader. We also have more than 200 industry-focused newsletters, all free to sign up.