Why we're building a Balanced Company
For us, balance is about building a sustainable work culture while staying focused on our mission to democratize the sharing economy.
Dec 10, 2021
I can't help thinking that the world is off balance.
A small number of startups and private companies are seeing skyrocketing valuations while wages for low-paying jobs are standing still. Our work-lives are getting progressively worse, but those in power only push us to just work harder. Humankind is consuming more ecological resources than our planet can provide. Political figures escalate cultural divisions to the extent they create rifts between friends and families.
Ten years ago, my co-founders and I created Sharetribe, a tech startup with a different ideal: one of balance. We wanted to work on things that matter, sustain ourselves by doing so, and have time for life beyond work.
We soon learned the conventional wisdom of the startup world. Startups should either go big or go home. You should strive to become a unicorn or at least achieve a lucrative exit – anything else would constitute a failure. And the way to get there? Work as hard as you can, as much as you can. Balance and startups simply won't go together.
The more we learned, the more we realized how pervasive this attitude is in our society. We came to think that it is one of the root causes of the societal problems described above.
We believe this attitude needs to change. The world needs more balance.
What balance is and what it isn't
For us, balance means rejecting the extremes that create harmful outcomes. A balanced society is one where everyone's needs are met within the limits of the ecological ceiling. A balanced (work)life is one where we can both contribute to the world and enjoy it. As E. B. White put it: "I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day."
Balance does not mean conforming to the status quo. On the contrary: if the status quo is off balance, we need radical action to achieve balance. Me Too, Black Lives Matter, Pride, Occupy, and Extinction Rebellion are all movements born out of the recognition that the status quo is off balance, and we need to work to fix the structural issues that generate those imbalances.
Neither does balance mean that everyone's opinion should carry equal weight. For example, the right balance between scientific consensus and a conspiracy theory is not found in the middle. Media has a tendency to create these false balances, as this video by John Oliver perfectly illustrates.
Balance is the only thing in the world you can't have too much of. Several years ago, I heard a team member wonder whether we had "too much balance" at Sharetribe. When we dug deeper, we realized his observation was based on a worry he had. Some people in our team had so much going on in their personal lives that it had a negative impact on our ability to pursue our mission as a company. Things were off balance.
Building a Balanced Company
After ten years of operating, I consider Sharetribe wildly successful, but in terms quite different from those startups are usually measured with. We never reached a high valuation or a lucrative exit: in fact, we've taken deliberate steps that prevent us from ever going for either.
For me, success is staying independent and pursuing our mission while turning a profit. Success is hearing from our customers that our product changed their lives by allowing them to pursue their dreams. Success is Sharetribe team members sharing how joining our company restored their faith in work where they can pursue ambitious goals without having to sacrifice their personal life. Success is when I look back at the years that have passed, I can't imagine spending them any other way.
In the past five years, we've learned of many amazing companies that also define success in similar terms. These companies are sometimes called Zebras, Calm Companies, or real businesses. They may practice Chill Work or be platform cooperatives, steward-owned companies, or Teal organizations. Ultimately, I think all of them are about the same thing: balance. This gives me hope. Perhaps we, as a society, will finally be able to achieve a balanced way to work and contribute to the world.
To celebrate our first ten years and to do our small part in creating a better trend for companies to follow, I'm hereby announcing the launch of Balanced. Balanced is our new culture blog, where we write about how we do things at Sharetribe and what our view of what a better world looks like. If you're also building a Balanced Company, we hope that the stories we share will inspire you in your journey.