The Quest For Meaning

What has been the biggest treasure hunt in your life? Was it for fame, riches, love of the family or acknowledgment in society? Or were you hunting for doing something exciting, something where you can literally feel the energy and believe in? Or possibly all of that the above.


Your hunt will be a very personal choice that depends on the time you live in, the people you surround yourselves with and your current situation in life – including age and prior experiences.


I also think that it is a good question to ask oneself before making any hire, especially when you’re working to get your own start-up off the ground like I’m currently doing with UIB.


The motivation of the early founders of a company ultimately sets the longer-term culture, and that may well outlive the founders presence at the firm. I therefore believe that the “quest for meaning” should be at the heart of our hiring and an integral part of our product strategy.


But why?


For starters, one can easily tend to confuse the drive, passion and energy in the start-up world with the actual thing. Yes, one can thrive on energy alone, and at times it may seem – that is almost all it takes to get where you want to go, but what is the long-term and sustainable productive output that we as entrepreneurs are truly giving to society (or in the case of a software product – our users)? I mean it other than the start-up world being a factory producing a new kind of employees that now call themselves entrepreneurs?


Even though the success that a company might be experiencing now or at any sort of growth stage (whether publicly through the press, financially in profits, in sales or user numbers or through investors standing in queue to get a piece of the pie) might be huge, it is always only a snapshot of a usually limited time frame presented to us neatly at the current moment and looking at Facebook’s shares, I think it would be good to remember that.


The reality is that most companies that are formed, never take off and close within a year or two, maybe three if they got some funding along the line that kept them going. But it is also a fact, that apparently all the worlds companies combined have an average life-span of 20 odd years. That includes very small companies (single owners/operators) as well as very large organizations with tens of thousands of employees. These 20 years are limited by a variety of factors, such as acquisitions, lack of apprenticeship, bankruptcy and so on – however considering that 20 years is the worldwide average, how can any start-up with serious ambitions “to take over the world” not have a 20 years vision or at least a similarly optimistic outlook?


This is where the quest for meaning comes in.


When we build our product and when we hire people, we are very focused on not forgetting that everybody, whether it’s our users, our employees, our investors or other key stakeholders – and who knows – one day maybe even the product/company itself, are living for certain aims and purposes.


These purposes however should not be mindless, indeed they should be questioned for meaning as early on as possible in the life-cycle of a company and in people relationships. And by questioning, I don’t mean judging, just “finding out” in a first instance.


As a founder I realize while I’m hiring my early employees, that if my story and/or my traction is good, they may work hard and with high energy greatly hoping for that big exit. Often I thought then that while they’re carefully considering the risks, they don’t ask themselves if that exit will be meaningful or not. In their bank accounts it may prove to be and the work they do might be interesting and challenging, even exciting enough. But maybe we should ask ourselves if that is enough of a reward?


Suppose you’ve worked years for a company and one day is that final exit day – the accumulation of everything you and your team have seemingly worked for. Is it? Leaving the quest for meaning aside for a minute (and unless the company is sold under worrying circumstances of course) – it certainly is the cumulative success of many factors resulting in a situation that you were part of something that somebody else now wants to have and is willing to pay a (hopefully) hefty price for it.


However, several people that I talked to and who had various successes over the years told me that only when it comes to the moment of exit, we truly realize how much of ones quest for meaning has come down to money, and money alone – that is – the sweat, blood and tears to create something meaningful which is suddenly measured in $.


I’m not saying there is anything wrong with it as such, but in my opinion, if you and your team place great emphasis on creating something meaningful, the founders should take great care early on, i.e.

  • by not accepting too much investment (particularly if it’s from investors they don’t really need),
  • by being critical when listening to feature requests of a client (who will double your profit surely if the feature is there, even if it did not fit in your overall product strategy),
  • by hiring early employees that don’t share your vision of purpose or have a different perception for the quest for meaning.

When the product or company that you helped to create and worked hard for, often for many years, is sold, a part of you dies. The energy and memory that lives on however is not in your bank account, but in the meaning you’ve created for others by investing a part of your life into whatever it is you considered worth the risk at the time.


Money and hopes alone might drive people towards working hard and believing in something before the first clients have been secured or $ raised. But it is the hope for meaning that propels people to continue working even when times are dark. It is also one answer to the old question – how do you keep being able hiring those key and high performing people you need in order to grow and lead, once most of the equity options have been passed around?


I believe that the quest for meaning is deeply built into any human being, even if it surfaces at different moments of time and with a changing definition and content, it is certainly a great part of what makes us a human beings tick.


Therefore as founders we should give some thought to what “meaning” means for us, for our team, for prospective clients and for the company we’re building and what could be left of this meaning, long after we are gone.


Even if it just to help us on our entrepreneurial journey, maybe to attract better people and create a better product, but also to have a better customer service for instance.

What other betterments could the quest for meaning bring to a company or are there even some downsides to it? What do you think?

(Thanks at for the picture)

5 thoughts on “The Quest For Meaning

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  4. Thanks Toby….I write this from the tiny but popular corner of the world (New Zealand). As I peel off my labcoat and transition from being a scientist to an Entrpreneur I ponder my place and ability to make a difference.Whereas many Entrepreneurs seek fame and fortune from their latest and greatest App, I’ve done a complete about-turn, not to snub techology but to re-focus on something terribly old-fashioned. The human connection. Re-creating (and marketing) that warmth and welcome when strangers meet in a mutually agreeable situation. I’m talking accommodation – places you can stay where you’ll be immediately welcomed and looked after.Where you can have privacy if you need it, or enjoy the social interaction of a quality meal, a glass of wine and a decent coffee. There’s no ‘app’ for that…Our Hotel may be ‘Virtual’ – but the care and attention we offer our guests is real. I’m just getting going, so of course I’m dreaming big….and thank you for your inspiration to keep striving. It’s not easy. It remains to be seen whether bucking the trend is profitable or memorable. Toby, if you ever thought of coming to New Zealand, I can absolutely guarantee, that old-fashioned kiwi hospitality the world raves about does exist…..Dr Julia CharityFounderLook After MeNZ’s Virtual Hotel and Homestay

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