To change culture, be a sheep in wolf’s clothing

A successful company, in my mind, is one who changes culture for the better. Therefore, one question I ask myself when evaluating companies is: how will it reach the mainstream?

Some founders will say things like “We would never work with Wal-Mart” or “Obviously we wouldn’t partner with Kmart” - the point being that Wal-Mart or Kmart are the corporate antithesis of what the founder is trying to achieve.

But if the founder wants to change the world, and Wal-Mart dominates our world - 245 million people in the world shop there each week, and 93% of American households shop at Wal-Mart at least once a year - then why shouldn’t they want to partner with Wal-Mart?

The best companies, to me, lead not with social values, but with the values that matter most to a customer: price, convenience, quality.

Seth Goldman, cofounder of Honest Tea, writes in Mission in a Bottle that one of the biggest lessons he learned while building his brand was:

It doesn’t matter how good it is for you if it doesn’t taste good….If an eco-friendly toilet paper gives people splinters, they won’t care how green it is. With tea, there can’t be a trade-off between delicious and healthy. It can’t taste like lake water. It has to be delicious.

Founders shouldn’t put their customers in the awkward position of having to choose between competing values. And more importantly, they shouldn’t put their companies in that position.

Hampton Creek Foods1 is a food technology company that creates sustainable alternatives to household food staples. Their first product is an egg-free mayo called Just Mayo. They also recently announced Just Cookies, an egg-free, dairy-free cookie dough.

Just Mayo is the number one bestselling mayo at Whole Foods. But what’s remarkable about Just Mayo is it’s also being sold at Safeway, Costco, and Dollar Tree. It’s also priced competitively against other mayonnaise options - Just Mayo costs $4 for a 16 oz jar at Whole Foods.

As cofounder Josh Tetrick puts it, people aren’t the problem: just about everyone, given the choice between a $3 lip balm manufactured in China and made with paraffin, and a $3 lip balm manufactured in Berkeley and made with coconut oil, would pick the latter. But it’s the company’s job to make that easy for the customer.

This principle extends beyond consumer brands, as well. Any company that puts out a product whose sole differentiator is “we’re better for the world” - whether that’s a nonprofit or a Bitcoin application - is begging the customer to do something they otherwise wouldn’t.

I believe the most successful companies in the long run will be the ones who continue to appeal to traditional consumer values, while changing how they run things internally. It’s the founder, not the customer, who must put aside what’s easy or cheap and stay true to their vision for a better future.

Your customer is not the linchpin to changing the status quo. You are. Compromising on product, even if you’ve got good values, means you expect your customers to do you a favor. And that’s just not good business.

  1. Hampton Creek Foods is a Collaborative Fund portfolio company.