Atomic Object designs and builds custom software products for clients in nearly all industries. That’s our commercial purpose, and, after 20 years, we’re quite good at it. Achieving our commercial purpose grants us existence and options. But it’s not why we exist and matter as a company; that’s our existential purpose. Both our commercial and existential purposes are evergreen, and that presents some challenges.
Our clients rely on us to create innovative software products that help them achieve their mission, grow their revenue, and compete effectively in the marketplace. As a consultancy, we have no recurring revenue or long-term contracts. We earn the right to exist every single day, on every single project. And we do that by delivering on our two-pronged value prop: great product, great project experience. We need to be at least as good as our clients’ internal teams and better than our external competitors. If we fail to deliver consistently on our commercial purpose, we will cease to exist.
Our commercial purpose isn’t static. In fact, if we’re successful in reaching our goal to be 100 years old, our commercial purpose will almost certainly change dramatically over time. Even in 20 years, we’ve already seen significant changes in the sort of software we build. In fact, our very earliest revenue didn’t even come from custom software. It came from training and consulting. Exogenous forces and changes in the economy and technology will force us to continually adapt our commercial purpose.
If we fail to adapt, we will lose the opportunity to achieve our existential purpose.
According to the framework we use to describe our organizational culture, existential purpose is “the reason we exist and matter.” Our commercial purpose must adapt to changes in the economy and technology. In contrast, our existential purpose has to do with why we started the company in the first place. It is inherently more personal and abstract than our commercial purpose.
Our existential purpose is to be “a source and a force” — a source of fulfillment for Atoms, and a force for good for our clients and communities. That gives us both an internal and an external focus.
From our founding, we’ve sought to be a source of fulfillment for all Atoms.
For us, being a source of fulfillment means every Atom:
- has a chance to learn, grow, and master their craft
- does work that matters and creates value
- is able to bring their whole self to work
- gives and receives appreciation and recognition
- is respected for who they are as an individual
- is able to form meaningful social connections
- is a part of something larger than themself
No one should expect Atomic, or indeed any company, to be their sole source of living a fulfilled life. On the other hand, it stands to reason that spending roughly half your adult waking hours in a place, with people, doing things that provide you with no more than a paycheck, is going to make life fulfillment a lot harder to find.
We want to be a company where work matters in the lives of every person who chooses to spend their time as an Atom. We also want to leave everyone with the energy and time for the other aspects of their life in which they find fulfillment. Leaving work bitter, exhausted, angry, stressed, disrespected, or unappreciated means we’re failing to achieve the source part of our purpose. Additionally, we’re making it harder for Atoms to have healthy, fulfilling relationships with family, friends, community, and faith.
We strive to be a force for good for our clients and in our communities. We look outward for this portion of our purpose.
Being a force for good in our communities starts with the 80 or so good jobs we provide directly. But since half of the work of each of our offices comes from the community in which it’s located, we’re also indirectly supporting jobs by helping our clients succeed.
Being a force for good also means supporting organizations and initiatives that make our communities more just, diverse, beautiful, and fun places to live. The motivation for spending money and time in this way is self-serving. First, we live in the communities where we work and want them to be nice places. Second, doing our part just feels like the right thing to do. It’s part of what defines community for us.
Being a force for good for our clients means applying our time and skills to design and develop software products that look great, work great, perform reliably, maintain easily, and burnish the brands of our clients. We can also be a force for good by being good stewards of their budgets, by bringing them ideas from other industries, and by sharing our expertise with their staff.
For the duration of our relationship, we help our clients achieve their mission. How strongly the mission of our client resonates with members of the Atomic team depends on the individual Atom. Given that Atomic is comprised of nearly 80 people, it’s impossible to expect that every client’s mission will be personally fulfilling to every person in the company or even every Atom on a project team. This is one reason it’s important for Atomic to be about more than our projects.
Companies with very focused, specific, goal-oriented purposes or missions have a natural recruiting advantage over generalist consultancies — it’s easy for someone to know what they’ll work on and how they feel about the company’s purpose. This natural advantage means we need to be good not only at achieving our purpose but in regularly and effectively communicating it.
Nonprofits are often held up as an exemplar of worthy purpose. Unfortunately, many of them don’t seem to do so well on the source side of Atomic’s purpose. In fact, it’s not uncommon that nonprofits exploit the purpose alignment of employees to get more good deeds done on thin budgets. Compensation, benefits, nice facilities, sustainable pace, and growth resources are often scanty.
Maybe the perfect job would be at an organization that combines Atomic’s source and force purpose, has the resources and stability available from a successful commercial purpose, and operates in a domain and with goals that you personally resonate with? While that sounds dreamy, I suspect there are some zero-sum games inherent in achieving all of these aspects in one company. For example, a specialist consultancy that focuses on one sector or type of client may provide strong mission alignment, but by reducing the number of potential clients, it may not offer as much employment security or profitability. As another example, the professional growth that comes with learning new domains and technologies may be lower in a product company or a specialized consultancy.
I’ve been using the word client to mean a company or organization. That’s who we have contracts with, who owns what we build, and who pays our invoices. We may put a company logo on our website, and a company name in our CRM, but we meet, talk, negotiate, brainstorm, laugh, share stories, eat, get frustrated, sacrifice, and solve problems with people, not companies. It’s the entrepreneurs, project managers, product owners, CEOs, and CTOs we serve and who, in return, help make our work fulfilling.
Every project involves working closely with people who work for our client. Providing those people with a positive experience is another way we can be a force for good. That usually involves helping them do their jobs well, delivering a quality product that makes them look good, managing their budget responsibly, caring for them as people, and making the project fun. Deriving satisfaction from helping and serving other people is a necessary trait for Atoms and for our purpose.
In return, the employees of our clients can help Atomic achieve the source part of our purpose by respecting our team’s skills and efforts, caring for them as people, and expressing their appreciation. The importance of closing this loop has implications for selecting clients, setting expectations, and sometimes even needing to “fire” a client.
Pros and cons of evergreen
One challenge of having an evergreen purpose is that you can never complete it. If you’re counting on your purpose to motivate people toward a particular accomplishment, that could be a bad thing. In our organizational culture framework, we use the abstraction of goals for this very reason. We can define and work toward goals, of various time frames, while living our existential purpose indefinitely. The purpose informs our goals; the goals mark our progress.
On the other hand, you can equally well say that one great thing about an evergreen purpose is that you never complete it. We’ll be able to strive to be a source of fulfillment and a force for good indefinitely. For an evergreen company with a 100-year goal, that feels like the right sort of purpose.
Our commercial purpose is evergreen to the extent that it doesn’t define who we are. We make it evergreen by being willing to evolve it as the world changes. Someday, future leaders of Atomic might even have to wholly reinvent our commercial purpose when the robots master a keyboard and mouse and people no longer develop custom software. That will be an interesting challenge, to say the least. But whoever those people are, they’ll have our existential, evergreen purpose to guide their decisions.
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