Why I Don’t Believe In Unicorns…
By: Jonathan Kalan, Unsettled Co-Founder
When I read the headlines these days, I often feel like a salmon swimming upstream in a river of bullshit.
You know the feeling? That one where you can’t quite put a finger on why everyone is else is chasing something you can’t see, or believes in something you simply don’t believe in? Turn to the Business section of any major newspaper and follow the tales of Silicon Valley’s darlings (WeWork, Facebook, Uber, to name a few), and perhaps you experience a similar sense of disillusionment yourself with the state of startup culture today.
Wait… Where Is This Coming From?
There are a couple of reasons I’ve been reflecting on all of this lately. The first is personal. With 2020 around the corner, we’re coming to the end of a wild decade that started with me boarding a plane to Tanzania at the age of 22 with little more than a backpack and oversized ambitions. That flight turned into a defining 4-year journey as a photojournalist, and another 6 years of starting companies of all shapes, sizes, and industries. These experiences have deeply shaped who I am and what I stand for today.
Second, last month marked the third anniversary of our first ever Unsettled retreat. The first time we somehow convinced 31 strangers from 10 countries to fly halfway around the world and join us in Bali for a truly grand experiment.
Three years, nearly 100 trips, and 2,000 participants from 81 countries later, it’s given me a lot of time for reflection, both on Unsettled’s journey as a company, and our individual journeys as entrepreneurs. While the world around us has changed dramatically in the years since our first Bali trip, our approach has not.
How Unsettled Started… In A Nutshell
When my co-founder Michael and I started Unsettled in 2016, we didn’t begin with a business plan, pitch deck, or even a brilliantly disruptive idea. We began by looking inwards; examining our individual life journeys so far, what we wanted out of the next 5-10 years both personally and professionally, and what literally got us out of bed and made us feel alive each and every day.
Over the course of a week, huddled in an apartment in Bogota, Colombia with a wall of post-it-notes and a pound of good coffee, we asked the tough questions that most people take years to ask even their life partners, let alone their business partners.
How much money did we want to make over the coming years? How many hours were we willing to put in, and what kind of lifestyles did we want to live to achieve that? What were we willing to sacrifice? What would our personal lives look like – kids, families, spouses? Who would our work be serving, and why? How did we define growth for ourselves and a potential company, and why?
What we ended up with were two core things that became the foundation for Unsettled, and that would come to guide both our business and lifestyle compasses in the years to come. A list of non-negotiables, and our company Ikigai (“reason for being”) statement.
Here is that initial list of non-negotiables, in raw format:
- We do not live or spend beyond our means (our debt profile).
- We need to be constantly challenged.
- Company culture is a necessity, and it must be aligned with our personal values.
- “Work-lifestyle symmetry”: We want a seamless connection between work and life.
- Our tolerance for risk is defined by our belief in our vision, our passion for the work, and a modest to market-value wage over the short to long-term, respectively.
- Our company must compliment our personal trajectories and take us one step further along our pathway to a fulfilling lifestyle.
And, our Ikigai statement, which you can still find on our website to this day:
“To guide people on a quest of life, meaning, and adventure. Fuel inspiration, exploration and discovery of the world around us. Create value that enriches and improves the human experience. Seek purpose and meaning, wherever it may lie. Aspire to always push the boundaries of the unknown. Think differently about tomorrow, and seize the opportunities today that will make it possible.”
Is It Really Radical To Be A Values-Based Business?
From the beginning – and even still today – as entrepreneurs we felt we were going a bit against the grain of mainstream culture..
While the world around us screamed “move fast and break things”, “hustle or die trying”, or championed growth metrics at all costs, we decided that we wanted to build something that would grow organically, and bring as much meaning and value to our customers as it would to us.
We knew if we wanted to be at our best, and build something that would truly be our best, it would require a marathon mentality, not a sprint mentality. We would need to create tangible value and meaning for the world from the moment we stepped into it- not just a pitch deck with ambitious visions and hockey-stick graphs of future promises.
This many not seem very radical to some. Yet when you look at the world of startups over the past decade, you see a very different narrative of what society deems to be a “successful entrepreneur.”
The Myth Of The Modern Unicorn…
Look at the Mark Zuckerbergs, Adam Nuemanns (WeWork), Travis Kalanicks (Uber), Elon Musks (Everything?), and the heroes of Silicon Valley today. You see success measured by growth and volume, the latest capital raise, valuation, press hits, rolodex of investors, and inflated growth metrics. You see “success” as defined by public perception and often an ability to sell a future promise. In short, you see the age of the Unicorn; rich in Mythology and vision, yet lacking in substance and reality.
In short, you see the age of the Unicorn; rich in mythology and vision, yet lacking in substance and reality.
If you need any convincing of how this myth can misguide and mislead both investors and entrepreneurs, simply look at the business headlines of the past few months.
The botched IPOs, deflated valuations, larger-than-life-cult-founder syndromes, and diminishing expectations of some of the world’s fastest-growing and most talked about startups like Uber (which is burning through $1 billion a quarter, and who’s valuation has dropped over 25% since it’s IPO in May) and WeWork (who’s IPO attempt has nearly sunk the company’s valuation, resulting in what may amount to over 4,000 layoffs), are causing investors and entrepreneurs alike to re-think what value creation is, how we measure it, and how we package and sell it.
When You Don’t Want To Be A Unicorn… Build To Last.
As Unsettled has grown over the past few years, we’ve had our fair share of bumps in the road. Yet instead of aggressively pursuing valuations, we’ve always aimed to build a business the old-fashioned way – by aiming to break even, month over month, as we’ve grown our company and our community.
We’ve had good months, and we’ve had challenging months. We’ve had times where we invested a little more than we were comfortable in growing, and immediately had to scale back.
Along the way, we’ve been fortunate enough to find some incredible people who’ve both supported and encouraged us along our journey. From early seed investors who shared our earliest vision for what the Unsettled community could be, to those who came later to support us – more than half of whom are actually Unsettled alumni, – to the various mentors, advisors, and programs (like the TED Residency, or Telluride Venture Accelerator) with an unconventional take on how business can be done, who have always been there for us.
We’ve found the misfits who, like us, believe in doing things a bit differently. And we’ve always been equally truthful with them – and our broader community – about our pie-in-the-sky visions and our real-life struggles, our big wins and hard losses, our projections and our realities.
Ultimately, while we respect the drive and talent of the visionary unicorns of the world, who we respect most are those who have built to last, not just built to sell. One of those we consider most inspiring is Yvonne Chouinard of Patagonia (If you need some convincing, read his latest interview here, or buy his book Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman). The entrepreneurs who took decades to build the companies that we respect today. Who built companies rooted deeply in a set of uncompromising values, with a clear vision and commitment to the value they can deliver to their customers and the world at large.
We want Unsettled to last. We want to do it ethically. We want to do it sustainably. And we want to do that with those who matter most – our community – at the center of the equation.
The Shifting Tides…
Thankfully, we’re not alone. The tide is shifting. Investors and the public are beginning to recognize that sustainable businesses, those which operate paying closer attention to their bottom line than over-inflated egos and great stories, are the ones that will last. Some of the world’s most influential business leaders are finally standing up and claiming that simply serving company shareholders is no longer the top priority of a company, and that companies must also invest in employees and delivering value to customers.
As we look back on three years of Unsettled and the coming decade, we are immensely proud of what we’ve accomplished together with our community. We’ve managed to stay true to our Ikigai, to hold ourselves accountable and honest to our non-negotiables, and build a business that we believe in.
Over the coming year, our vision is to continue growing the ways in which Unsettled contributes to people’s lives; the perspectives we shift by bringing the right communities of people together; the new life journeys and discoveries we help people navigate through and towards; and the constant yearning for new adventures and experiences that define what it means to live Unsettled.
With the recent launch of Unsettled’s Lifestyle Incubator, our first ever “virtual retreat”, we’re bringing Unsettled programming and experiences to thousands of individuals who want to ask the big questions and share experiences with their peers, but can’t take the time off to travel. Our second program will begin on January 3, 2020. (PS… You can sign up here!)
Furthermore, in the coming months, we’re going to be putting our community even closer to the center of Unsettled’s growth by pursuing ways to make them our greatest stakeholders. The way it should be.
We believe we can do all of this, run a successful company, and transform the way live, work, and do business today without “radically disrupting” or “breaking” anything… especially our sanity. Each day we continue on this path, and meet other individuals, entrepreneurs, and companies who share our values and reject the notion that it takes a unicorn to change the world, I feel that river of bullshit flowing with a little less force. Or at least we have some more salmon to keep us good company.