Lifetime Value(s)

Most of you have probably heard of the business metric "Customer Lifetime Value." (If you haven't and you're still reading my blog, then you're probably my mother. Hi, Mom!) Essentially it's the projected worth of your customers during their time with your company. It's meant to make people take a long-term assessment of a customer, rather than just the revenue he or she is paying right now.  

Fireside Chat  with Charles Brewer, founder of Mindspring, and the incomparable  Sanjay Parekh  at the Atlanta Center for Civic Innovation on March 2, 2015 |  Photo: Mike Whitacre

Fireside Chat with Charles Brewer, founder of Mindspring, and the incomparable Sanjay Parekh at the Atlanta Center for Civic Innovation on March 2, 2015 | Photo: Mike Whitacre

I was thinking about this metric the other night at "Fireside Chat with Charles Brewer," an event hosted by the Center for Civic Innovation in downtown Atlanta. Charles is best known as the founder of MindSpring and the creator of a set of Core Values and Beliefs held in almost fanatical reverence by MindSpring employees and entrepreneurs alike. (He also founded a town in Costa Rica, but that's a whole other discussion.)

MindSpring was founded in 1994 and merged with EarthLink in 2000, so everything Charles did with the company happened 20 years ago at this point. 

And yet, on Monday night when Charles was to speak, multiple former MindSpring employees, investors and partners showed up to see him. And every single one spoke up about how the core values changed their lives. 

Let me repeat that -- changed their lives. They didn't say they liked them, or thought they sounded good, or were generally helpful. They said those core values impacted everything they did after MindSpring

That's some pretty compelling stuff. 

It made me start thinking about SalesLoft and our core values (positive, supportive & self-starting). Right now, we're a startup with a small team. We try to embody our values every day, and we've all found ourselves applying them in our personal lives. They are the basis for how we run our business, how we work as a team and how we interact with clients. They are the backbone of our company. 

But what if they could be even more? What if they could also change our lives to the point that we are just as passionate about them in two decades as we are now? What if they are so powerful that they impact everything we do after SalesLoft? What would that look like?

I think it would look a lot like Charles Brewer and MindSpring.

Want to read all of Charles Brewer's core values and beliefs, as outlined by Brewer himself in an inspiring 2001 speech to Southern Institute? Check out Lance Weatherby's post, "Leading with Values."

When you hear Charles explain his core values and beliefs and where they came from, you get it. You understand why people reacted so strongly to them, and why the creation of those values influenced his employees' lives. At an event some of this is, of course, Charles himself and how brilliantly he engages the audience, but the values hold up on paper as well. They stand alone and are self-motivating.  

The values seem simple enough when just listed out, yet somehow most companies never find their way to them. I can personally attest that it's a lot easier to talk about your core values than it is to follow them, but I can also attest that it's worth it.  

Following strong core values and beliefs has a wide impact, from business to family to faith. Applying that level of accountability to an entire company can mean great things, both for the employees and the customers. It can, as Charles has shown, grow exponentially beyond where it started and affect your life years down the road. So that leads me to ask:

What is the lifetime value of the right core values?

Based on the compelling story of MindSpring, I'd say it's pretty damn high. 

Excerpt from Charles' explanation of where his core values came from:

"The values exist for me because… well, you know, they came out of experience. I think most people, almost all people, want to do something great with part of their life, they want to contribute something significant, they want to get satisfaction from it, they’re willing to make sacrifices and work hard to make that happen. But I also think that, for most people, it doesn’t happen. And it’s something about the way things happen inside of an organization that keep it from happening. Something insidious, something not on purpose, but the status quo is not that encouraging, and many, many, people eventually give up on getting satisfaction from the work part of their life. They spend at least half their waking hours working, but they give up! They get the satisfaction from family, hobbies, or something else. That’s a pretty big tragedy.
So when I saw some of that happening around me in my early work experiences, I was thinking, how to avoid that? You’re going to have a company, how do you make it different from the rather depressing status quo? And I don’t think it can be just picking some special, magical people because I don’t think the people are the problem to begin with. It's not a special, magical line of business or anything else, and really the only candidate left after you go through all of the things it couldn’t be was the philosophy, the values, the intent of how people in the company are going to work together and interact with each other and with the customers and the world at large. And so the particular values we had at MindSpring got carried on to our subsequent companies and on to Las Catalinas, my current venture, which is a town-building exercise in Costa Rica.
They came functionally from the three things I think are most important. One is respect for the individual — I believe that if you treat people with respect and give them responsibility, that’s the way to get the best results. Not everybody agrees with that, some people think you have to micromanage your way to the best results, but that’s number one. Number two is honesty and integrity. Number three is making commitments with care and living up to them. And when you look at when things are going wrong in an organization, and people are not able to attain the results and satisfaction they’re looking for, if you keep looking deep enough, I think you will probably find some lack of honesty where employees are not telling each other the truth, not telling their boss the truth, their bosses aren’t telling the employees the truth, the company’s not telling the customers the truth, and it just builds on itself. And it becomes inevitably a poisonous thing.
Some of the other values are just more quirky, individual things. One of the core values is frugality. I'm frugal, I can't help it. Some companies compete with big, flashy style, but that’s just not me, so that’s going to be on my list for core values and beliefs. 
Work is an important part of life and and should be fun. Being a good businessperson does not mean being stuffy and boring. And that was a very visible one at MindSpring. We ended up attracting a visibly quirky collection of people working there. A lot of times they were people who just didn’t fit in at other organizations because they just couldn’t be them! They could come to MindSpring and it was okay to be them. Anything was okay, as long as it was consistent with our core values.
And those people who fit in the least well in the normal corporate environment oftentimes turned out to be the people who were the absolute best, most enthusiastic, most effective leaders at MindSpring because, for once in their lives, they found a place where they could be themselves and it was okay."