In my last post about reflections on DEI at Savas, I mentioned that part of the inspiration for renewed conversations about diversity was our need to hire more team members because we’ve seen a sustained increase in demand for our services. It would be fair to characterize most work coming in during Savas’s first few years as word-of-mouth. However, when COVID-19 hit the U.S. hard in early 2020, our efforts to keep everyone employed during the downturn also served as a helpful nudge to invest in new sales and marketing channels. The pursuit of new ways to win business is a natural maturation of our organization. However, as we are wont to look for silver linings, we celebrate the acceleration of a couple of promising channels that came to be as a response to preservation rather than growth. While word-of-mouth referrals will always be welcomed and are indeed also growing, they represent a relatively haphazard source of work, as opposed to the more systematic, methodical, and therefore predictable newer channels. This increased insight, in turn, has allowed us to plan for growth more explicitly, and we find now that we’re more limited by existing team size than incoming opportunities. The consistency of incoming work has allowed us to plan for a maturing team structure and peer further up Maslow’s hierarchy to a more fulfilling expression of Savas’s contributions in the world.
Since founding Savas, it has never been about solely the project work for me; I’ve always had my sights set on what value we could bring beyond crafting excellent digital experiences for our partners as we grow in skill, experience, size and stature.
This quarterly report slide from January 2018 is something of Savas lore at this point. I was going for the whole increase our resources to maximize our positive impact angle, but clearly ended up with something that could be construed as bordering on… hubris? Also, we’ve since hired UX and visual design experts, so I’m no longer allowed to make such egregious blunders. Sometimes I have nostalgia for these rawer times, but it's usually quite fleeting given how much better off we are ;)
I have endeavored to bring together altruistic, passionate, ambitious people with the intent that Savas can be a vehicle (a bicycle naturally) for positive change greater than the sum of its parts. Maximizing positive impact with the resources we have has been a steadfast aim, and being clear about that is one of the reasons we established a mission statement early on.
"We empower organizations seeking to create positive change by listening carefully to their needs, strategizing collaboratively, and delivering first-class technical solutions."
We didn’t initially have a vision statement, which we worked in last year, which now reads in tandem with the mission statement like this:
To craft excellent digital products and experiences that drive results for our partners.
To become a hub where ambitious and passionate people come together to craft digital tools to maximize their positive impact.
While some don’t find mission, vision, and value statements particularly meaningful, I have found them to be an invaluable reminder of how we operate and what really matters, especially at challenging times. The evolution we’ve taken is one of more pragmatic language on the mission statement while reserving the more aspirational for the future-oriented vision statement. We felt it previously read as too restrictive, relegating us to only work with mission-based organizations, which may often be resource-constrained nonprofits. However, there are plenty of organizations we do and would work with, who may have business-oriented goals, and don’t necessarily seek a higher purpose outside of however they serve their clients. So, we repurposed the previously lofty language of the mission statement to a phrase that affords us more flexibility to work with a wide array of organizations. If we provide results for our partners, whoever they might be, we can choose how to direct the resources we gain from those partnerships into the kinds of projects, organizations, services, etc. that align with our values.
I had a conversation with a leader of a digital agency similar to ours who faced a challenge with her team who was apprehensive about working with a particular client. One of the biggest names in technology reached out to her team to partner on a highly lucrative, challenging project for which the agency was a great fit. The leader’s team expressed that they didn’t want to work with the technology company, from what I understand, out of moral convictions about the company’s conduct. In what I would consider an uncommonly democratic process, the leadership acquiesced to the team’s desires and passed on the project. The leader lamented the challenge of balancing business goals and fulfillment for their talented staff while turning away a great opportunity like this one out of the team’s personal preference.
From my admittedly quite removed perspective, I found the team’s decision to be a bit of a simplistic and closed-minded one. I strongly advocate a utilitarian perspective, which I discussed in my last post on DEI, which would take the lens of the actual impacts to take on or reject this project. Given the client's prestige and the project's budget, another agency certainly engaged the project. Simply put, saying no doesn’t stop the project from getting done. So then assessing what positive outcome could come from taking on the project, or more broadly working with an organization whose conduct or mission you may not align with individually, becomes the question to ask. In this scenario, if the team felt the organization fell short of their values, then it could have been a great opportunity, as an example, to advocate that the company dedicate a portion of the profits from the project to donate to a cause that uplifted shared team values. I seriously doubt the agency who took on the project chose to dedicate any resources from the engagement for the greater good, so then you could argue (and I have) that turning down the project was a net negative. It may not be practical to calculate how mission-aligned the team is on every project, but I think the thought process matters.
The utilitarian perspective is not always popular, but I think it’s the right one. There are scenarios in which we would, and have, turned away work, for example, if our contributions would actively cause harm to others. But in most cases, I believe turning away work that would provide growth for our team is a disservice to our mission and we should reserve that choice for rare circumstances. I think it’s a more radical, impactful perspective to swallow one’s pride and figure out what good they can create by saying yes, rather than attempting to circumvent personal discomfort by saying no.
Updating our mission statement to serve a broader array of organizations affords us many more opportunities to create the innovation and impact we seek. The shift helps us stay steadfast in our delivery of results for whomever we work with while allowing us to achieve our vision better to maximize our positive impact. Ultimately, resources are a prerequisite to making an impact.
One of the most salient ways we have created impact has been through our Labs™ initiatives. In addition to the whimsical, like 2020-ipsum.com, we put some serious time and effort into building new things of value that would not have existed without our making them so, and those innovations have helped people. That is the most genuine expression of meaningful innovation to me. A response to COVID-19 to help restaurants: Durham Delivers, Should I ask for Gender, a gender education/inclusivity campaign, and a well-timed refresh to the Durham Civil Rights Heritage website are a few examples of some of our prouder efforts in the last year. They were meaningful to our team and me as minor contributions in a year (2020) that needed some extra TLC.
As we rolled into 2021, when we gathered stories and data about the prior year, we were delighted to discover we had dedicated the equivalent of a full-time person to Labs projects in 2020, far outweighing the collective amount of all pro bono work in years prior!
It’s exciting to strategize what we will do with more time, people, and resources as we grow. If we truly believe in our mission and vision, we carry an obligation to grow, as doing so will make the world a better place by definition. The antithesis of growth driven by purpose is a concept in the tech community called a “lifestyle company.” The basic idea is to shape the size and structure of the company around a lifestyle that the founders, and at times via extension, other team members, seek to achieve. In many cases, this means doing/growing no more than is necessary to sustain the lifestyle so as to not jeopardize it by complications that come from growth. While I vehemently reject the concept of working for the sake of work or growing for the sake of growth, I also don’t align with a self-limiting vision that is not endlessly expansive in some way, even if a touch unrealistically optimistic. I’m most inspired by those who are driven by a call to altruism and therefore believe we also owe it to others to eke out as much positive impact as we can from Savas Labs.
As we continue to expand our resources and look to the future, we imagine extending well beyond the small contributions we’ve made thus far. Take the Durham Delivers project as an example. It felt great to provide the upfront organizational direction and the lightweight website to get the project off the ground. I would have loved to spend more time and resources to assess whether there was enough demand to support a new food delivery business model. I remain convinced there is untapped value in a novel delivery approach that could be better for consumers and restaurants alike and make the whole process more efficient. Maybe I’m wrong; I probably am. Bringing new ideas into the world is complex, unpredictable, challenging work. But this is merely one specific example of additional exploration on a project we touched and feel with more resources, we could possibly bring to fruition a much more significant impact. We have many ideas like this, yet we know ideas are cheap. Battle testing them in the real world to determine if they have legs or not is less so. Never running with them, however, is not an option I’m willing to consider.