By Matthew Rock,
My antennae go up whenever I hit a company’s ‘Our story’ page. Most of the time you can instantly detect a manufactured mash-up of the leaders’ hard-nosed commercial opportunism and the comms adviser’s plea for a bit more ‘painful childhood experience’.
Every company these days must have a ‘story’. That story should have its roots in a revelatory moment, ideally a moment of moral indignation at the way things have been.
“In 2005, our founders recognised that there was an unmet demand for an over-the-counter derivatives trading platform.” That kind of thing, although preferably with a bit more soul. (Note to contentistas when creating these pages: dates and facts also make them more convincing.)
Sometimes you come across a genuine tale of adversity and conquest. In a modest-looking ‘Our story’ video on Genius IP’s site, co-founder T Michael Sebhatu talks about his upbringing in rural Eritrea. No electricity or running water.
A backdrop of terrible civil war. “Everything you needed, you had to make it yourself,” he says.
He left Eritrea to avoid being conscripted into the army, arrived in the UK, became qualified as a mechanical engineer and, his creative instincts fired, invented the first product in the world that cuts a perfectly square hole. He’s now one of Britain’s poster-boy ‘refugee entrepreneurs’, helping to rewrite the narrative around refugees as takers rather than contributors.
To be fair, most company founders can’t claim that kind of past. Their stories normally go along the lines of: had job, worked for crap boss, realised company was an epic fail, left, did it myself, stiffed my old employers, made a ton of money, and hired a comms adviser to compose a compelling ‘Our story’ page.
There’s a mix of truth and myth in most companies’ origins. Many digital companies are formed to solve specific consumer or market problems; it’s only as the business figures out how it’s actually going to make money that it becomes possible to define its mission and write its story.
The battle to tell the Facebook story is being fought as I write. For now, there’s still enough Mark Zuckerberg-centred mythology to preserve the aura of a cheeky upstart around the $500bn behemoth.
But, as Facebook starts becoming leakier (until recently it’s been pretty much impenetrable to nosey journalists), a less heroic picture starts to emerge.
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica horror show, in which, it appears, close to 100 million people had their details mined and manipulated so that they could be micro-targeted with political messaging, I chatted to a former Facebooker who joined the company in its early days. His view is that the company has long had a “cavalier” attitude towards data and privacy. “The issue stems from a lack of ethical training within the industry,” he told me.
“When we data jockeys have a file with a bunch of data points, we just see it as that; we fail to make the connection that nefarious individuals are willing to use said data.”
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Thomas Ramge argue in a new book, Reinventing Capitalism in the Age of Big Data, that a company’s data – and its access to data – is now more commercially influential than being able to offer a better price. If that’s the case, then whether a company can be trusted to treat data with prudence, and to share it appropriately, will be the ultimate test of its integrity and licence to operate. Now that’s a story…
Matthew Rock is content director at Think Publishing
This article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q2 2018.