In this wide-ranging conversation, Better Ventures founding partners Shelley Kuipers and Steve Jennings discuss the genesis of their organization and its place in a gathering global movement that is reshaping ecosystems for business and social enterprise.
In which two entrepreneurs from different continents embark on very different journeys that, in retrospect, taught them exactly the same things about brands, businesses and the people you need to have in your corner. And why Better Ventures existed even when it didn’t.
Steve Jennings: I’m not sure there was a time before Better. I think Better has always been part of my life since I was a little boy. I was always curious, always asking questions that got me into trouble at school, with my friends, when I first went into the workplace. When I look back, I can see the idea at the heart of Better expressed all through my life. It’s about the pursuit.
Shelley Kuipers: I can relate to that. I was out of my element at school, didn’t like the structure and rules. I didn’t want to go to university. I wanted to be a fashion designer (still do). I took engineering and hated it, didn’t finish it. I’ve had this dissatisfaction with all the obvious routes in life.
Steve: I’ve always struggled when I’ve been in restrictive environments but I also wasn’t the kind of person that would wake up in the morning and see how many rules I could break. I just wanted something better. It’s just who I was.
Shelley: Exactly! Status quo isn’t my thing. Being told ‘you can’t do that’ is definitely not my thing. I grew up professionally inside of an organization where I saw entrepreneurs at work each day. There were no boundaries to what you could do. It was like, “Game on, Shelley. What do you want to do? Go make it happen.” It’s this idea that anything is possible.
There is this nexus point about finding the right people, connecting with them, and pushing the boundaries of the possible…
Steve: The fear and anxiety in doing something bold and unexpected and unsanctioned by the status quo is immense but I’ve always believed in making that leap. If you do it with the right intent – the desire to make things better for you and those around you – things will work out.
Shelley: I feel like we’ve both spent so many years chasing possibility. We’ve both worked with all these amazing global brands. We’ve both seen how they’ve tried to connect with their consumers and stakeholders.
Steve: We’ve also seen them struggle. The real opportunity for a new way of doing business has still not been fully realized.
Shelley: That was true in the crowdsourcing space. By the time I left, it had become completely commoditized around technology, which was not delivering the value organizations needed. A new paradigm was necessary.
Steve: Is that the biggest professional lesson you’re applying now in Better?
Shelley: It’s tempting to say yes. But we both know it’s not just about brands and business models.
Steve: It’s about people!
Shelley: That’s hard won wisdom. My biggest piece of advice to anybody starting any venture is to find your tribe and stick to it. Make sure your core values are aligned with your partners and your teammates. If that’s corrupted or poisoned, you’re dead in the water. And it might take years of your life before you realize it.
Steve: There is this nexus point about finding the right people, connecting with them, and pushing the boundaries of the possible that is the real connection between us. We’ve been on very different journeys but the way we think and feel and believe are very, very similar.
Shelley: It’s so true. It’s like we almost had no choice but to work together.
10 Days on Salt Spring Island
Salt Spring Island is one of the Gulf Islands between mainland British Columbia, Canada and Vancouver Island. In early 2015, the nascent Better Ventures team assembled to define what the company would do and how they would do it. On long hikes into the surrounding woods, in conversations around tables littered with coffee cups and cider cans, they explored it all: fine ideas and false starts, unexpected visions and brilliant mistakes, all in pursuit of something would synthesize all the work the team had done previously – and expand on it.
Shelley: We wanted to build on the foundation of our experiences – whether it was authentic customer relationships, crowdsourcing, innovation, possibility, and integrate it into new business models & paradigms.
Steve: The belief we aligned around is that the business and social enterprise ecosystems of the future are being architected in real-time today and they’re all underpinned by participation.
Shelley: Participation is a mindset that says we don’t have all the answers. Our employees, customers and supply chain – none of them have all the answers.
Steve: Our hypothesis is that through participation organizations can find the answers they need to create the value that’s not being created today.
Shelley: It’s this idea of creating something that doesn’t yet – but could – exist. At Better Ventures, we’re not marketing. We’re not innovation. We’re not just building online communities. We’re a vehicle to help organizations create a new business model based on participation that could include all those things and many, many more.
The business and social enterprise ecosystems of the future are being architected in real-time today and they’re all underpinned by participation.
Steve: It’s as much a value system and a philosophy as anything. It’s not about selling software. It’s about creating value.
Shelley: It’s about creating a movement.
Steve: Yes! We always go that place! I truly believe we’re entering a new age where consumers and employees are on the verge of being empowered in a way we’ve never experienced before.
Shelley: This new paradigm isn’t just about the consumer-brand relationship.
Steve: It’s about everyone. It’s the human condition. All of us want to be active participants not just in the unfolding narrative of business – but of life. That’s what we’re talking about here.
Shelley: Organizations need to understand: Your future employees will never work for you. They’re going to work with you. On their terms. Your consumers are going to be making decisions about whether they trust you. If they do organizations will have to build the framework for them to contribute. And that framework can’t be – ‘can you fill out this survey and I’m going to give you a gift card?’ It will be the full cycle of value creation where everyone that’s contributing to value is sharing in it. It’s democratization.
Steve: The opportunity we’re pursuing with Better is to create such safe, powerful, valuable interfaces between consumers and brands and organizations that participation will become normalized, and in a very positive way, the word participation itself will just slip into the background. The command and control companies that are driving the internet won’t be leading in the future. The people will decide.
Shelley: All these rules and paradigms are going to go away. And we’re helping make that happen with our team, with our partners and, eventually, with all the people we haven’t met yet.
From nowhere to here
Raise your hand!
Join the movement!
Shelley: When I first met Steve I was presenting at Crowdsourcing Week in Europe in 2014. He was sitting in the audience. I remember just being intellectually exhausted. Everything in my professional life at that time was negative. Everything was ‘no.’ I was only just starting to realize that everything needed to change. When Steve approached me to talk later that day, I realized that it could. Two years later, it has.
Steve: Now we want to share Better Ventures with everyone who thinks there is a better way to do things and with everyone who knows they have more to contribute.
Shelley: We have an incredible opportunity for the talent out there to be part of something where they can realize their full potential.
Five or ten years from now we may look back and realize we were part of a revolution.
Steve: We are looking to build a cohesive ecosystem around participation commerce. ‘This is how you do it’ doesn’t yet exist. We need all sorts of skills and talents to bring it to life. That’s our offer. Five or ten years from now we may look back and realize we were part of a revolution.
Shelley: It’s revolutionary and it’s real. This isn’t smoke and mirrors, we’re not hand-waving things. We’re doing real work everyday with incredible people and organizations all over the world. We have the opportunity for people to make their impact known everyday.
Steve: This is a really important point, you’re making.
Shelley: We need more people like us. We’re looking for them.
Steve: This is a journey we’re all on together. We’re going to do amazing things and we’re going to have fun doing it. ∎