How meaningful values can build a better company

We all want to work in a company that isn't solely motivated by profit. Of course, making money has to be the primary driver in a commercial industry, but working somewhere which has greater goals for its team and the wider world provides more motivation.

Values are the unwritten moral code that guide the path of the business. They are the North Star to follow while making important decisions or when things get rough. What they are and how they are communicated and implemented determines how people behave, how they work and what choices they make together as a team.

We know how important they are. Without these deeper moral navigators, a business can rarely be called successful.
These values tend to form together with the company culture in the first 5–10 years of its existence. It takes time to get on the right path and to understand what has helped the business to get to where it currently stands and what's needed to guide it to where it wants to be.

Money and values are not mutually exclusive

Despark entered its tenth year in 2017 and although we have continued to provide great work through a lot of difficult transitions and turbulent times, we still haven't felt like we've had solid ground beneath our feet. For much of our recent past, the vision driving how we operated was weak; our decisions were chaotic and we were failing to send the right message to our clients.

The work we were taking on most of the time was simply not the right work for us. We had lost our focus and had gone down the path of taking on projects of all shapes and sizes rather than ones we truly wanted to do. That took its toll and team members started losing their passion - and things start to get pretty bad once you get to that point. The high quality of work that we pride ourselves on started suffering because people lacked motivation and excitement.
Furthermore, most of the work we were doing did not seem to have the impact we wanted it to have on users, clients and the world as a whole. Creating brochure websites did not have the same value for the team, for our clients or for the business anymore.

The wake-up call was an exciting AI project we did in August 2016 for a big telecom company in the UK. Spending time polishing our pitch deck and reading articles late at night, we started questioning our own existence as a team and as a business. Where is the industry going? How would design and technology evolve? What was our role in all of this?

After tackling some of these profound questions, it was time for us to transform Despark into a different kind of company. We decided to become a product-led business and create digital products for entrepreneurs and brands. For Despark to be a successful company, we needed to focus on what we were best at - and what we enjoyed doing most.

Values cannot just be a statement on your website

Before Despark changed its course, we had a nice set of values as any good company does. Everyone had values on their websites; why wouldn't we? But being completely honest, we did not follow through on them. We lacked real ideas on how to bring them to life and how to make them a part of the team's work and mentality.

Curiosity, creativity, nimbleness, initiative, craftsmanship, collaboration - Despark valuesWe failed to appreciate that values are more than simply professional qualities. They need to be something bigger which stands behind each and every aspect of the company. They need to define which projects we choose; how we sell our services; how we talk to clients; how we work, who we hire; how we talk to each other; everything. A bold value statement on the website does not walk the walk; it just scratches the surface. We needed a change.

Values are the guiding lights to a company's better future

Once our new vision was in place, we knew where Despark was going; it was now time to figure out how to get there. We had also taken serious steps towards greater transparency and made a few team changes. It felt like everything was beginning to really fall into place for us. It was a good time to rethink how we see the world and what Despark should advocate as a business.

A vision is what you want to create. The mission of your company is why you want to get to that vision. Your company's values are how you want to get to that vision.

Values strengthen a team

Changing a company requires a lot of conversation, deep thinking and discussion. The leadership team invested a lot of time in these areas and made sure everything that needed to be said was on the table and that everything that needed changing was changed. The values discussion evolved naturally around the fact that we then knew where we wanted to get to as a company, but weren't sure about the best way to get there.

We had two iterations of our values and, after starting with 15 different ones, we brought the number down to these five key principles:

Team play
Problem solving

Those were a solid, meaningful set of qualities for the team to embody and strive for; but it still felt like something was missing. There had to be something more in order to tell the world what we are - that being a great company that works on truly meaningful projects and isn't simply motivated by money. We almost fell for the trap of using singled-out words without context or meaning to our business. It was a difficult process, but change always is.

Now more than 10 years into this business, Despark is mature enough to go bigger and have a deeper value statement. A truly brave one.

So it was back to the drawing board. Hristo (CEO) and Stoyan (CSO) spent some time discussing how the new vision of Despark affects our set of values and what the important things are that drive us as a team and as a business. Eventually, it turned out that they are all things that make us better human beings. And it's as simple as that. Values transcend from the personal to our professional lives and vice versa. They should not be separated.

Here's what Stoyan said to the team after he presented the new direction of Despark:

It's important to understand that we will all grow together in this. We won't create killer products from day one. We won't change the world by just wanting to. As a team we know a lot, but there's still a ton of stuff we have to learn, experiment with and improve.
We all have to remember something as a team and as a company: efficiency is a goal, but quality is the goal. Profit is a by-product of quality. And to achieve that vision, we need a very strong team. What does that mean?

It meant that our North Star needed to become brighter than ever in order to get us to where we wanted to be. And we needed to change, because not all of us were looking in the same direction. Our current value statement reflects what kind of company and what kind of people we want to be. And this is how we want to make our vision a reality.

We encourage mindfulness, fuel curiosity and relate via empathy to empower ourselves to act together and change the way people experience the world.
  • Mindfulness : being mindful leads to a better quality of life and quality of work and also implies that you really care about the work you do and that you think about it deeply. It's not just something that you do.
  • Curiosity : as both individuals and as a company, this is the most important thing that will move us forward: being curious about new ideas, technologies, processes, etc.
  • Empathy : the thing which is missing the most in our current team. We are too quick to judge ourselves and our clients. A heightened sense of empathy would not only make us better employees and professionals; it would also make us better human beings.
  • Act : all the knowledge in the world is useless if you don't act on it. It's important to be curious and it's important to be a craftsman, but if you are passive and unreactive you will not get any results. Acting is important to stay above the surface.
  • Together : the company should not be focusing on individuals and their performance and value, but on the whole group. We don't want to be a poor team with one or two Messis; we want to be a great team without talismanic stars which performs much better overall.

And this is how we try to act on those values:

Mindfulness at the workplace is becoming more than just a trend. More working hours does not mean an increase in productivity anymore. Companies have started to realise that quality is not dependent on quantity and that there is more to people than the hours they put in. Being mindful at work leads to better focus, more deep work hours and eventually a healthier life. Busy isn't respectable anymore and we realised that Despark should make space for the team to become more mindful and focused. We should be a place where people have healthy time to produce the great work we are proud of.

We are working on steps that advocate for more asynchronous and mindful ways to talk to each other online and offline. We have sent 1,196,631 direct messages since Despark adopted Slack. Our internal communication changed dramatically and we can all agree that it is both a blessing and a curse. In order to achieve the high quality of work we aim for, the team needs to get their focus back.

Now, Despark has "mindful time" hours in the office between 2PM and 5PM. No meetings; no direct messages; no face-to-face interruptions. This is the time for deep work.

We will follow up with the team in a few months to get insights and then adjust accordingly in order to continue in the right direction. Changing the ways people work and communicate is very challenging, but time is the key here - so as long as we stay on the right path, the results will come eventually.

Curiosity is something Despark has always had and treasured since its creation. We have the passion for innovation and new technologies and love to experiment and we seek that spark in everyone who wants to join the team. After all, it's in our name!
Each person at Despark has a substantial yearly learning budget of €500 to fuel their curiosity for knowledge. But what is even more important is that we really use that gained knowledge in our work. We give the team the responsibility to decide what technology they want to use for each project, because we believe that curiosity can always get you one step further.

Empathy is a way to make things better for the people around you, a way to improve communication, results and the quality of work within a team. This is especially important for a company with such a deep focus on design as design is mainly concerned with empathy.
It is also crucial for our business to become more empathetic, because we work with information and empathy is a way to empower clients and users to understand specific information. It is also the capability to predict and reflect on clients' needs on a higher level, which helps a lot with our communication with businesses and entrepreneurs we work with.

In the spirit of transparency, we should admit that the team still lacks the level of empathy we would like. But we are getting better and we have made huge progress from where we started. As empathy is something that cannot be truly measured, we just try to talk more about it and make sure we listen to each other better. It has been proved that people can literally train their brains to be more empathic and it is a long but very rewarding process.

Act Together - the key here is again our ambition to be as transparent as possible, we are much more of a team now that everybody knows all the numbers. This gave us a higher - and common - purpose and helped us to start moving forward together. Transparency is not a magic spell that once casted makes all the challenges disappear; but it does take the trust in each other to a next level and makes it easier to solve those challenges as a team.

As for our process, collaboration is fostered from the very beginning of every project. Our production team works closely with our developers and designers to create something that everyone is on board with. Building great digital products requires bold actions, strong expertise and a very talented team that works well together.

We have a long path ahead of us

This is how we have arrived at our current value statement. This is what we believe will make us better people and a better business. We understand that there is a long road ahead of us and that getting to where we want to be will be difficult. But we don't want to compromise on our values and we're ready to go all-in as a team. Looking back on how much we have achieved up until now gives us the strong will needed to closely follow this North Star of ours.