One minute you’re a virtuous and apparently successful company out to make the world a better place. The next, no less than Bernie Sanders is calling your business decisions “morally unacceptable.” That’s the whipsaw moment being experienced by Everlane, one of the more prominent “mission-driven” startups in recent memory. And it’s a telling example of the perils of the mission-driven strategy, particularly as companies are forced into crisis mode.
For consumer retail brands, and maybe startups, in particular, having a mission that transcends maximizing profits is a useful tool to attract employees as well as customers. Who doesn’t want to work for a company whose purpose goes beyond selling more than stuff? And who doesn’t want to purchase something that makes them feel like they are doing something good for the world?
But what happens when profits evaporate? What happens when consumers, employees, and even erstwhile presidential candidates start critiquing your every frantic move through the lens of your highfalutin “mission”? And if you can’t uphold that “mission” when it really counts, how much of a strategic misfire was declaring it in the first place?
If you spend a lot of time boasting about your high standards, people are going to hold you to them.
When Everlane launched in 2010 as a direct-to-consumer online clothing retailer — its first funding round was $1.1 million, with investors, including VC firm Kleiner Perkins — its point of differentiation wasn’t really its product line. It sold T-shirts and other basics, in the tradition of The Gap or Uniqlo. The brand twist was “radical transparency” around the way its products are made — sharing details about costs, factories, materials, production methods: lots of information to make shoppers feel good about the ethical standing of their new purchases. The double twist was that this transparency allegedly proved you were being…