From the opening moments when the presenter in an Amsterdam coffee shop declared that they were handing out "weed and windmills" to the audience, it was clear that Freshworks’s ON Festival was going to be something different to the normal tech industry event.
This wasn’t a hard-sell product pitch for the company and its wares, but rather a multi-region gathering, taking in London, Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam, that focused around happiness as a running theme, an extension of the firm’s oft-cited objective to “delight” its customers. The Festival had originally been pitched as a return to live events, although COVID infection rates had a different idea and the physical gatherings were necessarily scaled down.
For his part, Freshworks founder and CEO Girish Mathrubootham was beamed in from Washington to set the tone for the day when he explained:
We're celebrating the new values that companies should turn on to build lasting employee and customer relationships in the future.
Mathrubootham argued that despite the traumas of the COVID crisis, there are some silver linings that can be taken into the emerging Vaccine Economy:
It's been a tough 15 months, but here we are moving forward and finding our way. Despite all the challenges, we discovered some good things too, like empathy and a focus on personal wellbeing, like finding new ways to create connections despite being locked down, and finding ways to be happy.
There’s a choice facing us all, he said, both as individuals and as businesses:
We can choose to feel good about our work, about ourselves and each other. Fundamentally, it's about incorporating happiness at work. Happiness - it's such a simple thing. It can be a smile or a memory. It can be how someone or something makes you feel. It can be a fleeting moment or it can be long-lasting. Happiness to me is a state of mind. It's so hard to explain it; it's so easy to know. And in my opinion, it's worth everything.
I have a good friend who always hated his job and he used to crib about his job. I used to wonder, if he hated his job so much, why didn't he quit and just do something that made him happy? And honestly, I don't think he ever figured that out. But it taught me something about happiness at work. I made a mental note to myself that if I ever created a company, I wanted to optimize it for employees being happy. Happy employees and happy customers - that is my simple mantra to build a successful company.
With that stall set out, the rest of the Festival took in a series of expert speakers from a variety of fields, including Alexandra Dimiziani, former Global CMO at AirBnB and now CMO Advisor to Tech Start-ups, who spoke on the topic of brand purpose:
Purpose is really an organization's reason for being. It's the 'why?', beyond making money, that helps to resolve a tension or problem experienced by the communities it serves or that's pervasive in society at large. In essence, purpose is the rejection of the economist Milton Friedman's edict that the only social responsibility a company has, is to increase its profits. That line of thinking has led to decades of 'a growth at all costs mentality', profit at just about any price, including the wellbeing of our people and the planet on which we live.
Thankfully, we are entering into a new era. One where commercial value is increasingly inseparable from human values, where what were once considered soft metrics are now business-critical. Even investment criteria are changing and we're seeing things like maintaining a healthy corporate culture front and center. In effect, purpose, is putting a human constraint on business growth, balancing profitable scale with positive social impact.
This has been a familiar theme, usually defined as Stakeholder Capitalism, in parts of the tech sector for some time, most notably articulated perhaps by another CRM provider, Salesforce. And it was to another theme espoused by that larger rival that Dimiziani turned next, that of trust. She began by citing the Edelman 2021 Trust Barometer study, which found that respondents claim to be looking to business leaders to step in when their political counterparts fall short:
Not coincidentally, this growing demand for socially responsible business is corresponding to vastly diminishing levels of trust in society's other established institutions. According to Edelman Trust Barometer, which is conducted every year, the last decade has seen astonishingly lowering levels of trust in government and the media in particular, and rising levels of trust in corporations. The COVID pandemic turbo-charged those trends, creating an even bigger trust deficit among people with respect to their government and the media, and essentially putting corporations on a pedestal…What we're seeing is that, coming out of COVID, there is a huge expectation for brands to act on purpose.
But make sure your organization ‘walks the talk’, she cautioned or face the consequences. She cited the example of NIKE’s suspension of contracts with pregnant female athletes despite urging women to “dream crazy”. In establishing your brand purpose, it needs to be authentic, she advised:
A purpose statement in its best form galvanizes your stakeholders, it's what gets your employees up early in the morning, stay late at night, holds your stakeholders together and through the crises and out the other side. It needs to be emotional, not transactional, and your purpose must resonate with your communities. You want to ensure that this tension that you aim to resolve is one that your communities are experiencing, really, in their lives.
Another thing to bear in mind is to not try to boil the ocean in one go. In other words, keep your value statements and purpose objective manageable, said Dimiziani:
Values are meant to shape your behavior and that means that all of those moments that happen all day in which you're making those decisions, so they have to be memorable. Now there's no magic number, but keep in mind that a long list of values is actually paralyzing more than it is galvanizing. So the general recommendation is roughly three to five.
And concluding with a bit of tough love, DImiziani cautioned that becoming purpose-led is not going to be comfortable:
It hurts really badly. Purpose inflicts pain. It forces hard trade offs. If you're not faced with those tough decisions. If you don't find yourself making concessions between short term profit and long term growth, chances are you're not acting on purpose. You will create fierce love and loyalty with a core group; you will alienate probably many more others.
Companies really struggle with this bitter pill to swallow. The thing is, if a brand stands for nothing in particular, it won't revile anyone, but you won't have that competitive advantage that purpose can drive. If you stand for something specific, not everyone will stand with you, but the people who do, don't just like you - they love you! They become loyalists, they spread positive word of mouth, they activate their network rather and that is the best marketing that money can't buy.
There were many more speakers whose talks provided food for thought - watch out for Madeline’s deep-dive interview with Dame Inga Beale, former CEO of Lloyds of London, in the coming days! - and there’s an on demand replay of the sessions for you to browse.
Overall this was certainly a different approach to a virtual event than many of the product-led initiatives that we’ve seen. The best comparison I could think of was the typical format of the final day at Dreamforce each year which typically centers on wellbeing and mindfulness topics.
Personally I welcome the evolution of the event format to go beyond the hard sell and the product demo. I recall as a boy journalist - look, I have a long memory, OK? - being led by the nose around a large vendor’s conference by eager marketing people demanding to know if I wanted to sit through another ‘show and tell’ on how to build an online bookshop! The answer was - and is - no!