Mulligatawny soup, and purpose statements minus profits

Photo courtesy — Pexels

A small anecdote — Many years ago, when pizza was still a big deal in India (think the 90s), we had gone to what was then the only Pizza Hut in the city. They had an item on the menu that we couldn't pronounce — mulligatawny. We thought that if it was something we couldn’t pronounce, it surely must be fancy and ordered it. When it finally arrived, we got a bowl of rasam.

In Tamil, milagi is pepper and milagi rasam is a very popular flavour of rasam. We realized that Mulligatwany was basically milagu thanni meaning pepper water. Which was excatly what we got. Many so-called ‘purpose statements’ follow this same formula.

A long time ago, most companies existed for the sole purpose of making a profit. They didn’t sugarcoat the reason for their existence and no one expected a company to exist for any other reason. The doing good work was relegated mostly to religious organizations and charities.

When industrialization and consumerism overreached itself and began polluting rivers and chopping trees and wrecking the environment in the name of development, people began raising an alarm. Salaries of CEOs got nauseatingly higher and in order to counter all the negative PR, organizations devised corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a way of deviating attention from their slanderous ways. “We make lots of money and just give away a little to charity to make ourselves look good” became the new order.

When people realized that even that was a mere eyewash, companies came up with the greatest bullshit concoction of all — brand purpose.

With the advent of funding, companies realized that they could forgo something was previously thought of as non-negotiable — profits. Yes, profits. With seemingly unlimited funding, companies suddenly realized that they could spend endlessly without ever having to turn in a profit for the foreseeable future.

Case in point — WeWork.

The beleaguered company has been in the news for all the wrong reasons including self-styled charismatic CEO Adam Neumann’s spectacular implosion and fall from his imaginary perch. The shady dealings that benefitted his family and helped him pocked millions of dollars have come to the light and have led to his dramatic downfall and ouster. The company, which was all set for its IPO, has called it off indefinitely.

WeWork, like many other new-age start-ups, had a murky mega-purpose not anchored in reality or its offering— “to elevate the world’s consciousness”. Say what?

In its IPO, WeWork sold itself as a ‘tech’ company. Tech? Apple is a technology company. But WeWork? That’s like adding a smart light to your house and quadrupling the rent, calling it a smart-home.

This is what WeWork, like many other co-working spaces, actually does — it leases out spaces and rents them out to people looking for office space. The co-working spaces explosion is an extension of the freelancer and entrepreneurial boom. Nothing wrong with that.

But there is nothing right about its so-called purpose statement. ‘Elevating consciousness’ (whatever that means) comes from the work you do, not a workplace. Or the fact that it calls itself a tech company. A tobacco company with an in-house yoga instructor is not elevating consciousness. This is a trap that many organizations fall for — purposeless purpose statements and confusing perks with a higher calling.

We have now come full circle. From questioning what companies were doing with their obscene profits, we are now wondering when they will start making profits.

Numerous well-funded companies are bleeding in a bid to capture greater market share. Here’s a small test; who do you hold in higher regard:

a) A small business owner who has turned in a reasonable 20% net profit


b) A snazzy start-up that has been overvalued by 100 times its value but hasn’t made a single rupee in profits

Steve Jobs and Steve Woz began Apple in a garage. Steve Woz actually built the first Mac and sold it. Contrast that to Adam Neumann, the now ex-CEO of WeWork who basically didn’t build or create anything new except to rebrand spaces with a logo, prop them with new-age amenities and then pass them off as consciousness-altering workspaces.

Kind of makes you miss the days of companies that actually turned in a profit by selling products that they actually made.

The big issue isn’t even funding. Sometimes, funding can take a great idea or product to millions of people. Moreover, funding is a choice.

But senseless valuations and psychobabble that passes off as mission statements — they are a problem.

Purpose, deeper meaning, all of these are very intrinsic feelings. After much deliberation, you might be able to write a purpose statement for your own life and align your choices accordingly. But you can’t hire someone, pay them handsomely and tell them “write down a purpose statement that I can use as the guiding force to my life.” It just doesn’t work.

If your mission or purpose statement is an extension of what you actually do, it’s a lot more palatable. Charity Water is a non-profit that is involved in providing clean drinking water to people who don’t have access to it. Their mission statement is:

“charity: water is a nonprofit organization bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing countries”

Simple. And believable.

This doesn’t just apply to non-profits. You can find a higher purpose in anything (a friend told me that he didn’t feel guilty working for a tobacco company because many farmers made their living off growing tobacco). They’re not wrong in coming to that conclusion. But concocting or making up a mission or purpose that doesn’t exist is stupid.

Seasoning a bland offering with flowery words isn’t a good strategy. Sooner or later, the wheels will come off.

Mulligatawny soup, anyone?