A company’s core values are the beliefs that guide its internal behaviour but also steer its relationship with the outside world. They range from the direct to the more oblique. Compare technology giant Microsoft, which lists its values as respect, integrity and accountability, with the airline Virgin Atlantic which has “think red” (connect to the spirit of the firm), “make friends” and “be amazing”.
In this special Insight article, 4 startups that have received support from the Entrepreneurship Centre or the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge Business School talk about why company values matter and how such values have been woven into their ventures.
Why choosing the right company values matters
“Having company values is so important because it’s almost like holding up a mirror to ourselves,” says Antony Quinn, co-founder of The Communication Practice. “Working to promote equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) we hold up a mirror to organisations, so in a sense our values are doing the same thing for us.”
The Communication Practice uses role-play actors to bring to life scenarios which reflect what’s happening in an organisation. The audience can stop the action at any time when they see something they want to change, suggesting a different option, and then watch how an alternative course would play out. The drama is used as a starting point for conversations about bias and discrimination, highlighting the experience of those who face barriers at work due to their gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, or socioeconomic background. The company currently has 10 clients, including BMS Group and the NHS.
“The financial services sector is a sweet spot for The Communication Practice because, unlike some EDI training partners, we really understand how to get into the fabric of an organisation, understand the way they do things, their culture, so we can help them see and want to make the changes they need to.”
“Banks and insurance companies have been around for hundreds of years,” says Antony. “They are not going to change overnight, but crucially there is a desire and need to change and we have a track record in helping make sustainable change happen for them.”
How personal experience can be a powerful base for building values
Antony spent 18 years working in tech and genomics before realising he could make a career from his love of drama and improvisation. With RADA-trained actor Syrus Lowe he founded The Communication Practice, which is supported by the Accelerate programme at Cambridge Judge.
The firm’s values are centred around building belonging, inciting innovation, and cultivating compassion – both towards those who have negative experiences, and those who make mistakes. Belonging is the theme the founders focus on, driven by Antony living with ADHD and feeling like an outsider, and Syrus experiencing racism.
“Belonging is a need all of us have whether in the minority or the majority,” says Antony. “We want people to feel safely supported at work to do their best. We try and create that sense of belonging for our customers and freelancers, who are contributing their time on our behalf. It’s a way to communicate to the world what we value – so if our values align with an organisation wanting to work with us, then great – but if not, we’re not the right people.”
Aligning principles behind the company with the product
Our next venture AstroVista focuses on children’s mental health and is proving incredibly timely in this post-pandemic world. It has developed a space themed graphic novel and journal to help support children with their emotional wellbeing by communicating themes in a fun and engaging way, which it aims to publish Spring 2024.
The company was founded in October 2022,and one of its core values is trustworthiness. Founded by 3 friends – a clinical psychologist, a children’s author and illustrator, and an NHS strategist – they say their unique selling point is the clinical basis of their products. Aimed at 7 to 10-year olds, the upbeat characters illustrate evidence based strategies, referred to as ‘7 cosmic powers’, drawn from a variety of psychological approaches, including mindfulness, self-compassion and focusing on the child’s strengths.
“Values are completely central to our firm”, says clinical psychologist and co-founder Dr Susannah Redhead. “Partly because what we’re doing is quite a personal story that comes out of our own experiences as parents, and in particular parenting during COVID lockdown, and children subsequently finding it hard to display or understand their feelings. Our values are so strong because this is a personal project we’re passionate about and committed to.”
The goal is for the book to be offered in tandem with an online psychology masterclass for parents to apply the strategies. Other values the venture prides itself on are being human, by engaging with families in an empathetic way and by hand drawing all the illustrations, and being accessible, no matter what a child’s level of reading.
“Being on the pre-Accelerate programme at Cambridge Judge has really helped us understand how values relate to the purpose, vision and mission of the firm, and how that relates to what we’re trying to communicate and engage with our customers around,” adds Susannah.
Why values need to go beyond virtual signalling
For Jason Yip (MBA 2018), co-founder of Tailor Bio, a company aiming to use ‘precision medicine’ to treat cancers with chromosomal instability, what’s important is that values aren’t just written on a page but also permeate employee behaviour.
“Company values in large organisations can feel like they’re for show rather than anything else,” says Jason. “In our startup I would really like us to instil a particular environment and culture. Culture is asked about from a recruitment and investment perspective, and company values form an intrinsic part of that.”
Jason started out as a chemical engineer in Perth, Australia, before switching to software startups in London, and then completed an MBA at Cambridge Judge Business School. He met his co-founders Geoff Macintyre and Anna Piskorz, who were both post-docs at Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, at a Venture Creation Weekend, an entrepreneurship event at Cambridge Judge. They joined the Accelerate Cambridge programme, which provided support from mentors, challenged their perspectives and provided networking opportunities. The company was incorporated at the end of 2019, and after navigating the challenges of the pandemic, the co-founders have raised £2 million in their latest funding round.
Key principles can help you retain high-performing staff
For the firm, transparency is a key value, after receiving feedback from early employees that they wanted to know more about what was happening in the company. Diversity of opinion is also singled out as being vital. The co-founders’ expertise is highly technical, aiming to translate their research into cancers with chromosomal instability into products with actual patient benefit. But there is a recognition that the best solutions come when everyone contributes, and that commercial aspects and industry perspectives are just as valid.
“There’s a common theme amongst Cambridge startups that the commercial aspect can be seen as an impediment to research and development,” says Jason. “The fact is, it’s a necessary perspective.”
“We’ve had a couple of our employees be head hunted by another firm because they’re highly skilled in a particular area, but they’ve turned them down because working with the team at Tailor Bio is a cultural environment they really enjoy, the transparency is great, and they get to input into the direction of the firm,” adds Jason. “It’s a signal of product and management capacity if we’re able to use values and culture to hire and retain high-performing individuals.”
Forming a cooperative can enshrine core beliefs in your business
Our final venture is computer development firm Animorph, which has been supported by the Cambridge Social Ventures incubator programme at the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation. The company has a projected turnover of £429,000 (2023/24) and aims to enrich human potential by using software to facilitate recovery from medical conditions, improving mental health and wellbeing, and life-long learning.
When the company was founded, the 6 directors were living in a housing cooperative, giving them the power to manage and control where they lived. A worker-owned co-operative therefore felt like the obvious framework for their fledging business, and Animorph was incorporated in June 2016.
“We run as a collective”, says Hannah Blows, Service & Experience Designer and Co-director. “The opportunity for employees to join as members, owning and running the business as equals, has a hugely positive impact on individual motivation to contribute, and bring their best to the group. When we do well, everyone benefits.”
Cambridge Social Ventures, guiding principles and a ‘self-destruct clause’
The firm has a set of 10 principles for working together including consent (to raise, seek out, and resolve objections to decisions and actions), continuous improvement, empiricism, and rigour.
Animorph received support from Cambridge Social Ventures (2018/19) to bolster the team’s skills and help them communicate these core values. They also developed a Social Value Policy while at the incubator to assess potential projects against their company values. It even included a “self-destruct clause”: if the venture repeatedly fails to match projects against key performance indicators (such as whether it empowers users to constructively participate in public life), then the co-op must fold and distribute its assets to an organisation that meets their requirements.
“Company values are a touchstone as we journey together into increasing complexity and unfamiliar territories,” explains Hannah. “They aim to remove ambiguity when we act or make decisions, as they are something we agreed upon together that can guide our collective actions. And it’s one of the factors people will use to decide whether they align with us to work with, support, or invest in us. “Cambridge Social Ventures helped us tighten our company financially, introducing reporting habits and accountability to our values. We are very grateful to have made fundamental friendships and mentorships that continue today.”