We don't have to do anything. We could, instead, do nothing. Instead, we choose to do something.
Our collective, humanity-wide efforts in arts and sciences are not a biological necessity and most of their products aren't an essential input for our bodies. We don't breathe Lorentz transformations or eat anodized aluminum. We certainly don't need analytical cubism to reproduce – though I'm sure avid art fans would be thrilled by the prospect. The thrill of a new musical composition that happens to hit just the right notes at the right time, the sense of pride experienced when completing a piece of macaroni art.
None of those things are essential to our survival but we do them anyways. They give us pleasure and not the kind designed by nature to condition us for nutrition or procreation. It's self-indulgence but it's not hedonism, and the reward isn't usually short and sweet.
At some point, something else woke up inside us. A feeling of curiosity, rather than fear, for the unknown and the – yet – indescribable. I won't go too much into judgments of biology – I failed biology miserably in high school and only enrolled to be with my girlfriend – or fancy myself an anthropologist. Instead, this is my plea that this sense of wonder should be part of the essential fabric of a company or project.
Building companies, on paper
When it comes to building products, that sense of wonder is easy to maintain for a while because you're making and drinking your own kool-aid, but as your project grows you need to become an evangelist of your own kool-aid and inspire the people around you, including your customers. You're now building a company, not just a product, and building companies is incredibly hard.
On paper not much has changed since the first properly established corporations around the year 50 BC in the Roman Republic. The idea was, and is, that most projects require a group of people sharing incentives to accomplish successfully and they needed a way to systemically represent shared ownership. It'd take a few hundred years for math to enter the chat as different cultures independently developed proper bookkeeping and trade tracking systems like Desi Nama and Tabulae Rationum, and a few hundred more for added-value creation to necessitate systematic project management.
Building companies, on heart - and defensibility
The reality, though, is that a company means nothing. On paper, a company is an abstract, pseudonymous entity, and its underlying figures are nothing but an expression of the inbound and outbound monies it handles.
The products and services the company provides hopefully mean added value to its customers, but can nevertheless be copied, remixed, and improved. The hundreds of thousands of lines of code of a software product can be rewritten and re-imagined. Most statements of defensibility by companies of our generation are just lies that their proponents themselves believe.
However, the true value of a company is on the human side: the people that work in it and the glue that holds them together: their culture. A rock-solid culture is, in my opinion, the hardest thing to build and very easy to lose. It requires a combination of force of personality, common purpose, and emotional maturity that very few organizations ever reach.
I've seen incredible efforts from this and previous generation's startups to build cultures, but you have to love building a culture in order to do it properly, and if you don't love it, please hire someone who does. The human entropy involved in building a successful culture is such that no manual can help you do it unless you innately know what knobs and dials to adjust. Not everyone is cut out to be the tribe's shaman. Building and nurturing common lore that evolves and shape-shifts organically, that employees and leaders cherish, that customers adore, and that job candidates desperately want to be part of, is a treasure that takes years to polish.
You can build companies with no culture or worse, bad culture, but they won't outlast you or the people that work with you and their incentive will always be short-term cash. I don't believe in building short-term value and everything I do, I build with the intention of it outlasting me. If I'm passionate about a purpose, I'm also understanding that it's above me and my presence.
Sensawunda as a vehicle to build kick-ass organizations
Now culture can take many shapes and forms. The body of knowledge, interactions, the vibe, can originate from multiple angles. Generally, most of these arise from a sense of purpose. This sense of purpose is an enticing, common goal or problem to solve. A genuine, true goal will inspire people and create that sensawunda I've repeated so much in this post.
For companies, that sense of purpose is usually tied to economic activity due to the nature of their shareholders' expectations, but different types of organizations base their purpose on different needs. Religious organizations have historically based their sense of purpose on a higher being or plane of existence, and religion is a very successful vehicle to build an expanding, appealing culture. Medical organizations have usually rallied their members through the appeal to give amazing care to their patients.
Some organizations choose a purpose that is only tangentially connected to the final product they offer, like Patagonia, and that's completely valid. Others, like Apple, imprint their culture and curiosity into every product category. You can choose your own adventure, but whatever you do, make sure you bake that sense of wonder and curiosity into your organization's culture and make sure it's genuine. A sensawunda as the genetic makeup of a company will always attract and retain talent that is curious, that innovates, and that challenges established patterns.