Great Companies Solve Problems That Matter

Who cares if your company will last for decades? The real value is in solving important problems. Here are four lessons to successfully build companies that solve problems that matter.

The age of judging companies only on their longevity is now past. Great companies solve problem that matter.

Since the 1950s we have been judging companies by their longevity. We fret over how long they stay on the Fortune 500 list, maintain a leadership position, or survive "disruptions."

But does longevity even matter anymore? Isn’t longevity just a bi-product of something more important?

I think that great companies are those that dedicate themselves to a problem that matters. When they solve the problem, they exit the stage triumphant. And companies that survive, do so because the problem they exist to solve (their purpose or mission) is so big that there is still work to do. Longevity is not a goal in itself; it is a bi-product of taking on a big problem.

Purina, for example, exists to "connect pets with people." Google exists to "organize the world’s information." When will such missions be achieved? Every day, and never, which is why, as long as they stick to and really live their missions, these companies will survive.

Consider Curemark, a biotech company founded by pediatric doctor Joan Fallon. She noticed that many of the autistic children she treated were low on a certain kind of enzyme for processing protein, and that they all had similar diets. Fallon began investigating ideas for alternative treatments.

She's since quit her medical practice and has built a company on her insights. 10 years later, Curemark has raised $50 million, and has completed phase 3 trials with the FDA. In other words, she found a problem that matters.

Here are her four key lessons to successfully build companies that solve problems that matter.

1. Focus on the area that's holding you back

The critical path will determine the speed of progress. It is better to have all areas developing, even if slowly, than one area in trouble. Think about your marketing, sales, production, human capital, operations, finances, etc. Which is limiting your growth? That is the area to focus on.

2. Be willing to pay for great talent

Choosing a doctor, attorney, PR agent, or most types of talent places you in the dilemma of not being able to assess what you’re "buying" until it is too late to switch. You think you are getting a good deal by hiring someone who will do the job at a discounted rate. But the mistakes of someone less qualified usually outweigh their savings. Fallon credits Curemark’s success to "getting great advice" and surrounding herself with great advisors and talent. What are the critical functions you will need to succeed? Do you have the best talent playing these roles?

3. Don’t make fear-based decisions

Fear—that you will run out of money, that your theory is flawed—can lead you to make the wrong decisions. Stop before you commit and ask, "Am I making this choice out of fear?"

4. Understand the rules

Many biotech companies assume the FDA follows strict rules. But the rules, if you’re willing to understand them, are malleable. What matters more are the principles like are you protecting patient safety, are you solving a meaningful problem. Don’t assume the rules are fixed; instead, probe them with a higher purpose in mind.

As Curemark reaches the successful conclusion of a tough, passionate fight to solve a problem that matters—1 in 88 children in the US are autistic—they are now preparing to solve new challenges by taking a unique technology to deliver solutions into the human body to tackle problems like schizophrenia and other neurological conditions.

Companies don't grow just to grow. They don't last just to last. They thrive when the world needs them, when they are committed to solving a problem that matters. Then there is reason for them to continue your work, to grow, to thrive.

What problem keeps your business going?

[Image: Flickr user Saoirse Alesandro]

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