Forget the Triple Bottom Line, It’s Culture that Matters

Misfit Wearables' first product is an an elegant, wireless activity tracker. The CEO argues that culture is much more important than the triple bottom line.
Misfit Wearables’ first product is an an elegant, wireless activity tracker. The CEO argues that culture is much more important than the triple bottom line.

By Kevin Owyang
“The triple bottom line is ridiculous, I know it’s totally heretical to say that, but have you ever tried to build a business? Even just the financial bottom line is really, really hard.”

When I heard this, I thought I was listening to the echoes of a 1970’s era Clean Water Act opponent, but the words came from Sonny Vu, CEO & Co-Founder of Misfit Wearables and creator of one of the Top 10 Gadgets of Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2013. He shared his thoughts with me during a recent interview.

“Get to financial success first,” says Vu. “If you build a culture that cares about its social purpose and its spiritual purpose on this earth,” you will realize the goals of social and environmental responsibility without “all the infrastructure and requirements that’s going to weigh you down.”

Success follows Vu

Vu is a New Hampshire-based serial entrepreneur, but global companies like Toyota embrace his message. His previous venture, AgaMatrix, created one of the first hardware medical devices that works with the iPhone. AgaMatrix is heading towards $100 million in revenue. Vu left as Chairman about a year and a half ago to start Misfit Wearables and has since raised over $8 million in financing.

Misfit Wearables’ first product, the Shine, is an elegant, all-metal activity tracker that you can sync with your smartphone just by placing the device on the screen. It can track cycling, swimming, walking, and running.

Purpose is different from profit

Vu says Misfit’s has two purposes. The first is “to provide goods and services that enable communities to flourish.” That means, “you’re making stuff that’s really useful for people… and as a result you earn the financial and well-being rewards to flourish [yourself].”

The second is to “provide opportunities for people to express their innate capacity for productivity and creativity in meaningful ways.” For Vu, this has deeper meaning. “Does that mean job creation? Yes. Does that mean making work meaningful? Absolutely…Those two things are actually in our corporate charter at a very deep level and it’s actually repeated in every single [employment] offer at the very top.”

Servant leadership delivers results

Vu has flipped the org chart upside down – putting customer needs at the top of the priority list. “One of the most distinctive features about Misfit is servant leadership. We believe that the customer is the leader. And scientists, engineers, and designers serve the customer, or the user, first and foremost.”

Then, the company is organized to address those customer needs best. Say Vu, “The team leads serve the engineers, designers, and scientists; I serve the team leads and the board serves the company. So when you look on our website, you don’t see leadership or management.”

And while Vu admits group dynamics are never perfect, “a servant’s heart exists across the organization,” and that makes tension constructive and healthy when it could otherwise be difficult.

Meritocracy measured on cultural fit

Vu emphasizes “first and foremost is [corporate] culture.” “In fact, we will fire a person on a culture basis alone. “You know, we’ve had people who were superstars, very good at what they do and on top of their field. They were not a cultural match. And we let them go. It was a difficult thing to do but it was not a difficult decision to make.”

Is Vu onto something? Steve Gandara, Co-Founder of ExcellentCultures works at the highest level of global companies like Toyota’s Scion Division. He notes that cultural solutions are in demand because “the most recent Gallup Employee Engagement Survey tells us that seventy-one percent of employees are disengaged from work and ineffective leadership style is the primary cause.

What’s more, seventy percent of managers lead in a way that stimulates defensive behavior and destroys productivity and morale.”

What about the environment?

At this point, Misfit is not in production. Yet, Vu notes that thoughtfulness is a core value. “Put away the dishes. Push in your chair after you get up from a meeting. It’s very subtle, but what is expressed internally will be expressed externally.” And perhaps this is the basis for a sustainable supply chain – thoughtful about the environment and workplaces where Misfit’s products are manufactured.

Vu will be appearing at Digital Health Summit with Dr. Sanjay Gupta January 8-11 and CES2013, with Arianna Huffington and Deepak Chopra January 8, 2013

Kevin Owyang is Founder of B Jibe.  B Jibe reports on people and companies that give back.  B Jibe is a not for profit project of Avolusis, LLC where Mr. Owyang is CEO.  Previously Mr. Owyang held various executive level positions in technology and telecommunications and was Executive Vice President, Risk Management at Kinder Morgan Inc.  You can read more about him here.

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