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The Key to Creating Intrinsic Value in Business

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Value creation is the essence of business. Value is what attracts and keeps customers. Value is what attracts and retains employees. It’s also what attracts and maintains relationships with investors, suppliers, distributors and the wide range of other stakeholders who are critical to the firm’s long-term success.

A business that does not create value will eventually fail.

How to Create Value as a Means to an End

To know how to create value in business, it’s helpful to understand what it is. It may seem a simple matter, but it is actually a topic that philosophers have debated for millennia. For many business people, value roughly translates into price, the amount someone else is willing to give us in the marketplace, in exchange for our good or service. This is the notion of “exchange value” and it is the secret sauce of supply and demand and what makes a market whir.

Economists also talk about a slightly different notion of value, which is its “use value,” or utility.  Here, we’re talking about how valuable something is to me. It’s not the exchange value that you and I both agree on, but how much use I as an individual get out of particular product or service. Our different perspectives or circumstances might well result in wildly diverging valuations for the very same thing.

Use value and exchange value are critical things to get right when you’re running a business. If you don’t know how to assess the use value, or utility, of a particular technology, process, or even of a person, you are going to misunderstand how they fit into the overall value-creation process of your firm. If you don’t know how to properly assess the exchange value of your resulting goods and services, you will fail to read the market, and falter in marketing and sales.

Use value and exchange value undergird modern economics and our understanding of the way business works. They are also both examples of a broader notion of value called “instrumental value,” which is to say value, as a means to some other end. With use value, a machine or a person is as a means to create products and services. With exchange value, those products and services are a means to earning money.

If you’re getting the instrumental value of the inputs or the outputs of your business wrong, you’re probably not going to be in business over the long-haul. There is a class of businesses, however, that work with instrumental values, while also keeping an eye on another type of value.

How to Create Value as an End in Itself

While instrumental value is a means to some other end, “intrinsic value” is a fundamental consequence of something’s very existence.

Intrinsic value is not the kind of topic you find most economists spending their days contemplating. Although value investors use the term in a specific sense, the kind of intrinsic value I’m talking about is more the domain of philosophers, spiritualist, psychologists and anthropologists, musicians and artists.

Every once in a while though, you will bump into a business person who seems to operate in this field of intrinsic value creation. You tend to find them in those businesses that focus obsessively on quality or on design. You can also see their telltale marks in firms that seem to pay inordinate attention to how their products and services are actually being used by customers – not just whether those customers are satisfied with them, but whether they are successful with them.

Creating Intrinsic Value for Customers

From a customer perspective, we all know that there are some products whose value extends far beyond mere economic calculation. It might be our child’s teddy bear, our wedding ring, or a book whose message or story touched us deeply. The same is true, of course, with services. It might be an ambulance driver going above and beyond the call of duty, a sympathetic person at an airline call center during a family emergency, or a college professor who changed the direction of your life.

For these people, and in some cases, the organizations behind them, the product or service is not just a means to make money. These offerings have intrinsic value in themselves. In other words, with this rare breed of business, the object of production and the act of service create meaning through the ways in which customers interact with them.

One might say that these products and services have a certain something, a quintessence, that cuts to the essence of their value proposition, channeling a kind of invisible, intrinsic value to their users.

Every time a child hugs a teddy bear as she nods off to sleep at night, value and meaning are created. That value isn’t captured in the books of the teddy bear manufacturer, designer or retailer, but it is there, quietly accruing in thousands of little beds throughout the world, invisible to the calculations of the economist.

Creating Intrinsic Value for Employees

As important as these myriad sources of uncalculated value truly are, it still undervalues the full intrinsic value creation of most firms. This hidden component of value centers on the meaning we create through our work.

For every kid whose life takes a change for the positive as the result of some professor’s extra little bit of attention, there is a teacher who derived some sense of purpose from trying to make a difference. For every beautifully designed car, there is a team of designers who gained a wonderful sense of meaning from getting that one right. In some of these cases, there may be financial rewards associated with these employees’ extra effort, but that’s not the reason they do it. As author Dan Pink explains so wonderfully in “Drive,” they do it for reasons that go far beyond rational economic considerations. They do it for a sense of “autonomy, mastery and purpose.”

In other words, part of the reason we go the extra mile in our work centers on a type of value that goes beyond our traditional notions of economic exchange.

There is something tremendously powerful about our drive for meaning. When we find meaning in our work, it can act as a powerful aphrodisiac, an injection of inspiration capable of getting us through the most trying of times. It might be the firefighter who has seen her work translated into a saved life. It might be an engineer whose solar panel design single-handedly resorts in the reduction of millions of pounds of carbon that might otherwise be dumped into our atmosphere. Or it might be that teacher who has seen the effect his connections with students can have on the long-term direction of their lives.

For these people, work is not simply a means to a paycheck. For these people, work creates value through helping them to create meaning of their lives. It is what enables them to be of service to the world and the company’s that offer this type of work create a powerful attractor for the best and brightest employees.

Meaning, Mission and Value Creation in Business

Businesses that know how to engage this quintessential quality of intrinsic value creation have a huge advantage over firms that wield purely instrumental notions of value creation.

Firms that create intrinsic value through meaning face a kind of paradox. That meaning and purpose, that desire to serve a mission, is what creates economic value for the firm. It’s what brings people to work and what draws customers in. No mission, no money. And yet, missions are ultimately dependent upon the firm’s ability to generate revenues. No money, no mission.

Managing this paradox of value creation requires that firms get a much deeper understanding of the nature of the value they create – both value as a means to money and as an end in itself. Businesses that know how to master the tension between instrumental and intrinsic value creation are businesses that know how to translate meaning into money.

These are the truly great mission-driven companies, the ones that attract and engage us the deepest.

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About the Author

This article was written by Gideon Rosenblatt of The Vital Edge. Gideon ran an innovative social enterprise called Groundwire for nine years. He worked at Microsoft for ten years in marketing and product development, and created CarPoint, one of the world’s first large-scale e-commerce websites in 1996. The Vital Edge explores the human experience in an era of machine intelligence.

Callum Connects

Andrew Schorr, Founder of Grata

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Taking a different route throughout his life, Andrew Schorr ended up in China and started several businesses.

What’s your story?
I moved to China after I graduated from college in 2004. English teaching was the easiest way to get there, so I looked on a map and picked a small town in Hubei, because it looked to be more or less in the middle of China. I was the only foreigner there.

Back then, everything was about the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, so I moved to the capital after my year of teaching. Pretty soon after arriving, I met the co-founder for all three of my companies. We decided to start a company together the first day we met. He has now moved back to the US and builds flight software at SpaceX.

Our first company, an online city guide, was re-purposed into our second company, GuestOps, a web concierge platform. We sold GuestOps to most of the major international hotel brands in China and still operate it. The genesis of our latest company, Grata came from looking at the intersection of hotels and WeChat in 2012, when WeChat was just starting to blow up. Grata expanded from hotels into a live-agent customer service console.

What excites you most about your industry?
Our thesis with Grata has always been that what is happening with WeChat in China is the future of messaging platforms globally, and as an international team building on WeChat, we would be well-placed to capitalize on that trend. It’s taken longer than we expected for the industry (and us, for that matter) to get there, but finally, we’re starting to see messaging as a platform to get better traction in other markets.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian. I grew up in Texas, where all my friends studied Spanish in school. I studied German for no reason in particular. I took a similar path in college: Chinese and Japanese seemed like languages that not a lot of people who look like me studied. I was one of only two students in my third-year Chinese class.

Concur conference in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. (Photo by Paul Sakuma, Paul Sakuma Photography) www.paulsakuma.com

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Shanghai. I should live there, but Beijing has been home for so long. I take the night train down to Shanghai every two-three weeks to meet with clients. Domestic flights are way too unreliable here.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Don’t plan too far ahead; otherwise, you plan yourself out of good opportunities.

Who inspires you?
Has anyone said “Elon Musk” yet? Barack Obama would be another.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
The gravitational waves recently detected from neutron stars colliding, were so subtle as to only affect the distance from earth to our closest star, Alpha Centauri (4.24 light years away) by the width of a human hair. Perhaps in another life or in the future, I’ll be an astronomer, but a telescope doesn’t do me much good in Beijing.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
When I give advice to students looking to get into entrepreneurship, I advise them to work for a post-Series A startup first and learn from a company that’s already doing things well. I learnt everything on my own, which is slower and you pay for your own education. If you work for a startup that’s small in the beginning, you risk learning bad habits.

How do you unwind?
I Hash! The Hash is a drinking club with a running problem. The Hash attracts good people from all walks of life and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a great way to meet fun-loving people all over the world. It’s also how I met my co-founder, our first lawyer, and my girlfriend.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Pulau Perhentian, Malaysia. A fantastic beach and where I first learned to scuba dive.

Everyone in business should read this book:
For business in China, Tim Clissold’s, Mr. China.

Shameless plug for your business:
Grata does WeChat contact centers for many top-tier brands in luxury retail, travel, financial services and hospitality. We started developing on WeChat before they even had an open platform. Grata provides the most value for large enterprises with complex routing and content demands for their contact centers.

How can people connect with you?
Check out www.grata.co or email me: [email protected]

Twitter handle?
My personal handle is @andrew_schorr and we tweet about messaging from the company handle @grata_co.

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Benjamin Kwan, Co-Founder of TravelClef

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Making music to create a life for his family, Benjamin Kwan, started an online tuition portal and his music business grew from there.

What’s your story?
I am Benjamin and I’m the Co-Founder of TravelClef Group Pte Ltd, a travelling music school that conducts music classes in companies as well as team building with music programmes. We also run an online educational platform which matches private students to freelance music teachers. We also manufacture our own instruments. I started this company in 2011 when I was still a freshman at NUS, majoring in Mechanical Engineering.

I was born to a lower income family, my father drove a taxi and was the sole breadwinner to a family of 7. I have always dreamed of becoming rich so that I could lessen the burden placed on my father and give my family a good life.

After working really hard in my first semester at NUS, my results didn’t reflect the hard work and effort I put in. At the same time, I was left with just $42 in my bank account and it suddenly dawned on me that if I were to graduate with mediocre results, I would probably end up with a mediocre salary as well. I knew I had to do something to gain control of my future.

During that summer break, I read a book “Internet Riches” by Scott Fox and I knew that the only way I could ever start my own business with my last $42 would be to start an online business. That was how our online tuition portal started and after taking 4 days to learn Photoshop and website building on my own, I started the business.

What excites you most about your industry?
Music itself is a constant form of excitement to me as I have always been an avid lover of music. As one of the world’s first travelling music schools, we are always very eager and excited to find innovative ways to a very traditional business model of a music teaching.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore and I love the fact that despite our diversity in culture, there’s always a common language that we share, music.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Hands down, SINGAPORE! Although we are currently in talks to expand to other regions within Asia, Singapore is the best place for business. I have had friends asking me if they should consider venturing into entrepreneurship in Singapore, my answer is always a big fat YES! There’s a low barrier of entry, and most importantly, the government is very supportive of entrepreneurship.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
I have been blessed by many people and mentors who constantly give me great advice but right now, I would say the best piece of advice that I received would be from Dr Patrick Liew who said, “Work on the business, not in it.” This advice is constantly ringing in my head as I work towards scaling the business.

Who inspires you?
My dad. My dad has always been my inspiration in life, for the amount of sacrifices that he has made for the family and the love he has for us. He was the umbrella for all the storms that my family faced and we were always safe in his shelter. Although my dad passed away after a brief fight with colorectal cancer, the lessons that he imparted to me were very valuable as I build my own family and business.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
You can not buy time, but you can spend money to save time! With this realisation, I was willing to allow myself to spend some money, in order to save more time. Like taking Grab/Uber to shuttle around instead of spending time travelling on public transport. While I spend more money on travelling, I save a lot more time! This doesn’t mean that I spend lavishly and extravagantly, I am still generally prudent with my money.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would have taken more time to spend with my family and especially my father. While it is important to focus our time to build our businesses, we should always try our best to allocate family time. Because as an entrepreneur, there is no such thing as “after I finish my work,” because our work is never finished. If our work finishes, the business is also finished. But our time with our family is always limited and no matter how much money and how many successes we achieve, we can never use it to trade back the time we have with our family.

How do you unwind?
I am a very simple man. I enjoy TV time with my wife and a simple dinner with my family and friends.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Batam, it’s close to Singapore and there’s really nothing much to do except for massages and a relaxing resort life. If I travel to other countries for shopping or sightseeing, I am constantly thinking of business and how I can possibly expand to the country I am visiting. But while relaxing at the beach or at a massage, I tend to allow myself to drift into emptiness and just clear my mind of any thoughts.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Work The System, by Sam Carpenter. This book teaches entrepreneurs the importance of creating systems and how to leverage on systems to improve productivity and create more time.

Shameless plug for your business:
If you are looking for a team building programme that your colleagues will enjoy and your bosses will be happy with, you have to consider our programmes at TravelClef! While our programmes are guaranteed fun and engaging, it is also equipped with many team building deliverables and organizational skills.

How can people connect with you?
My email is [email protected] and I am very active on Facebook as well!
https://www.facebook.com/benjamin.christian.kwan

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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