Let's talk core values: what are they, and why, now more than ever, are they so important in business?
Throughout this blog, we explore these questions with people within our community, looking at the way that core values have affected and shaped their startup stories, and the power that strong values possess.
What are company core values?
If you type 'company core values' into Google, you're hit with lots of lists, tips, and interviews where people highlight what their core values are and what they mean to them – ranging from self-improvement and integrity to courage and honesty.
But after reading a series of interviews from top CEOs and business founders, we found that, even though there's a clear recurring pattern, each list is entirely personal and individual.
But that's what's so wonderful about core values... such an old concept, but one that seems to grow and evolve with each business that has them.
And what struck a cord while interviewing people for this blog was the clear significance of core values to them.
How startup founders can identify their core values
We asked the rather simple but broad question, 'why do you think core values are so important for a business?' and learnt what the process involved in creating core values for their businesses.
And people from business of various sizes and industries each knew almost instantly the values they personally hold and were able to list a number that their company or favourite brands have.
It seems that this strong connection to core values is because the public, now more than ever, are paying very close attention to the values of the brands that they're buying from... and avoiding brands and individuals that don't align with their own.
Research by Adweek in 2017 shows that 57% of consumers said that they'd boycott a brand if they didn't believe in their core values.
That number then rises to 66% of millennials taking into consideration brand beliefs when making a purchase. This shows the importance of and the relationship that core values have, between businesses and customers.
Some may say that businesses only claim to have certain values that they know their target market hold – with the strategy being that sharing those values will attract their target audience's trust, respect and custom.
And sure, that may be the case for a small number, done for publicity, but genuine values are difficult to fake.
It's the genuine reinforcement and passion that businesses use to show their values that shares how invested they are... a business' actions speak louder than any list on the About Us page of a website, after all... and that's what sparks trust, respect and custom from an audience.
This is a topic that Farillio is passionate about. Farillio’s core values pop up throughout the various parts of the company... from when we are hiring to in our day-to-day running of the business.
In fact, core values were the very topic Farillio's founder, Merlie Calvert, was asked to write about for Penny Power's book, Business Is Personal. Penny's book launched in February 2019, and from that came many conversations with the small-business community around core values, and here's some insights from those discussions...
We first asked Jen Eastwood at Rock Rose Digital why she feels that key values are so key for a business.
Rock Rose Digital is a social media marketing agency based in Shropshire, run solely by founder Jen. Her Rock Rose journey officially started 2 years ago, after Jen had spent two years working as accounts manager within another agency.
Over the last two years, she has achieved so much from helping an international life coach from Australia to launch her first e-book to supporting some wonderful small businesses slightly closer to home!
Fun little fact before you read about her core values... she once brought Lionel Ritchie a smoothie maker!! (Don't worry, we have many questions too!)
When we asked why she believed core values are so important, she said, "In the current climate, it's hugely important for a brand to have values. There are so many social media managers and brands out there; on paper, we all do the similar – but it's our values that set us apart. It creates an identity, becomes part of the brand and signifies what we'd be like to work with.
She also told us that Rock Rose Digital has found that being open about their core values have helped attract their ideal type of client and deterred those that aren't.
"It allows people to make an informed decision about who we are, what we're about and whether they want to buy into that."
We love the way that Jen refers to core values as a kind of identity for a brand. It really shows how integral Jen believes they are for a business.
We also spoke to Karin Sebelin, an author, trust expert and personal branding coach.
From August 2011 to roughly mid 2012, Karin was incredibly active on Ecademy, which is a social business networking site. She worked under the wonderful direction of Thomas and Penny Power who both helped her to grow as a blogger and in confidence.
She since then has written a number of books, one of which is The Ethical Entrepreneur, and grown a rather large following and interest around her writing.
Due to the nature of her expertise, we thought she'd be the perfect person to involve in this blog and we hope you enjoy her insight as much as we did.
She shared her views and told us that the most important job in business is to first define three things:
"These three elements define what a company believes, stands for and values, where the company is going and why the company exists. Without clarity around these elements, a company will struggle, will have no focus and its employees will lack the needed direction", Karin explained.
So, rather than seeing them primarily as a kind of identity, as Jen does, Karin sees them as a driving force that keeps the business going – and more importantly, keeps them on the right track.
This is such an interesting idea... using core values as a set of guidelines against which we measure our businesses.
Karin then went on to say, "Core values are not something we write on a wall and forget. For many companies, core values are created more often to be put on a poster and hung in the lobby than something to actually be lived by. I think many companies ignore the importance of core values. Core values are the DNA of your company’s culture, the moral compass, and they will always be there. They build a standard of behaviour and the guideline for acting", which highlights the very good point that not only are core values important to set as a business – but it's important to put them into action too.
And Karin's point about core values being the driving force of business perfectly matched what Simon Buehring at Knowledge Train shared: "Well, they drive everything we do. They act like a compass so we know if we’re going the wrong way or not! They also connect us to our customers. If our customers share our values, then they trust us, and that benefits us as well in the longer term."
We then spoke to GoSweat – an employee benefit scheme that allows employees to book into exercise classes and gyms across the country with credits from their boss. They have spaces in a range of from classes from lightbox yoga to quidditch!
While speaking to their marketing manager, Owen, we found that they have a rather similar viewpoint to our last two interviewees... they believe that, "core values are about much more than setting the standards for a business’s culture. They trickle down into every aspect of the business. Whether it be dictating how we present ourselves to our partners or what we write in our Instagram captions, the ethos set by our chosen values influences the entire company."
We also spoke to Lucy Locket, who started out as a personal trainer till sadly in 2017 she sustained an injury, which meant that she was no longer able to train full time with her clients.
It was only as she began to sift through her sportswear after her injury that she realised how bland and boring the designs were, nothing stood out and more than that nothing seemed to reflect her bubbly personality.
So she decided to change this fact and start producing garments that had a bit of life and colour. And as they say, the rest is history!
In a very similar way to GoSweat and Karin, it's clear that Lucy sees core values as a way of guiding her everyday choices.
She told us, "I believe it’s important to have key values because it gives us guidance on making decisions in the business, but it also gives us principles to uphold. It allows us to define our approach to doing things and pay particular attention to things we have already identified as important."
Lucy then went on to tell us about her own businesses core values and the way they affect her day-to-day work. She describes her core values as, rather simply:
- focus on teamwork
- focus on customers
- focus on wellbeing
"I decided on these because they make the workplace more productive and enjoyable, which helps us deliver more for our customer."
They, however, weren't something that Lucy decided on overnight... instead they were developed and came to the forefront several months into her startup story, as she began to realise that they were things that she needed to bear in mind during her business journey.
This idea of realisation rather than the creation of core values was also reflected in the answer given by Simon at Knowledge Train. He speaks about how their core values became solidified about 10 years into their journey!
Even though 10 years is a rather long time, it shows that instead of core values being something that can always be quickly put together, sometimes they take time to build... not only through what you value when starting your business, but also the values you pick up as your business grows.
Simon also speaks about how he was not the only one involved in the process. He involved the team, asking them what was important for them and what they felt would help grow and strengthen the business and their cause. Together, as a team, they came up with a wonderful list of values, which are:
- Integrity – acting with honesty and honour
- Fairness – listening to others, being impartial and equitable with customers and staff
- Innovation – pursuing creative ideas that improve the products we offer our customers
- Diversity – respecting the diversity of our staff and customers
- Quality – committing to develop and maintain the highest standards in products and services
- Social responsibility – giving back to the community via charitable donations
Unsurprisingly, this is also an idea that is held by GoSweat, who also comment on the fact that they took time to make sure the core values were something that the team felt a connection with.
Owen told us, "in our early, early days our ‘office’ was a living room – literally. But the business was real. So, as the three founders, it wasn’t long before we sat down to build the cultural foundations of a real business. I’m happy to admit that we debated what our core values should be for a long time. We wanted to get it right."
Even though the core values took a while to reach, they found it simple to find something they felt they could abide by. The rule of 3 really resonated with the team...
"Three.", Owen says. "Things that come in three just seem to click. Stop, Drop and Roll. Friends, Romans, Countrymen. Eat, Pray, Love. So that bit was simple. The values themselves took the time."
They began to envision the future of GoSweat and how they wanted the culture to evolve. "For me, this really helped to bring things into focus. We each had a vision of the future built on the idea of working with a devoted team trusted with the freedom to take ownership of their work. Collaboration, commitment, autonomy became our core values. If we wanted our company to grow like that, we’d have to plant these seeds now."
When we spoke to Crane Drinks Ltd, a brewery in Cambridgeshire, about their core values, they highlighted 3:
Be Engaging: We engage, listen and interact with our customers to ensure we deliver the highest standard possible. We understand the needs and wants of the consumer.
Be Innovative: We create innovative products for our customers, ensuring we use the most natural, premium and sustainable ingredients. Staying ahead of the curve and on top of upcoming trends.
Be Delicious: We use the finest of ingredients to produce high-quality products, that taste amazing.
They went on to share with us how their core values were embedded in the business from the very beginning – but they were officially created when they began their first round of crowdfunding, with the aim to help other people understand, and connect with, their vision.
Jen from Rock Rose Digital made such a wonderful point when we asked her about how she found her core values, offering an insight in the way values can be viewed by freelancers.
She first speaks of how she sees her business as an extension of herself, "As a freelancer, my business is me."
For that reason, her businesses core values are very much in line with her own. She then goes on to speak about how "Rock Rose Digital was born during the worst episode of depression I've ever experienced, and as a result, it grew with my mental health and self-care at the front and centre of all decision making."
She purposely grew the business slowly to ensure that it didn't have any sort of negative impacts on her own health or on her clients. "In my consultations and other work, I focus on time management and making things as straightforward as possible for my clients, which really helps promote positive digital self-care. I'm also a proud feminist, championing other strong females and other women in business as much as possible."
This is very similar to the way in which Karin views her core values. Her core values are something that are so deeply rooted in her life and startup story that she didn't have to look very far to find them.
Her values include:
Believing these values reflect her inner self, she shared how she lives by her values in her day-to-day life and felt so at home in them that she carried them through to her business.
The public interest in core values is interesting.
Over recent years, it seems that people are more aware of where their items are coming from and take it heavily into consideration when making decisions on what to purchase.
People now look for items that have a low impact on the environment or are more likely to spend on items if the company treats its workers well or donate to charity.
And they're now more likely than ever to boycott organisations that are known for bad business, or if their values do not align with their own.
This point was so beautifully encapsulated by Crane Drinks Ltd, who looked at the way that, even though their values haven't changed, the way they are spoken about has, and that "shouting about them has become more important."
Consumers are now more interested in sustainable processes, ethical, healthier and natural ingredients, which, he says has "fortunately always been at the core of all of Cranes Drinks product lines".
With consumers placing more importance on these values now than ever before, "we now consciously make more noise about being innovative in these areas."
We first asked Jen, a huge advocator for mental health and, over the last few years, she has grown her feminist views. However, this has all been restrained to her personal life – Jen had never really been this open about them in such a public way and would also avoid involving them in her work.
In her words, she "was wary about being so bold about my mental health, wondering if it would deter people from working with me."
This is such an interesting point made, Jen. In the business world today, it many try to stay neutral on topics such as politics and feminism as they don’t wish to alienate any of their audience – which topics like this can do.
She then goes on to say, "But the clients I am working with have warmed to me because of it and embraced my honesty – allowing them space and opportunity to be open in their own way. This has led to stronger working relationships; something invaluable to me and I'm hugely grateful for."
Karin then went on to share how she considers that core values are about a companies behaviour, and that for us to truly live by our values we must behave only in a way that is consistent with our values, both as an individual and as a company.
Leaders are being watched every day and, in times of branding, core values have become more and more important when companies want to be successful.
A strong brand is able to clearly articulate the beliefs and principles that the organisation wants its people to share and embrace. And having an appropriate company culture is vital. She highlights the importance of having a network that's strongly behind and backs your values, and how this will help a business to grow.
Simon from Knowledge Train also made an interesting point. He said, "I think for big corporates with huge PR and marketing budgets, core values are rather meaningless."
He then uses the example of Google and how a few years ago their motto was 'never do evil.' They have since dropped it and are involved with building advanced AI systems for the American military. "Oh, and they are planning to provide a Chinese version of its search engine which will filter out anything the Chinese government doesn’t like. Money talks."
"For a small business like ours, I couldn’t sleep at night if I allowed my company to be so two-faced about things."
Speaking about the relevance of core values today, Owen from GoSweat said, "I think they are more important now than ever."
He comments on how consumers are increasingly looking to harness their spending power to influence positive change, and more and more companies are taking a stance on ethical and social issues. These are both things that he is really happy to be witnessing!
We couldn't agree more with Owen here. Consumers are so aware of the impact that their money has and they are more unwilling to spend it funding brands they don't believe in.
However, companies are publicly taking to social causes with varying success. "I think the key to success in this area resides in a company's core values. Those that take a stand because it aligns with their core values succeed - Nike and Ben & Jerry’s are good examples."
Both of these companies believe strongly in their core values, as well as knowing their consumers, and any stance that they take aligns with their beliefs.
Complementing Simon's earlier point, Owen said, "Those that take a stand because it seems like the ‘on trend’ thing to do fail - Pepsi’s disastrous protest ad. I think it is vital that companies believe in, understand, and advocate for, their core values. This goes double for startups."
Lucy Locket then further enhanced this view by saying that the public will always vote with their feet when they show up events or buy products.
"I’m glad that we’re in a market where our customers see our core values and appreciate what we are trying to achieve."
She then goes onto say how Lucy Locket Loves acknowledges the value of upholding core values and being entirely transparent in their work... something that is so important nowadays.
How to protect your core business values
We then asked all of our business owners how they maintain, uphold and protect their values...
It's one thing to find your core values, but how do you ensure that as your team and business grow that they always remain at the heart of everything you do?
This is especially hard as the team grows and new people join...
...how do you ensure they carry the same values and are able to uphold the original core values?
Jen first said, "In regards to the mental health, I do my best to practise what I preach – although I am far from perfect!"
She highlights how working with social media every day can be very difficult to know when to put the phone down and stop scrolling. She also refers to herself as a very honest person who wears her heart on her sleeve when it comes to her own personal experiences.
"For me, being authentic and genuine is a part of the self-care process and it gives permission to others struggling to speak up and be open. Social media can portray a very one-sided view of 'reality', causing so much damage. Being up-front and painting as true a picture as possible is really important to me." Could not agree more, Jen!
With regards to protecting her and her business' core values, Jen speaks about how hard it can be – especially with the rise of social media and our constant exposure online, which can often leave us exposed to harsh words and opinions that are often not kind or constructive.
"While I am open, I know when to draw the line and pick a time and place as to when to voice them. I also don't give 100% of my personal details away. There are certainly elements of my past struggles I wouldn't bring into a business relationship. I'm also very careful in handpicking who I work with – if I was to work with someone who's values didn't align with mine then it would comprise my work and my health."
Crane Drinks Ltd then spoke about the value of social media and the way that it can be used to keep customers familiar with their values.
They use social media, vlog, send newsletters and attend events to get feedback on what consumers think about their products – which is such a wonderful idea. "We also conduct regular consumer research, including taste-testing, to ensure we are developing product lines our consumers want and enjoy. Engaging with the consumer and gaining valuable insight, ensures we are maintaining our values of being innovative and delicious."
We then spoke again with Simon, who was quick to say how tricky it is to pinpoint an exact answer.
"We have some company policies e.g. non-discrimination policy, which complements some of the values – such as diversity. Also, I have always instructed my staff to act with honesty and integrity at all times."
One thing that does infuriate him is a typical corporate policy of paying lip service to their customers’ needs. "They say one thing but do another. I’ve always wanted the company and its staff to act as they say!"
So, that manifests itself in staff explaining the courses in a way which is honest, so that the client is 100% sure on the service that they'll receive... rather than upselling and the client missing out. "Not trying to sell them something which is not suitable just so that we can make a sale. None of our customer-facing staff gets sales bonuses, so they don’t need to stretch the truth to get a sale!"
Simon then goes onto say how they are continuously improving the program based on feedback from customers. This highlights how they are constantly eager to improve and change with the needs of their clients, "striving to improve the courses and services we offer."
He also gives the advice that when a business is trying to protect their core values, they must be vigilant. "If I hear or read about a staff member disregarding the core values, then that would warrant a sound piece of advice. We also rely upon each other to maintain our values."
In our chat with Owen, he highlighted the importance of hiring people that have a similar set of values to the team and that align with the companies goals.
He said, "The critical first step is hiring right. From the very first hire, we were looking for these qualities in a candidate. ‘Could we work well together?’, ‘Do they seem committed to our mission?’, ‘Do they take ownership of their work?’."
"This is such an integral part of being able to protect your core values. Regardless of the position, we consider such questions. If the Bobsleigh team don’t perfectly jump in together at the beginning of a race, they certainly aren’t going to win gold – and we always want to win gold. When it comes to upholding our core values, hiring the right team is the essential first step."
We then asked Owen about GoSweat's tips for protecting the team's core values. "I can only give credit to the GoSweat team. They have embodied the core values as if their own. They are the guardians of our core values and there is no one I trust more to uphold them than the team I have the pleasure of working with." Everyone brings their own unique authenticity to GoSweat and the company is stronger for it.
Lucy also gave some wonderful insight into how she protects her core values. "Our core values are protected because they impact all parts of the business." She goes on to say that if they are not practising their core values, it will become obvious very quickly for their consumers.
"It will impact how staff are feeling and ultimately the value we offer to our customers. We protected our core values in a self-correcting way if we focus on teamwork, our customers and wellbeing, we will always be able to uphold our core values."
Lastly, I asked our interviewees what they believe the worth is of a network that shares their values...
Jen, told us about the strength and confidence that she gains from observing and learning from likeminded folk in how they handle their own core values in business, especially how they overcome conflict or struggles. "Having networking – both online and IRL has been vital in helping me stay to true myself. Finding your tribe of people, especially in business, is one of the most important things you can do."
This strong view is also held by Karan, who spoke about how having a good network is such a powerful tool. "When we share the same interests and the same principles, everything becomes easier. It is much easier to find common ground and to find a consensus. Relationships become attractive and good collaboration can arise. Trust can develop easier."
And Owen shared that, "when you’re surrounded by people and businesses that share your values, life is so much more simple."
He highlights the values of having a likeminded network, and how, particularly in their case, a network of active, hardworking, team players who believe in what they do is so powerful and pushes them forward in their work.
"The worth of such a community is huge. I highly recommend that anyone in any business takes a moment to consider what their company truly believes in, and seek to use those values to enact positive change. And if you ever end up creating an office in a living room, that’s a great place to start."
What does Twitter think?
We also took to Twitter and got some wonderful replies on why our community believe that core values are so important for business! Here are some of our favourite ones!
“It allows all stakeholders to understand the key traits of business (they used to talk about business personality), which will help ensure everyone is supporting one another and pushing in the same direction”
“It's a north star. It attracts the right talent. The right customers. The right investors. The right partners. True alignment with everything you do. Without core values, everything is a bit messy!”
“To keep me aligned. When things go off-track it always comes back to that “Oh...it jars with my values” moment 🙈”
“They keep you honest and make you stick to your principles when you might be tempted to go for a quick, “cheap” win.”
Thank you so much to all the people that got involved with this blog! It's clear from the vast number of people that spoke to us that it's a topic that plays a huge part in both ends of a business – which is so wonderful to see. It's been so interesting seeing that, even though there are many overlaps, the vast individuality of core values and the role they play in the shaping and building of a team and a business.
As Karin said, this would be a perfect time to have a think about what are your core values as a business are and why they're so important to you.
And if you'd like to join the conversation about core values and what they mean to you – simply tweet us at @farillio!