Why a Company Pledge Feels More Authentic than Company Values for My Startup

Illustration by Katerina Limpitsouni of Undraw

ix months ago, I added a task to the Trello board my co-founder and I share instructing us to “Build Out Core Values Page.” But as other Trello tasks have successfully navigated their way from Considering, to Planned, to In Progress, and eventually to Complete, the core values task remained as merely Planned. Until the other day, that is, when I moved it to Abandoned. Despite the fact that virtually every startup does it, publishing core values on my company’s website doesn’t feel like an authentic exercise to me. And not because I don’t believe in the idea. In fact, I have admiration for companies who allocate time towards this exercise. Like Buffer who, in my opinion, have some of the most genuine company values around. However, for every great company values page I come across, there are seemingly far more companies publishing values that were clearly written by the marketing team with little input from those leading the charge. In other words, a perceived prevalence of inauthentic company values is preventing me from authoring them for my own company.

Why do I perceive them as inauthentic? For starters, they seem too flexible. They’re up for interpretation and ripe for manipulation. They tempt me to idealize the vision I have for my company through unrealistic and likely unattainable descriptions. And often, they’re far to altruistic for a capitalistic enterprise. But I appreciate their purpose, the role they’re designed to fill, and the desired outcomes they seek to evoke. Perhaps it’s because my mind is wired like an engineer, but I want to describe my company’s driving philosophies explicitly: we do; we don’t. I want to make commitments that are measurable. I want our team members, customers, and the communities we impact to have grounds to hold us accountable. I want us to be able to reflect and say: we are; we aren’t and look back and say: we did; we didn’t. I want my company to make a pledge.

Broadly, a pledge is defined as a solemn promise or undertaking and conceptually, the idea of a company pledge instantly seemed like a better fit for me and my co-founder. We’re constantly striving to meet and exceed the very high expectations we’ve set while keeping the promises we’ve made to each other and our stakeholders. We also have no problem being held accountable when we fall short. Most importantly, there is an intentionality about a pledge that is more in line with how we operate and which core values seemingly lack. Taking the time to articulate and publish the promises we’re making as we operate and scale our startup became a must do.

Now, I know what many people might be thinking; “How is a company pledge really that different than company values?” Let me provide an example through a subject that is rightfully top of mind for many companies: diversity. If one were to write a company value about diversity, it might read:

“We value the knowledge and impact people of different backgrounds, ages, genders, and races can bring to a team.”

A company pledge about diversity might read:

“We pledge to build a diverse team that consists of people from different backgrounds, ages, genders, and races.”

On the surface, both statements read positively and imply that the company writing them is committed to diversity. But valuing suggests a belief in whereas pledging suggests action towards. With the above examples, it would be difficult to detect if a company doesn’t really believe in diversity. It would, however, be much easier to specifically determine whether or not a company had assembled a diverse team consisting of people from different backgrounds, ages, genders, and races. I can give another example using the popular subject of honesty. If we were to draft a company value about honesty, it could read:

“We value honesty and believe it’s important to be open and transparent with our customers.”

Not bad. But here is how a pledge of honesty reads:

“We pledge never to intentionally deceive or mask our true intentions when engaging with our customers.”

What’s the difference? Well, a company can value honesty, be open and transparent, but still bury an early termination fee in its fine print knowing that most customers won’t read that fine print. However, by pledging not to intentionally deceive or mask its true intentions, burying that early termination fee within fine print would likely be considered a breach of that pledge by most reasonable people providing customers with clear grounds to call the company out or hold it accountable for trying to deceive them.

Personally, I’m not concerned about leaving my company with a “way out” if we break a promise. Speaking vaguely is not my strong suit and likely never will be. For these reasons, I wasn’t, in good conscience, able to sit down and describe my company in unclear wordsmithed snippets that marketers or attorney’s would approve of. In the current draft of our company pledge, there are no blurred lines only direct statements about what we will and won’t do. Our goal is to establish a definitive guide capable of influencing nearly every decision we make. We are choosing to set clear expectations about how we’ll operate and we will stand prepared to answer if we stray or fail to fulfill those expectations.

My co-founder and I are drafting the Layr company pledge openly via a public Google Doc and we’ve invited our stakeholders, customers, and the broader startup community to contribute and provide feedback. Have a look and feel free to take any elements that resonate and use them for your own company’s pledge.

To be fair, we can’t draft a pledge without considering what we value. So, as I wrote this article, I found myself asking whether or not a line can really be drawn between company values and a company pledge? For example, Netflix has done a nice job of blending company values with what I would consider to be company pledges through their well-known culture deck. And even Buffer, whose company values page I referenced earlier, published a blog post that communicates many of those same values in pledge-like form. Perhaps a company pledge is just an evolution or an extension of its values? Where values describe broad ideas a company aspires to be described as, a pledge is a measurable promise that the company is comfortable committing to?

At the end of the day, make no mistake; a pledge will subject the company making it to brand liability and it invites criticism should the pledge be broken (it will inevitably be broken). As a result, a pledge must be adopted as a tool that is used by everyone in the organization. It should change the way legal drafts company policies and drive the hiring practices of human resources. It should impact the way customer success handles conflict while influencing how marketing drafts ad copy. Management should reference it at every board meeting and investors should be comfortable with it before investing. Lastly, as a company changes, the promises it makes to everyone it impacts will also change. Like values, a pledge should never be viewed as final. And like the company it stands for, it should be ever-evolving.

Travel-obsessed, baseball-loving, startup founding, venture-backed entrepreneur.