Inside the Happy Startup School

Why it’s time you made happiness your business model. An interview with cofounder Laurence McCahill.

People spend almost 30% of their lives working and another 33% counting sheep. The remaining 37%? Eating, personal hygiene, social activities, gossiping, binging on Netflix, and sex (if you’re lucky).

But work carries a special place in our lives. Work brings home the bacon, it shapes our identity. Work also provides income, a sense of self-worth, and social status.

And because of its impact—even if you’re out of work—it consumes a fair share of your psychic bandwidth.

No wonder phrases like “happiness at work”, “meaningful work”, and “purpose” are now making the rounds in the business world. Purpose has staying power. In fact, some would argue that purpose has always been at the heart of great work.

Aaron Hurst, founder of the Taproot Foundation and CEO of Imperative, explains in his latest book, The Purpose Economy:

People gain purpose when they grow, create meaningful relationships, and are in service to something greater.

And a study by Imperative and New York University found that:

Workers with a Purpose-Orientation are the most valuable and highest potential segment of the workforce regardless of industry or role. On every measure, Purpose-Oriented Workers have better outcomes than their peers.

That means:

  • 20% longer expected tenure

  • 50% more likely to be in leadership positions

  • 47% more likely to be promoters of their employers

  • 64% higher levels of fulfillment in their work

Could a purpose-driven economy be the key to a happier society? And if more meaningful work leads to a more engaged and happier workforce, where do you begin?

And what about vulnerability—could it be the key to creativity and innovation? Watch our interview with Tim Leberecht.

The Happy Startup School

Enter Laurence McCahill, cofounder of The Happy Startup School, a community of purpose-driven entrepreneurs that believe there’s more to life (and business) than making money. It works by connecting budding entrepreneurs and startup founders through an online school and game-changing events around the world.

In an interview with Laurence, we discuss all things purpose in business and how this affects the bottom line, both personally and financially. We start by talking about why Laurence left Spook Studio, his profitable (and growing) business to pursue his mission—and happiness.

Why did you leave Spook Studio to do this full time? It’s kind of a crazy move.

Yeah, it is crazy, my wife might have agreed with you there. First off, our “why?” had just gotten bigger. I was a designer so we worked on crafting great online experiences.

More and more we just kept questioning our clients, things like: “Why this idea? Why do you want us to build this product? Forgetting the features, what’s the purpose of the product? What’s the purpose of the business?” We ended up coaching and mentoring founders around finding more meaning in what they were doing.

Our big “why?” at The Happy Startup School is really helping people to fulfill their role in the world, whether it’s a startup or some project. Although we predominantly work with budding entrepreneurs and startup founders, it’s not just about starting a business, but more about helping people and companies to be more purpose-driven.

Seeing business as a force for good is part of our mission.

Companies with happy employees outperform the competition by 20%.
—Marketing Innovators International Inc.

What’s been the difference between doing this type of work, and what you did at Spook Studio?

During our years as Spook we’d get positive feedback from clients and their customers about the products we made. But the impact we’re making with The Happy Startup School is a whole other level.

We regularly get touching letters, cards, and emails from people that love what we do and stand for. If someone has made a positive change in their life, as a result of an experience you’ve engineered, then they feel eternally grateful and want to share that love. This is what drives us.

At this stage, we just want to create amazing experiences for people. I think the best feedback we got from one of our recent camps was that people just felt at home. They come to this big event, but they felt instantly at home, even though they’d never met anyone there before.

At most events I don’t feel at home—it’s just people in cliques drinking terrible coffee.

It feels artificial and certainly not an ideal environment for real learning or meaningful connections. This is why we tend to run events in natural surroundings—it helps people to let their guard down and be a bit more vulnerable, which always opens up more possibilities.

The secret sauce

How do you get to that core purpose? Do you have a process for finding purpose, or is there a set of questions that you ask to get to that place? What’s the secret sauce?

I found my purpose just through trying loads and loads of different things, working on different projects with different people.

We ask thought-provoking questions in our programs, but a lot of it is about following your nose and having fun with it—seeing what environments you enjoy working in, the kind of people you enjoy working with, the sorts of projects that get your juices flowing, and learning and growing as you go.

The happy Startup School team

In terms of organizational purpose, this has to come from the founder(s). Not in terms of “top down, this is how we do things,” but more “this is why we exist.” There was a reason this person or group of people started this thing—a need that was being served. This is the source that we try to tap into.

Great ideas don’t happen in the boardroom.

Companies lose sight of why they exist, particularly if they grow quickly. It can be hard though for founders to stay true to their original purpose once the business has started. But it’s so important to maintain that higher perspective. Especially when you’re in the day-to-day so much.

So every now and again you just need to take stock, get out of the office, and the ideas will start to flow. Everything will become clearer.

I think Richard Branson lays on his hammock. This is why we take groups of founders out into the mountains or as far afield as India. But you don’t need Necker Island to get game-changing ideas, often a long hike can do the trick.

It’s about creating space where you can tune into your inner wisdom, and this is what a lot of our work is about—better understanding who you are and what you can bring to the world, and then going and doing it.

Have a passion for problems

Purpose and passion seem to go hand in hand, but you put a little twist on passion. In an article, you said that there are two things you should be passionate about: having passion for what you’re doing and the other is passion for a problem, right? You rarely hear people say you should be passionate about a problem.

Find balance between what you’re good at, what you love, and what drives you to make a difference.

We talk about this in our Home School online course. A lot of people think of something they love doing—it could be horseback riding, playing soccer or whatever.

But it’s about finding that thing that you feel frustrated or angry about. We were a bit frustrated with some of the startups where everyone focused on the exit and not on the “why.” That frustration drove us at the beginning. “Why is it important to do things this way? Why is it important to scale quickly? Why is it important?” Because ultimately there needs to be some sort of value that you’re creating.

Leading with values

You wrote about leading with your values. This is you putting that into practice. “Start with values, not your idea.”

Exactly. It’s because ideas evolve. In most cases, it’s 99% execution and 1% idea. A lot of people struggle with the execution part, so that’s where the whole community comes in to help you on your journey.

Even with Summercamp, our annual weekend in September, folks will say, “Oh yeah, I’ll come when I’ve got a killer idea.” Or “I’ll come on Home School when I’ve got that killer idea. Until then I’ll just sit here and wait for it.”

What they don’t realize is that it’s not about finding that killer idea, and even if it were, being part of an experience like Summercamp is exactly the kind of environment where ideas will flow.

A happy business model

You say that “happiness should be your business model.” How does that work?

The starting point is to build something that matters. That purpose underpins everything they do, fueling a great company culture where people can be themselves, feel connected to the purpose, and therefore perform at their best.

Happy business models strengthen brands, cultures, and products—it’s about customer experience.

At the very early stage, it’s about being clear about your needs as founders and why you’re starting this thing—from a deeply human level, not from a commercial point of view. The world responds to this better because it’s more authentic than “This feels like a great opportunity.”

We’ve found that the answers to “Why does your company exist?” tend to be way more interesting than “What do you do?” Storytelling is the foundation of a purposeful brand and culture.

How do you spread your brand message? Here’s everything you need to know about brand awareness.

Zero-cost marketing

At the school, we focus a lot on the power of building a community, not just a customer base. When people buy into your ethos as well as your product, it attracts to loyalty and brand cheerleaders—a free marketing outlet.

Values-driven companies tend to organically create these powerful communities of purpose. Just look at Etsy.

We coined the term Minimum Loveable Product, which reinforces the importance of building your tribe from day one—before you even build your product. And we’re proof that you can build a following while exploring opportunities. And people will love you even more when they feel part of the story.

We don’t spend a penny on marketing. Everything we do is just through our network, through people who have been to one of our events. That’s gold dust, but it takes time. Good things take time to build.

Building community

When it comes to building your tribe, how do you connect people in different parts of the world? How would people who aren’t at the Summercamp or going through Home School get more connected to people in their own community? It’s a tough nut to crack.

Your brand story is the beacon that attracts the right people to your mission.

This summer, we’ve launched 10 happy startup communities around the world and we’re on track to have 30 up and running by the end of the year. So expect to see thousands of people meeting regularly around the world to inspire and support each other.

We’ve been quite surprised with the high level of engagement and idea-sharing between people who’ve never met face to face. Most early-stage startups really struggle with the idea of someone nicking their idea, but this is a safe environment where everyone feels supported.

It’s about giving anyone, anywhere, access to a vibrant, positive community of likeminded people that genuinely care about the work they do and want to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Eventually, we want to touch the lives of millions of people through our work, but we’re also keen to grow in a sustainable way. So we focus on the quality of the experiences we create and we’re careful about who we partner with.

User Human experience

What’s your ultimate goal? Not as a business, but as a human being?

Better to have some people love you than a lot of people like you just a little. Love scales.

I suppose it’s me living my life. Having kids makes you think differently about what you’re doing. To a certain extent, it’s leaving something positive for them.

If you think about everything you’re doing now, how much of it will matter in 30 years time? This is me putting what I believe out into the world. 

What got you oriented to this type of thinking? Who influenced you?

There’s a whole bunch of things that come together, and you can never put it down to one story. But I’ve been thinking about this lately, and it was probably my mum.

My parents used to run a pub in the UK. My mum was a nurse, my dad a teacher, but for 20 years they ran a pub. She would cook the food and my dad would do the drinks.

The pub had a nice family atmosphere and I’ve always felt a part of it. As a kid, I used to work behind the bar and got to learn loads about people just by serving them face-to-face. My dad was really hotheaded classic old school teacher, classic old school barman who would throw people out for no reason. My mum was the opposite: a caring, homey person. I took a bit from both of them really.

A lot of what we do now is essentially hosting people. We care about them, we look after them, we want to make them feel like they can be themselves, and try to turn that into a business and a product. It’s all about having a human approach—designing a more human experience.

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