A closer look at companies executing leadership excellence
In September 1970, economist Milton Friedman argued in an article for the New York Times Magazine that “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” 50 years since that publication, leaders are still struggling with what, exactly, the social purpose of business should be. That struggle is being chronicled by Carl Erickson, Founder and Executive Board Chair of Atomic Object, a custom software design and development firm headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Erickson shares the existential angst behind the company’s vision for lasting for 100 years in the blog Great Not Big.
“I started Atomic Object in the summer of 2001 with Bill Bereza, one of my former students at Grand Valley State University,” Erickson writes in his bio on the company’s website. “We raised Atomic from the ashes of a dot-com startup where I had been VP of Engineering. When that company failed to get a second round of funding, it went under and left us with some office furniture, three interns, the remainder of a lease, and a missing month’s pay. (We still use the office furniture, one of those three interns (sic) is now co-CEO, and I long since stopped missing the $10,000 final paycheck.)”
Clearly, a business cannot exist to be completely altruistic. But, under Erickson’s guidance, Atomic Object team members (aka Atoms) have been free to explore the boundaries of what good a business can do beyond returning shareholder profit. That exploration is modeled through behaviors and business decisions grounded in the firm’s values:
Give a Shit – Atoms don’t do things halfway. We fully invest ourselves in our work, relationships, and communities. Because if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing extremely well.
Think Long Term – We want to create the right thing the first time, and have it still be meeting needs for years to come. That means thinking and planning ahead, on projects and internally.
Own It – We take responsibility for the success of everything we do—from the products we create to this company we’re building. At Atomic, there’s no such thing as “not my problem.”
Share the Pain – Life has a lot of ups and downs, but Atoms pull together. We act with kindness, empathy, and respect, and we share each other’s burdens — personally and professionally.
Teach and Learn – Software moves fast, so we’re always learning and honing our craft. And we intentionally spread it around, so everyone at Atomic gets smarter. We call it the Atomic Brain Trust.
Act Transparently – We’re accountable to our clients and each other. That means being open even when things aren’t going smoothly. It’s just the right thing to do.
Kudos to Atomic Object for being our first Business in Focus in 2020. Thank you for sharing your journey and modeling your beliefs about the social responsibility of business.