Why purpose matters in entrepreneurship (and how to find yours)
Are you putting purpose front and centre as you build your business? Here's why you need to and how to do it.
Finding your purpose can sound like an extremely lofty agenda.
If someone asked you “What is your purpose in life?” it is likely a big scary question to have to answer. Not quite your everyday concern such as what you’ll be having for dinner later.
But it is precisely the important questions in life that we shouldn’t ignore. I named my coaching business The Ask® because of my firm belief that asking the right questions about your life and career is what reaps the biggest rewards.
In the context of building a business, whether you are reading this as an aspiring founder or as a more established business owner — the question of purpose truly matters.
Building a business requires solving a problem people will pay to have solved however choosing just any old problem to solve is not the route to success. Perhaps it can bring you a quick buck, but it will not lead you towards something that can offer you meaning, fulfilment and financial rewards sustained over the long term.
To find long-term success in business building, look to purpose.
Seek a sense of purpose that you are supposed to be building your particular business. I believe that pursuing purpose by design and not default is an insurance policy worth taking out.
That’s because in the past ten years helping people with their careers I have observed time and time again that the people who are the happiest and most successful are those who pursue purpose. That was true whether I was headhunting startup executives, helping tech founders in startup accelerators to now, coaching new and aspiring founders.
I’ll delve into this in today’s post which explores:
How sometimes business owners neglect to keep purpose in mind
Why being purpose-led makes business sense
How you can begin to identify your own purpose
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Why would you build a business from anything other than a sense of purpose?
Dear readers, I know that you are smart enough to know that rarely does business building offer a shortcut to success.
We know that the overnight rags-to-riches stories represent the exception not the rule. That the majority of business owners are left to contend with the harsh realities of startup building - the unsteady pay checks, the sacrifices of time, relationships, money or sometimes even sanity - for a long time before reward comes. If it ever does.
So within this context it seems obvious that purpose can and should sit at the centre of business building. Why else would we do it?
However I have seen that many people neglect to prioritise purpose when starting their businesses. Or only attempt to retrofit purpose as an after thought or a marketing slogan later on.
Business are often launched solely to profit from an opportunity in the market or as an attempt to escape the drudgery of the status quo or workplace burnout or boredom. Sometimes businesses get started from a place of necessity and lack of financial alternative.
I’ve seen clients with businesses that left them lacking a sense of purpose despite experiencing outward successes.
Whether that was the client who left their job to join a friend’s company as cofounder, only to realise through our coaching how misaligned to the purpose she felt. Today she has her own, one created from unlocking her own sense of purpose.
Or the client who had built a successful business to 12 people, all from responding to a clients’ requests to build something they needed. One day he looked around and realised he was not particularly excited by his business and the work he had committed himself to.
Sometimes even despite our best intentions, the expectation of building a business does not always meet the reality of running it. It isn’t purpose-driven unless you decide that it is, and then design it with purpose intentionally, guiding you as you go.
Purpose-led businesses can outlast their competitors.
Not only do we experience greater meaning and fulfilment when we create something out of a sense of purpose, but pursuing purpose also makes business sense too.
Here are three reasons to consider.
i) Purpose driven business owners are more resilient.
The struggles in building a business are often dime a dozen and there is no avoiding the fact that success is not guaranteed. Success is however, more inevitable when you keep going in the face of hardships, when you learn from your mistakes and listen to your customers until you get the formula right.
Whilst this business advice seems simple on the surface the reality of it is not quite so simple or easy.
But when you know you are acting from a place of purpose then it at least makes it less likely you will want to throw the towel in when the going gets tough (which it will). Sticking at it, and being resilient in the face of obstacles is the only secret sauce of entrepreneurship and helps you avoid the fate of the 50% of businesses that don’t make it past the first five years.
Not only this, but suffering for the sake of something bigger than yourself can be considered a source of meaning in life itself (oof).
Whether your ‘something bigger’ is your religion, community, family or your business... the most content people tend to be those who live in pursuit of something other than themselves alone.
Auschwitz survivor, writer and philosopher Victor Frankl in his seminal book Man’s Search for Meaning, contends that the purpose of life is to live for a purpose bigger than yourself.
Once man's search for meaning of life is successful, it not only renders him happy but also gives him the capability to cope with suffering.”
— Viktor Frankl, 'Man's Search for Meaning'.
What we’ve suffered for, we value more greatly too. A connection and sense of meaning is only exemplified once a degree of suffering or sacrifice has been made in its name.
There are many times that you will want to give up when running your business but if you can keep coming back to your internal sense of purpose and belief that the suffering will in fact be worth it then it makes it that much more likely that you will persist long enough to jump through the hoops and make a success for yourself.
ii) Purpose-driven founders get better customers, investors and hires
It is not just founders who bear risk in startup building.
Anyone who invests their time or money in that same startup bears a degree of risk, too. From the employees who take below-market salaries to join “the next big thing’ to the investors who put their money early-doors before any guarantee of ROI is presented, through to the customers who put their hard earned money into a new product or service. For all parties, there is always an opportunity cost and risk involved in this new company.
But whilst we could back the publicly-listed company to invest in, or join as another cog in the corporate machine, we often choose the riskier road because of the inherent excitement in that choice.
We hope we have ‘backed one of the winners’ and this often comes down to the founder themselves.
The founders who have the clearest vision, most convincing pitch or ability to charm top talent to join their ranks are most often the ones who come at their businesses from a sense of purpose.
My colleague Mel who I am lucky to have work with me at The Ask, could get paid much better elsewhere. I am grateful to have someone as talented as her on the team, and know its the vision and purpose that has kept her so comimited.
It is their ‘why’ that makes a purpose driven founder so compelling and provides them with the influence, passion and drive to pour into their company and make it a success. Team members are excited join the mission, or customers create word of mouth hype about the product, when a true sense of purpose is felt.
iii) Purpose provides you with focus and decision filter
With purpose front and centre, decisions about what to do as you build your business become clearer — and anything that gives you a roadmap to decisions in business is a lifeline. The inability to decide will leave you in stasis and kill time (one of your biggest assets) as you go.
Many founders do start with a specific vision in mind for their business but soon experience a degree of ‘scope creep’ as they go about building it. I wrote about this concept in my interview with strategist Alex Smith: What happens when your initial idea collides with the market.
Since customers are the lifeblood of any business, if customers stop buying perhaps due to changes in consumer trends, technology or a global pandemic(!) then a business must adapt to survive.
Founders can be forgiven for following the money in these times.
But following the money is slippery slope towards creating products and services that have no way of distinguishing themselves from their competitors. When you are the same as everyone else, the only thing you have left to compete with is price and being in a race to the bottom is guaranteed to leave you with your wheels spinning.
Pursuing purpose can ward off burn out from having to stay in step with all the incessant changes. Pursuing purpose as your business strategy gives you direction and makes decisions clearer as you can pass them through your ‘purpose filter” so that you can act in integrity to the starting point you began with.
For example my client Maria, Founder of MigaSwimwear (offering incredible functional and sustainably designed swimwear) was debating keeping her tote bags that come with the swimsuits. But the purpose of Miga is to fight against body ableism. The bags help both explain this message and build awareness for it. Despite the costs involved in production, the choice became clear that they needed to be kept.
Or another client exploring selling a business, is finding the decision of who should take ownership easier, based not on their hard skills but their sense of mission and purpose alignment. To ensure the integrity of the company remains post-sale.
How to identify your purpose and put it to practice
I sometimes wish there was a neat formula for ‘purpose-identification’ that I could leverage as IP and become a very rich person as a result.
It is a process I’ve taken myself through however, and clients through, in coaching. It is not always a neat process and sometimes feels sticky — we encounter resistance, confidence blocks or tend to overcomplicate answers that might be staring us in the face.
Whilst there is not a ‘5 step’ process there are a myriad of tools and exercises I can suggest to help guide your purpose-identification process.
Part of which we will be unveiling next month in a virtual vent for new founders ready to turn their expertise into a profitable business. Talent to Money is our free summit designed to help you clarify your purpose so that you can build the right business for you. Expect keynote speakers from top entrepreneurs, panel talks and a digital workbook to guide you through the event and its filmed if you cannot join live. Grab your ticket whilst they last.
If you can’t wait until June to get purpose-ready then here are some of the first steps you can start to take if you want to make inroads on clarifying yours:
Conduct a career inventory.
Explore the high and low points of every career experience, including specific projects and look for themes about where you felt the most meaning and engagement. What was the nature of the work, the skills you were using, or the subject matter that you can identify.
Consider obstacles you’ve overcome
Oftentimes the business you are supposed to build is born out of a personal frustration or difficult experience you’ve had, that energises you towards wanting to protect others from that same challenge. Review what the biggest challenges you have faced are in your life or been exposed to, and consider whether there is a business that could be born out of them? My friend is starting a coaching business about boundary setting because, you guessed it, she has had issues with her own personal boundaries and now she is ready to show the world how to avoid the same fate.
Explore your biggest beliefs
What do you believe, that not everyone does? What is it that drives you, motivates or angers you? Often there is a passion or deep-seated value inherent that distinguishes you. Sometimes there is a purpose you have that needs uncovering and the way that you explore this is getting curious. Ask yourself a series of questions and get curious about why you feel this way, and what is really at stake?
It’s all about the questions you ask
Once you get curious and ‘ask’ the right questions of yourself, you can start to take action. Get data, ask people, journal, read and start building protoypes of what you have in mind. When you start to explore themes you can begin to notice your levels of energy and excitement surrounding them.
The entrepreneurs who do well tend have some level of obsession, and obsessions tend to grow the more time you spend on something.
When I realised I wanted to be a career-focused coach in 2015 I kept reading books about career paths and related themes where I amassed more knowledge than the average person and that at its core, I saw careers as an expression of ourselves as human beings. It fascinated me and continues to today.
Here lay signs of something blossoming inside me that I allowed to develop. You too will have your unique set of concerns, interests and passions that are just waiting for you to explore them and see what road they can take you down.