In the start-up race, purpose isn’t talked about. Unless a founder is determined enough to drive home their beliefs, the conversation always starts with, “So what do you do?”
Having a clear purpose takes balls.
It’s not even the effort that is the hardest part. No, the hardest part is putting yourself out there for everyone to see. Your beliefs might be rejected, and risking that takes a confidence that few people can muster. It’s much harder than coming up with a business idea because declaring your purpose makes you incredibly vulnerable.
Contrary to the growth-driven, capital-celebrated world, having clarity of beliefs is often reserved for the “lifestyle” businesses. A business stereotype that is thought of as “nice,” but unable to change the world in a billion-dollar kind of way.
Especially in the beginning, having a purpose can be terribly lonely. Finding others who share your same beliefs takes a lot of time. If you have a consistent commitment to start with “why” instead of “what,” you will spend a lot of time meeting people who just don’t understand.
I spent a lot of years at Contour talking about what we did but I was afraid to step back and really understand why. Having started Contour right out of school, I remember telling myself, “If this doesn’t work out, at least I will learn a lot.” Hardly a rallying cry to galvanize a company, I kept my feelings at surface level.
It wasn’t until my time at Contour was nearly over that I realized we needed something more. Making plastic products that people loved was fulfilling, but hardly a focus that would keep us around for a very long time. Proud of what I had come up with, I quickly realized that a deeper purpose didn’t align with anything I had built. Selling the promise to be a fast-growing company, there was no way to shift our priority to the world first, growth second.
Simon Senick says it best, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” It’s a powerful TED talk in which he demonstrates why companies with a clear purpose can create a movement.
Here is a guide I wish someone had shared with me before I started Contour.
Understand the Why?
”FIRST TO FIGHT" ~ Marines
The Marines are an incredible organization. Whether you believe in the military or not, there is no denying that Marines have an unwavering sense of purpose. Whenever I see a Marine in uniform, I can’t help but notice because they have such a presence to them, a strength that leaves no doubt about the reason they wear their colors. Adopting the mark, Semper Fi (Always Loyal), members of the marines are clear about why they exist.
Most startups don’t have this same loyalty or this same collective unity. The startup culture has become one of minimal viable convincibility. A culture focused on quantity over quality, we are in a rush to convince a lot of people that what we are building is meaningful. Because if not, the best talent won’t join, investors will pass, and we will spend a lot of time coming up with new ideas until something sticks.
For some entrepreneurs, understanding why you started the company is incredibly clear, but for others it’s a mixture of emotions and ideas garbled up into something you can feel but can’t clearly articulate. Figuring out your purpose often requires you to go back to the beginning to remember the reasons, emotions, and desires you so strongly felt.
Here is a simple exercise I took myself through.
- List all the reasons you started your company.
- List all the emotions and desires you felt when you began. Frustration, hope, happiness, wanting freedom? These emotions and desires are personal, but you can also list feelings you want your customers to experience.
- List what you want to change, improve, or make better in the world. It could be literal to the activity (i.e., make something easier), the feeling your customers will have (i.e., make people happy), or something you want to change (i.e., make the world better).
Now comes the hard part, distilling everything you listed into a single promise. Some people like to call it a mission or a vision. I like to call it a promise, because promises you keep. The key with your promise isn’t to make a lengthy sentence. It’s a single statement with the key word being single.
Your company will stand for one thing, which means you must be clear about what it is.
To provide inspiration…
“We make things that work for people.” ~ Nest
“Tools for living the city.” ~ Chrome Industries
“Enhance each life we touch.” ~ Apple
Build Something With Meaning
Building another web tool or another plastic camera is hardly a proposition to change the world. But just because your product doesn’t save lives, doesn’t mean you can’t have a deeper purpose.
Personally, I love photography and as a former camera maker I definitely believe that the world is a better place with beautiful pictures. Even if I was going to add more plastic to the world by making another camera, I would want to tie its existence to impacting the world through beautiful pictures.
“Making the Web a Better Place and Loving Every Second of It.” ~ Moz
A simple purpose, Moz is focused on making the web a better place for its customers. Empowering people to optimize their business, Moz is consistently telling the world what they believe in. Whether it’s their purpose, their TAGFEE values, or their complete transparency, Moz is clear about what they believe in.
Having spent the last six months on the sidelines I have had plenty of time to think about the next company I will build. Passionate about the intersection of hardware and software, I want to build a company that makes people happy and the world a better place. Every product we create must enable this.
Measure Your Consistency
Nothing matters unless you measure it. Sticking a purpose on the wall that is not tied to what you track, is pointless. If all you measure is revenue, customer engagement, and profits, then you should just change your purpose to, “We are leveraging our customers so we can make as much money as possible.”
Tracking the metrics that drive your business is important, but tracking how you deliver on your purpose is even more important. If your purpose is to make the world a better place, how are you doing that? How are the decisions you make as a company consistent with your purpose?
You will have to get creative in how you measure your purpose. And even more creative in how you demonstrate the importance to your investors. It’s easy to get caught up in the financial numbers, and so you will have to spend a lot of time thinking about how to make your purpose important to your board. Because decisions from the top to the bottom need to be consistent with why you exist.
The Marines talk about 6 hours, which is how they measure their purpose of “First to Fight”. Their collective ability to understand the problem, plan, confirm, stage, and attack is critical to their ability to deliver.
You can get by without ever creating a deeper purpose. Having a clear direction for the company with a culture that cares about its people, is enough to building a massive organization.
But if you want to build something that matters and if you really want Marine caliber loyalty, then having a clear purpose that everyone believes in, is the only way.
When you are winning people will follow you, but when you hit a massive bump in the road having a team with shared beliefs is the only way to survive it.
*Image Credit: No Author via Creative Commons