Ever since Simon Sinek published his book “Start With Why” in 2009, a sense of purpose has been hailed as the secret to business success. Many startup founders had their big idea exactly because they identified a problem and thought of a solution.
Turning the idea into a product or a paradigm shift became their purpose.
Why is it so hard to define this purpose clearly? And why do even more founders struggle to communicate this purpose? Here are tips for finding and defining your purpose and making it clear to others.
Why does your startup need a purpose?
Your startup’s purpose is the “why” behind your company. It is the reason for your existence and specifies the benefit your company will bring to the world.
Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School Ranjay Gulati has taken this concept a step further. He referred to it as the soul of a startup in an article for Harvard Business Review. Gulati believes that this spirit – or purpose – keeps engagement high within the team and with other stakeholders. It helps the company “remain agile and innovative” and helps encourage growth.
Consultancy EY Global has found that having a strong purpose generally leads to improved business performance. The company’s experts found that businesses with a sense of purpose outperformed the S&P 500 by ten times. In addition, having a clear purpose creates higher employee engagement and tends to create more loyal customers. Purpose-driven businesses also outperform their competitors when it comes to innovation and transformation.
Some of those considerations may seem like they are years away when you are just beginning to turn your idea into reality. However, having a purpose can make the difference between your idea remaining just that as opposed to making it out of the starting blocks.
That's it with the corporate background.
Back to the context of (early-stage) startups:
Attracting all-important finance, convincing the right people to work with you, and getting noticed (PR) all are easier when you have a clear and communicated purpose:
How to find your purpose
In all likelihood, you already have a purpose as a startup founder.
Before you had your big idea, you recognized a problem that needed a solution. This solution, or the idea of how the problem can be solved, is your purpose.
In the frenzy of starting a company, finding your first team members and a space to work from, it is easy to lose sight of that purpose. If this startup is the first time you have worked for yourself as opposed to being an employee, you might feel overwhelmed. Things become even busier when you start talking to venture capitalists to attract funding.
They ask for numbers. Thinking about a purpose may seem less than important.
However, this question is not about finding a purpose you do not already have. It is about defining the purpose that made you start the company in the first place. Here are the essential steps to defining a clear-cut and inspiring purpose.
1. Clarify the problem
The problem your startup is trying to solve may seem easy to you. Those around you may have never noticed it. Unless potential investors and customers clearly see that there is an issue, you will find it hard to draw their attention to your solution.
International payments, for example. Until a few years ago, sending money abroad involved a trip to the bank during opening hours to set up a payment. This payment came at high costs, making international payments an expensive luxury. Few consumers would even consider them.
Those traveling regularly knew the issue but startups like Wise (formerly TransferWise) needed to show their relevance to investors and customers. Not only did they succeed, but their services have changed the world for those who regularly need to transfer funds across currencies, from different locations.
2. Keep it personal
You are the founder of this startup for a reason. What do you personally stand for? Most founders recognize a problem they want to solve and then set out to find that solution for personal reasons.
Sharing your own experience of the problem is a great way to highlight the importance and relevance of your solution. This may seem obvious to you, but often a personal story is the most inspiring and memorable part of a purpose.
Embrace the details - how did you feel when you had this frustrating or inspirational experience. Close your eyes and go back to that moment. Write it down. Share your feelings to people.
3. Test-drive your purpose
Once you are close to defining your purpose, it is worth testing its reception on key stakeholders. As a founder, don’t keep your purpose or vision to yourself until you believe it is perfect.
Instead, speak to a range of stakeholders and note their reactions. Who are the best people to test your purpose? Ideally, you consult with people who know the business well, potential future customers, and even potential investors. Who are the best people to distribute your purpose? Journalists and storytellers. Especially if you have a writer you know - ask from them could your purpose be worth of a story.
When you are developing an idea into a company, it is easy to find yourself too close to the idea. Whilst that closeness is an asset, it can also prevent you from seeing other perspectives. Testing your purpose on others allows you to see whether it excites them, confuses them, or leaves them uninspired.
The sooner you do this, the sooner you can realistically consider whether the whole concept needs to change or whether you simply need to explain the idea better.
4. Think about the long term
Will your purpose stand the test of time, and will it still be relevant when the business grows? Is it something that will grow with your team?
A strong purpose is not only personal. It is something that employees, investors, journalists and other stakeholders can buy into. To test whether your purpose can stand that test of time, ask yourself if your vision is large enough for others to buy into it and continue to be inspired by it.
Whilst testing your purpose early is a great way of testing the potential of the idea right now, think ahead. Remember the common interview question, asking where you see yourself in five or ten years? Apply it to your situation. Picture your startup on its tenth birthday: is your purpose still relevant?
Answering this question will give you a good idea of whether your business can stand the test of time.
What a clear purpose will do for your startup
We have already mentioned that having a clearly defined purpose can help business performance for established companies.
For startups, being able to state a clear purpose makes it easier to inspire investors. Of course, venture capitalists and angel investors will scrutinize your business plan and supporting documents. But they are humans who love big ideas and like to get behind inspiring stories and individuals. A startup that truly has the potential to change the world becomes irresistible to investors.
Investors are not the only stakeholders to whom your purpose matters. It is just as important, if not more crucial, for employees and customers.
Even in the infancy of your startup, you soon reach a stage where you need additional help and skills. Chances are that you will not be able to pay stellar salaries to your first employees. After all, the investment secured through tough funding rounds is intended for the development of your product or service.
Remember that many employees enjoy their job for more reasons than the salary. Whilst a fair salary should be standard, research has found that employees in companies with a purpose are three times more likely to stay. They are also more engaged and generally more satisfied than those who work at a company that simply exists to make money.
When it comes to customers, the figures are even more impressive. Broadly speaking, having a clear purpose builds customer trust and inspires loyalty. A survey conducted by Edelman found that 89% of clients associate a purpose-driven company with the highest quality of services and products. More than 70% of consumers worldwide said they would recommend a company with a purpose, whereas more than 80% of consumers in emerging markets said they made purchases related to a cause at least annually.
Lastly, don't forget the individuals who can distribute your story: journalists. Humans interested in inspiring stories and individuals behind them, because they write stories to humans interested in inspiring stories and individuals behind them.
Summing up your purpose
Taking the time to find your purpose is never a waste. As your purpose becomes the foundation for your vision and mission, it is arguably one of the most important parts of setting up your business.
Having a clear purpose means you have a quick way of checking if you are truly on track. It will also help you inspire investors, journalists, employees, and customers.
A well-established, true purpose forms the basis of every business decision and will help you build a respected company that stands the test of time.
Why communicating your purpose matters
Now that we have established why having a purpose for your startup is so important and how to define your purpose, the question arises of how best to communicate it.
The strongest, most inspiring purpose can do nothing for your business unless you share it with your audiences. Attracting top talent, visibility, startup funding, or customers is almost impossible if none of your stakeholders understand the purpose behind your company’s existence.
Few employees (mostly the wrong ones) join a company only for the paycheck, investors look beyond the figures, and customers make decisions based on more than price.
How to communicate your purpose
Communicating your purpose starts with having and putting into words a strong mission and vision for your business.
The goal is to captivate, excite, and inspire others.
Your vision answers the question of why your company exists. Your communications strategy needs to be closely connected to your vision or purpose. When you are deciding on communications tools and tactics, it is important to check that they relate and connect to your startup’s purpose.
For years, marketing and communications professionals have connected their goals to the company’s goals. It is time to make an equally strong connection to the company’s purpose. Startups have an edge in this respect: there is no legacy communications strategy to alter or adapt. Instead, you can create your winning strategy with your purpose at its center right from the beginning.
How to integrate purpose in your communications
Communicating purpose is about more than simply adding a few phrases at the end of a commercial or a press release. It is about putting your “why” at the center of everything you communicate. Take the car manufacturer Porsche, for example. Their brand is about exclusivity and aspiration, and each piece of communication supports this. The company produces cars but markets and communicates an aspirational lifestyle.
The cosmetics brand Dove is another example of purpose-driven communications. Several years ago, Dove launched its “Campaign for Real Beauty”, aimed at helping women feel comfortable in their own skin. Rather than using professional models in their adverts, Dove chose average women to showcase their products.
The company took things further and made their purpose visible on their website: images carry a “no digital distortion” mark. The mark makes it clear that the image of the woman has not been digitally enhanced. There are no impossibly thin waistlines or extremely long legs, generally associated with photoshopped images. Dove has become synonymous with supporting female self-esteem. In the process, the brand’s sales increased from $2.5 billion to $4 billion during the campaign’s first ten years.
The power of a strong narrative
Companies that communicate their purpose often have a strong narrative at the core of their brand.
They have understood that simply talking about the features of a product or service is not enough.
There will always be another product with more features offered at a lower price. Sharing your narrative gives customers a stronger reason to purchase and can turn them into repeat customers over time.
Once again, as a startup in its early stages, you are at an advantage. Stakeholders, including potential investors, love hearing stories: growth projections are important, but stories will make you memorable and unique. A game-changer. For most early-stage startups, the story of the founders and the story of the company are intertwined.
Elements of strong narratives
Strong narratives have several elements in common.
Specifics will vary depending on you, the industry you are operating in, and your product or service. Once customized to your business, the elements listed below should be part of every successful communications strategy.
Authenticity and personality
Most of the current and especially the future consumers, and investors as well as potential employees have grown up surrounded by advertising and marketing messages.
They are (over-)saturated by claims of companies being the best at what they do or selling the cheapest product. Consumers are looking for value beyond the price tag. As a startup, this is both challenging and reassuring. As your customers are looking to connect with brands at a deeper level, you can tap into your narrative to deliver a genuine connection.
Don’t just tell your story, draw your customers into it. Video is an excellent medium to achieve that. Showing your journey from the kitchen table or the back of a napkin to the finished product inspires your audience more than facts and figures ever could.
Showing your cleaners are genuinely happy convinces (and converts) the most hesitant individual who was considered how your workers are treated.
As a founder, you are the main protagonist of your story. Antagonist is the current circumstances that you and your client will face together.
No matter what you are selling, whether you are in a B2C or B2B environment, you are selling to people who like to buy from people.
Many people are fascinated by your journey as a founder. Not taking advantage of that would mean foregoing a huge opportunity.
Being understandable and relatable
It’s easy to fall into the trap of too much jargon, but using jargon directly contradicts the concept of authenticity. It will make you and your startup sound like all the other startups out there, and it may even deter others from your product or service.
Consider this scenario: you have developed a service or product that is the first of its kind. As exciting as it is to be first, it also means you are likely to face a lot of skepticism about the viability of your creation and its usefulness. After all, people have managed so far without it. If you can explain your purpose, your startup’s, and your product’s purpose in simple words that make it clear just how much your invention will change users’ lives, your audience is more likely to engage.
Keep your purpose relatable. Naturally, you want to tell a success story, but few successes were achieved without failures along the way. Keep your narrative real: customers are more likely to stay loyal to a brand that apologizes for a mistake and then rectifies it.
Startups make wring choices, and then have to adjust to a new situation. This may not be the narrative you had envisaged, but it will help connect to your customers.
Admitting failure makes your startup human.
Customizing the narrative to your audiences
Your communications strategy needs to reach different audiences. Four of the most common audiences for startups are potential investors, journalists or other awareness authorities, early customers, and your first employees. Inspiring each of these audiences will take a tailored approach but all of those involve a close connection to your purpose.
It is true that potential investors need to see that you understand your figures. However, there is nothing quite like a strong narrative to help set you apart from other founders. Imagine spending an entire day hearing one pitch after the next. Potential investors are more likely to remember your startup if you presented a clear vision.
Journalists and other awareness authorities (podcasters, streamers, TV hosts) want to serve their audience and as a personal brand, being placed next to something cool. Figure out what their own audience would enjoy to get them excited about our story.
Customers are buying your product or service – or are they? Today’s customers are looking for more than the lowest price or the fanciest features. You may be the cheapest this week, but it is easy for a competitor to beat you on that next week. The same goes for a product’s features. Having a purpose at the core of your startup, something that reaches beyond profit and loss spreadsheets helps build customer loyalty beyond pricing and features.
How easy is it for startups to hire their first employees? At the moment, countless countries are lamenting a shortage of qualified personnel. This suggests that there are more job openings than people looking for work. As a startup, an inspiring purpose is one of your strongest selling points when it comes to attracting sought-after talent. Established companies are likely to offer better perks to prospective employees. However, for many professionals, there is something quite irresistible about joining a company that excites them, where they feel they can truly make a difference.
Whilst your communications need to be customized to your audience, they need to show your purpose clearly to be successful.
Think of your vision as the most succinct, distilled version of your purpose. Your narrative is its counterpart, explaining thought processes, developments, and adding detail.
Even one goal of your startup’s communications strategy is to tell your story to your different audiences, the best narratives resonate to every single audience. In most cases, your purpose as a startup founder is intrinsically linked to your company’s purpose. This reason for the organization’s existence needs to be at the heart of your communications strategy.
To develop a strong narrative, it is important to stay true to your own and the company’s story. At the same time, the most effective communications strategies and tactics are tailored to the audiences they are aiming to reach.
Staying authentic and relatable creates a strong connection to customers, inspires prospective employees and sources of awareness, and convinces potential investors that your startup is the real thing they don't want to miss out.
Communicating your purpose effectively will set you apart from the crowd in the startup world.