How Important is Purpose to a Startup?

When Steve Jobs came back to Apple he came back to a mess: little to no market share, declining revenue, and almost on the verge of bankruptcy. He turned the company around simply by focusing on what the company had long overlooked: their core purpose.

According to Nilofer Merchant, a former Apple employee, and founder of Rubicon:

“He refocused the strategy to be about one thing. That meant he killed off even good things. I led server channel management at Apple when Jobs returned to the company in 1997, and I was there when he made the decision to shut down big portions of revenue-generating businesses (including my division) because they didn’t fit with his vision for the company. Some people thought he was crazy. But he was being extremely clear, and in doing so, he ‘MurderBoarded’—eliminated many options to get one cohesive strategy—his way to greatness.”

According to Jobs:

“Apple was in very serious trouble. Apple had to remember who Apple was because they’d forgotten who Apple was.”

How has this “purpose-driven” strategy worked for Apple? Check out this image to see.

Yeah…same thing I said!

But let’s be honest, did we start businesses to save kittens? No! We did it to make money.

Plain and simple.

However, keep in mind, those companies that have a purpose beyond making money end up making more money than those with no purpose.

I know this sounds like some touchy-feely, hand-holding nonsense! I understand that. But purpose is anything but nonsense, its a viable business strategy. Having a core purpose:

  • Focuses time and money on the most important
  • Makes decisions easier (“Is it in line with our core purpose? Ok…do it” “It’s not? Don’t do it”)
  • Invigorates staff
  • Fosters visionary ideas and meaningful innovation
  • Recruits purpose-drive people

It’s a known fact that great companies like Wal-Mart, Southwest Airlines, Charles Schwab, and BMW are all purpose-driven. In fact, John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, repeatedly stresses the importance of companies having a core purpose.

These entrepreneurs do more than make money, they “change the world!” Don’t get me wrong–they make money (a ton in fact) but, they also set out to change the world in some way.

Whether it’s a Coca-Cola:
“To refresh the world; to inspire moments of optimism and happiness; to create value and make a difference.”

Or the early Ford:
“To democratize the automobile.”

Or a Google:
“To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Disclaimer: Purpose alone done not build a company, things like strong leadership, great teams, good financial fundamentals, and great products do. Purpose and “passion” can’t build a company if:

  • You can’t make money from it
  • There’s no market for it
  • No demand for it
  • No business model to support it

What do the experts say?

But rather than just take my word for it I decided to tap my network to see what they had to say. I wanted to see if this “purpose” thing held any weight in the real world:
“Being on a mission and having a vision for your company allows you to wake up everyday and not just worry about your bank account. When you are energized by something that you believe in other than dollar signs, your business becomes your purpose.There is nothing better than waking up everyday on a mission!”

–Matt Wilson (@MattWilsonTV), co-founder

“Is purpose important? Well, of course it is! I think you for sure need to have clear goals and objectives that go beyond just sales. For example, one of our purposes at SocialMediaExaminer is to help the general community of marketers.If you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, one day you’ll wake up and question everything.

–Michael Steltzner (@Mike_Stelzner), founder of Social Media Examiner and author of Writing White Papers.

“Even if their core business is not in the social entrepreneurship space,Upstarts (Gen Y startups) are frequently driven to infuse their companies with a greater sense of purpose right at the startup stage—before they‘re profitable or have achieved any notable scale.”

–Donna Fenn (@DonnaFenn), author of UPstarts!: How Gen Y are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit from their Success, contributing editor at Inc., and blogger at BNET.

“Having a purpose is important as it will serve as a road map for your business. When circumstances, people and/or your business model changes, you can look to your purpose to make sure you are still on the right track.”

–Sakita Holley (@MissSuccess), president of House of Success a NY based public relations firm.

“I recently met Larry Ackerman who wrote The Identity Circle. He has an interesting take on the purpose question. He says, all organizations are created on a specific ‘life force’ which never changes. This life force came from the founders when they determined ‘who we are’ and ‘what purpose we are fulfilling in the market’ which makes up their core identity. When the company stays on track with this core identity, it can succeed. If they try to veer away from this, even to become more responsible, they will not sustain the change. Products can change as long as they remain tied to the core identity. When a company thinks it has to make a drastic change to stay competitive, they will lose the race if they veer to far away from this identity.”

–Marcia Reynolds (@MarciaReynolds), author of the best-selling book Wander Woman: How High Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction, president of Covisioning, LLC, and blogger for Huffington Post and Psychology Today

But what do you think? Is purpose a viable business strategy? Is it essential to a startup? Is it is right for yours?