TNW València is here 🇪🇸 Pre-register for 2024

This article was published on August 23, 2015

How to find your company’s purpose

How to find your company’s purpose
Leon Jacobs
Story by

Leon Jacobs

I recently flew across the world with an airline that for all intents and purposes shouldn’t exist.

South African Airways has been so poorly mismanaged that it relies on government bailouts to keep it afloat (or ‘aflight’ in their case).

Everything about my recent experience was a reminder of the systemic failure that grips the company: I had a check-in lady scream at me while I was speaking with my travel partners like I was a misbehaving child, and on a 15-hour leg of the journey I was seated near a lavatory door that spoke dolphin. Every time it was opened or closed it let out a high-pitched squeak.

After some time thinking about it (I had more than enough on the plane ride) I realised that whatever caused the check-in lady to raise her voice was the same thing that prevents the maintenance staff from oiling the hinges on the bathroom door.

Airplane Lights

The company isn’t just out of cash. It’s out of drive. Out of morale. Out of purpose.

The importance of purpose

Purpose tends to be a wishy washy concept that flies over people’s heads. Especially in a business context.

Yet, defining a business’s purpose is the most important strategic decision any entrepreneur can make.

And neglecting to do so can have disastrous consequences.

Purpose speaks to the core of the business place. It is the more nuanced answer to the questions: Why does this business exist? What role does it play in society? What does it offer to the world in exchange for money?

Most entrepreneurs can answer that question with some level of certainty.

  • We plumb pipes.
  • We bake bread.
  • We code apps.
  • We fix cars.

But real purpose goes beyond those surface-level answers. Figuring out your business’s true purpose means discovering what deep emotional benefit you deliver. Or at the very least, finding out what makes you memorable and distinguishable from the competition.

View of hundreds of documents in the arc

Evernote: A planet with the memory of an elephant

Consider Evernote for a second.

A superficial observation would be that they produce and maintain a suite of apps and cloud-based software suited to taking and keeping notes and other keepsakes.

But take a closer look at the logo.


Do you see that little elephant? In folklore and science alike, elephants are known as the animal with the longest memory (an elephant never forgets!)

This speaks directly to the deep emotional purpose that drives the Evernote brand: To be the world’s memory.

This is such a simple, yet profound statement—one that is easy to grasp and makes everyone who comes into contact with the brand understand what they are about.

Beyond just being a rallying point for the company, this purpose provides a useful north star for employees thinking about future product development and design.

With this purpose in mind when a team sits down to imagine a new note-taking app for a tablet they’re thinking: how will this new extension help us to serve our purpose of being the world’s memory.

The purpose is the invisible force that holds everything together. Like the wind that moves the leaves of the tree, so the purpose stirs every part of the company to move in a unified way.

But my business is too small to have a purpose…

You may wonder if all this talk is only relevant to big companies—the ones who aren’t fighting for survival, but for their place in history.

Not at all. The smallest business can and should have a purpose to distinguish itself from its rivals and to make it clear to its customers how it can fit into their lives—and ultimately, why they need it.

movable type

Let’s look at another simple, hypothetical example:

Imagine you have an auto mechanical workshop. You can advertise that you offer friendly service and low prices, or you can let your business revolve around a purpose. Such as: Making sure you get to your destination safely.

Now that you have a simple and relatable purpose you can let that purpose guide your business and how you communicate with potential customers:

  • Give away branded maps of the area to customers: because that is another way for people to know where they are going.
  • Sponsor traffic updates on the local radio station: because knowing about traffic jams gets you there quicker and with less risk.
  • Buy Adwords on Google Maps for local area searches: because when people are looking up an address they are thinking about going somewhere.
  • Give away branded GPS to loyal customers: the device that helps you get there.

Now, instead of just advertising empty clichés you are amplifying your core purpose through single-minded messaging and backing it up with actions.

When a potential customer gets in touch with your business they will believe it when you say your mission is to ensure their car is reliable so you and your loved ones can get where you need to go, safely.

A step-by-step guide to finding your purpose

Now that you understand that purpose drives your entire business you may wonder how to go about defining it.

A great place to start is with a recursive mind game I call the Benefit of game.

Take a blank sheet of paper and write down simply what your business does.

paper pad

Ask yourself: What’s the benefit of that? and write it down below the first statement. Ask the same question about your answer and write below.

Keep going along the same pattern as many times as you can. Try not to give up until you have gone through at least seven iterations.

It really helps to go through this exercise in a multi-player environment. So play it with a friend, partner, or spouse. Even better, play it with a kid.

And play it with more than one person. You may find that central themes emerge but eventually you will find something that will not just inspire you and the people that work with you, but also make your business memorable and attractive to your audience—who are actually just made up of people like you and me.

If you’ve been honest in your questions and answers you should have a pretty advanced and deeply insightful statement blinking back at your from the bottom of the page.

Here’s an example of how this might play out for a bakery:

Proposed purpose: We bake artisanal bread.

What’s the benefit of that?
We fill your tummy like in the old days.

What’s the benefit of that?
We take away your hunger and make you feel nostalgic.

What’s the benefit of that?
We make you feel as safe as you did when you were a child.

What’s the benefit of that?
Purpose: Bread that is comfort

With a few simple steps you’ve gone from bread, to bread with a story and a unique difference. Now it is up to you figure out how to apply that in your business whether that means using it to steer your corporate identity, shape the interior design of your bakery, or, of course, influence your marketing strategy.

Whether you’re going through a major rebrand or sitting in your living room planning world domination it’s never too early to define your company’s core purpose.

Your purpose is the DNA of your business. It’s code that you inject into everything you do so that you come out with a unified shape, movement, and direction. Above all, your purpose is a way of saying you’re here for more than the money. You’re here to make a difference.

Read Next: Want tech to be more human? Then build purpose into every action

Image credit: Shutterstock

This post first appeared on the Crew Blog

Get the TNW newsletter

Get the most important tech news in your inbox each week.