Looking For A Business Idea? Start With Your Purpose

Here's a completely different way of developing a business idea. Instead of focusing on a problem worth solving, focus on the purpose that drives you.
Looking For A Business Idea? Start With Your Purpose
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Have you ever tried to come up with a new business idea? For some entrepreneurs, the idea comes naturally — perhaps it came from a familiar industry, or there was an unsolved problem that the founder experienced first-hand. But not every aspiring founder has a clear idea of exactly what that business should do. So, where to start?

Many business schools will recommend a set formulation: First, start by identifying a problem in the world or in your life. Then develop a solution. There are other methods, of course — like assessing personal skills and abilities, using design thinking, undertaking market research, and so on. But one element often gets overlooked, or left as an afterthought.

That element is a sense of purpose. It isn't just the driving force of a business; it can also be the seed of a business idea.

Purpose before problem

In this alternative formulation, a sense of purpose — both individual and corporate — comes first, and helps to guide the rest of the process. Forget quickly drawing up your corporate mission as a last-minute addition to your pitch deck. Instead, try asking yourself the following questions before you even begin:

  • What is my personal purpose?
  • What purpose would I like my business to work towards?
  • Which ultimate goals drive my ambition?

Once you have a few initial thoughts, see if you can go deeper still. You may have heard of the Five Whys method, originally used in a corporate context to get to the core of an issue. Here, you can also apply it to your own purpose-finding journey. Ask yourself, "What is my personal purpose?" Come up with an answer. Then challenge that answer by asking, "Why?" Repeat that five times (hence the Five Whys), as a way of getting closer to the core of what drives you. This is essential — not just as a personal self-awareness initiative, but as a key aspect of your business plan.

For example, let’s say you start with the following answer: "My purpose is to be successful in work." Why? Maybe it’s because you’d be happy if things went well with your work. Why? It could be that you can see how your work impacts others, and this gives you a sense of pride. Why? Because you want to do work that matters. Why? Because you want to feel like your work contributes to the world, or gives back in some way. Why? Maybe you want to feel like you left the world a better place, and it’s important to you that your work reflects the values you believe in.

There’s no right or wrong way to work through this method. It’s just a tool to help you explore your intentions in more depth. You don’t have to end up with an answer about changing the world, either. If it’s meaningful to you (for example, living with authenticity, taking care of your family, or connecting with your community), it should be included.

Back to business

Let’s say you’ve uncovered a foundational sense of purpose, or you’ve looked at your personal mission in a little more detail. What next? There are a couple of ways you can use a sense of purpose to guide a business plan.

First, you can return to the traditional model of finding a problem in an existing market and then searching for a solution — but this time, look at it through the lens of purpose. Taking a broad example, if your purpose was to "create happiness for others" (borrowing from The Disney Institute), you can look at your market problem through this lens. How could you find a solution to your problem that would not just serve a functional, profit-driven outcome, but also serve your purpose of maximising happiness? Applying the purpose lens might lead you to a different way of addressing the problem, or a different approach to the issue altogether.

Second, you can use your sense of purpose to actually formulate the business idea itself, and locate your market, problem and solution. Take beauty disruptor Glossier as an example. Their corporate mission statement is to "democratise beauty" and to "give voice through beauty." The result, for Glossier, is a consumer-focused company with an emphasis on inclusivity. But by starting with the mission statement alone, you could brainstorm hundreds of other ideas that work towards the same purpose. This is a process of creativity, and — if you’re thinking about generating business ideas for yourself — you can use your personal sense of purpose as a starting point.

Finally, you can realign an existing business idea to reflect your personal mission and purpose. Let’s say you’ve already seen a market problem, found a solution, validated it with consumers and started to build. A sense of purpose is still an important part of your strategy, no matter what stage you’re at. At this later stage, try to work out exactly what need you’re meeting for your customers or users. This might go one level deeper than just a product or service. Think about values, experience and personal connection. From there, you can work backwards to see what kind of purpose your company serves.

The purpose of purpose

What’s the point of all of this purpose-finding work? When it comes to the entrepreneurial lifestyle — long hours, perseverance, exhaustion — does having a sense of purpose help? In fact, research indicates that it does.

A recent study by Harvard Business Review suggests that entrepreneurs with a sense of "harmonious passion" (i.e., motivated by the job because it brings a sense of satisfaction and personal identification) were less likely to report experiences of burnout than entrepreneurs with a sense of "obsessive passion" (i.e., motivated by the job because of the status, money or other external rewards).

From a practical perspective, building a strong corporate purpose into my own startup has given me clarity at every later stage of the process — in pitching to prospective investors, in formulating business strategy, and in giving me a vision for the future.

On a more personal level, having a sense of purpose can provide the energy and drive you need to continue working on your business, day after day, year after year. Once the initial excitement of a new project fades, and you’re left with the difficult, consistent work of building your business, you’ll have a solid foundation of meaning, mission and purpose to support you.

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