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Why You Need to Start With Your Why to Build a Business That Matters If you want to build a business that is great, makes an impact and can grow, you need to start with why. That way, you will have a vision that you can follow and your team and customers can embrace.

By Pepe Marais

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

You're reading Entrepreneur South Africa, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

Devin Lester

I finally got to meet the man in charge of the creative product of Google since 2011. He could not have known the journey I had taken during the previous eight weeks to get me to that point, as he reached out to shake my hand.

"Hi, I'm Steve, pleased to meet you.' Our Joe Public Shift team in Johannesburg had designed a set of fonts using the handwriting of 300 children from our partner school in Soweto.

We had built a website from which these fonts could be purchased, and each font sold would contribute to the tertiary education of the child who wrote that font. We needed traffic to our "Fonts for the Future' website, and our idea was to change the Google logo into the handwriting of a child, and so entice people to click through to our website.

Steve was blown away. "It's an incredible idea. How many schools do you say you support?' I responded with similar enthusiasm, "Two.' To which Steve replied, "I am so sorry, Pepe, but we only get involved with things of the scale of the 2004 tsunami.'

My perspective expanded in that moment. Vision expands your thinking. Without vision, I will only ever impact two schools at the most. With vision, I will unleash a tsunami of events that may just culminate in a country that is a shining example to the world.

Most entrepreneurs start their businesses without any clarity on exactly why they are doing it, where they ultimately want to head and how to fill that massive space in between. We simply start, hang on for dear life, and hope for the best.

I cannot help but wonder if this could be the reason that nine out of ten entrepreneurial businesses will fail in the first three years, and another nine out of ten will close their doors over the next seven years. The net effect is that only one entrepreneurial business out of every 100 actually lasts and succeeds beyond ten years.

In June 2012, after 14 years in business and having survived two recessions, we took the time to clarify our vision. We had defined our purpose, our reason for being, and were crystal clear on why we existed, on where we came from, as the core cause of our business. It was finally time to decide where we were heading — our due course; our North Star.

I arranged a Vision workshop on a Saturday, which would run from 8am to 11am sharp. The participants were main shareholders Gareth Leck, Marty Laurent, Xolisa Dyeshana and me. Having attended a five-day vision workshop for my personal life five years before, I had created a simplified methodology to assist us in finding ours as a business.

One of the tools of my workshop was Otto Scharmer's U-Process, an aspect I remain grateful for to this day because if it weren't for this process, we would never have co-created the vision we strive towards today. And not because the U-Process unearthed our vision; on the contrary, it exposed me to an insight that made me shut my mouth for once and allow those around me to create what they really wanted.

Since I was clear on my personal vision for my life, I wanted the vision of our business to be aligned to my personal vision, literally to the same words, to simplify my approach to life. This need would have completely excluded the opinions of my three partners.

However, during Otto Scharmer's U-Process, I was given a simple insight from the depth of my unconscious mind: If I allow others to do what they want, I will get exactly what I want. Based on this little pearl of wisdom, I withdrew from participating and merely managed the process, watching the critical thinking of my partners unfold.

At 10:57am, exactly three minutes before the planned end of our session, they refined their thinking into one simple statement: To create an organisation that inspires greatness. The moment was right, the energy within the statement was right. And, just like that, our vision was born. Joe Public now had a purpose: Growth.

To be the fertile soil that grows our people, our clients and our country. And we had a vision: To create an organisation that inspires greatness. All that was missing was the how, the daily delivery that would join the two dots between where we came from, and where we wanted to go in the future.

During the next month I again ran a host of workshops, including all our people, towards defining our five key values — the daily behaviour that we would like to instil within our people, a guide for all those within our business and all future Joes who might join our fold. As it turned out, there would be quite a few. Our values would become:

  • Creativity — to stretch your mind to make magic.
  • Excellence — to be better than your best, then better.
  • Integrity — to be true, do what you say you will do.
  • Respect — to hold yourself and others in the highest regard.
  • And Leadership — to inspire others to grow by growing yourself.


I was standing in front of the board of directors of a very astute South African corporation. It's a R12 billion enterprise, with 2 500 people in its employ. Over the course of the past nine years, I have run 17 purpose workshops for business — 15 for smaller entrepreneurial concerns. The one I was about to conduct would be my second engagement with a large corporation.

And, although most of those businesses might not have rigorously implemented the insights gained from our engagement, I remain excited by the opportunity to influence any other organisations that cross my path and encourage them to find their greater business purpose.

In Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, he too talks about 2,5% of people being trailblazers. The methodology he refers to further confirms the insight that only two out of every 100 people who gain new knowledge will have the discipline, desire and drive to implement such learnings into their businesses.

Which means that I would have to conduct another 83 workshops to find that second elusive trailblazer, Joe Public United possibly being the first. Again, I am reminded that all the knowledge in the world has no power at all. It's the application of new knowledge that will assist you in taking your business to spectacular heights.

It was warm in the boardroom, and I was perspiring bullets under my armpits. I had stepped into growth, and the proof was felt through the butterflies in my gut. But I would not be taking off my tweed jacket because there was simply no way that these corporate boys and girls were going to see me sweat. By now everyone was looking at me in anticipation, albeit with a slight sense of apprehension in the air.

I took a sip of water to drown my butterflies, and started the session by asking my standard, first round, opening question, "If you could describe what your business stands for in one word, what would that word be?' One after the other, all eleven executive members of the board responded. I wrote each of their words down on the white board for all eyes to see, the truth staring back at them in black on white.

"One simple question, eleven different answers. If you are this unclear as to why your business exists, imagine the lack of clarity amongst the 2 500 people who work for you.' And, just like that, I had the undivided attention of every person in the room. EM

This article is an edited extract from Pepe Marais's book Growing Greatness: A Journey Towards Personal and Business Mastery.

Pepe Marais

Group Chief Creative Officer and a founding partner of Joe Public United.

Pepe Marais is Group Chief Creative Officer and a founding partner of Joe Public United. He is Chairman of One School at a Time and the author of Growing Greatness: A Journey Towards Personal and Business Mastery. 
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