This article was published in the Winter 2021 issue
by Brent Alvord, Co-founder, CEO of Mighty Labs, Inc.
The purpose of your organization is to carry a change that you want to see happen into the world. Whether a startup or a fortune 500 company, leaders must consider deeply what that change is, and remain maniacally focused on it in order to succeed. The purpose of your organization serves as a “North Star” that keeps you constantly focused on the right customer and the right product, and helps you attract the right talent and investors. Perhaps most importantly, your purpose will motivate and sustain you. Without purpose, it will be a bumpy road. Here’s why:
Launching a new business can be a fickle thing. Ideas that seem brilliant on Tuesday can lose their luster by Wednesday. Steve Blank famously said a startup is, “a temporary organization designed to look for a business model.” Some days you’ll feel like you’re likely the next billion dollar company, and the next day you’ll wonder if you’re going to fail. That’s natural, but those are the times — especially early in the process — where it’s easy to ask why you’re doing this. Nothing kills a promising new business idea faster than a founder and its team simply losing interest. Sometimes the only sustaining motivation is the realization that you aren’t here to build a product -- you’re here to achieve a purpose and power a movement.
Marketing is time-consuming and expensive. The world is noisy and it’s very hard to get noticed. But if you have a clear purpose, I guarantee you someone else in the world feels the same way. This has to do with your niche, your tribe, your early customers. From the founding of Salesforce, Steve Benioff’s promise and message was, “No more software.” If he had instead started with, “A better CRM,” I think it would have turned out very differently. First, because Salesforce actually wasn’t a better CRM in the beginning (nor will your first product be the best [anything]), but also because he attracted his tribe and sliced through the noise in the market. He was actually marketing the cloud. By getting very clear about your purpose upfront and attaching your outbound messaging to that purpose, you can dramatically reduce marketing and sales costs and amplify your appeal to a select, core group of customers. Many will even find you! And just as importantly, they’ll share what they’ve found with other like-minded people.
Remaining focused on the change you want to see in the world is perhaps the most difficult when it comes to product, especially in the early days. You see dollar signs from potential customers who say, “If only you did x, y, or z, then we’ll buy.” It is incredibly easy to veer even 10 degrees off course. But shipping product, as they say, is a one-way street. You must think carefully about what you build and why. I cover “product” after “customer” in this article because I think it’s important to attract customers that align with your purpose, or else the temptation to veer toward dollars and away from your purpose is almost too great, and can easily outweigh your better judgement and the pressure you’re feeling to deliver revenue. That might pay off in the short term (that’s a big “maybe”), but honestly, the product you ship won’t carry your heart, it won’t be as good, and probably won’t solve the problem of that customer very well. This easily happens when you haven’t found your tribe -- all your customers are different, they have different motives and needs, and all their requests will be different. It’s hard to maintain your North Star in that scenario. However, if you lead with purpose and find your tribe, you’ll see surprising patterns in product feedback, feature requests, and even concepts they steer you away from (just as important).
Hiring is hard. Hiring the “right” people is even harder. Attracting talent is similar to attracting customers -- find your tribe, be clear about your purpose, and oftentimes many in that tribe will find you too! This is important at every stage, as two people with the same skills on paper could perform very differently in the same company because their personal motivations may align very differently to your company’s purpose. It’s especially important at the founding stages of a company, as it influences everything you do, the culture you build, and the values you represent. All of those elements show up in your product, your marketing, and the outcome. I can’t overstate how aligned the founding team needs to be on their purpose. If you get that right, and remain focused on it, you can iterate through all sorts of ideas and not lose your way. The ideas that best achieve your purpose and the purpose of your customers will likely boil to the top. Without alignment there, you’ll wander into conflict.
Like the others, it’s all about attracting the right people. Investors can be extremely helpful on your journey. If they care about the change you’re trying to make in the world, they’re more likely to invest and be constructive with ideas because they’ve been thinking about the same problems. Just as importantly though, it’s not only about their ideas, but also because they have a network of friends who probably care about that change in the world too. Sometimes even a small degree of separation in purpose can make a big difference on whether someone goes to bat for you or not. Sure, they may have dollars at work, but their minds will be elsewhere. Make sure they know what you’re aiming for, and find people of like interest.
I’ve become a purpose-nerd over time. I didn’t start out that way and I’ve paid for it. I’ve found it to be a critical learning loop, or check and balance, which influences everything you deliver to your customers, your team, your investors, and the world. Purpose also scales very well. Can you imagine if Whole Foods, founded in the late 1970’s, responded “yes” to a customer asking for them to also carry, say, Fruit Loops? I’m very certain management was asked to carry “normal” food so customers didn’t have to make a second stop to buy that tomato soup their kids would actually eat. Whole Foods said no. They still say no. Whole Foods had their purpose, they found their tribe, and they stuck to it. They were part of a larger movement that carried them to what they are today. If they bent to the Fruit Loops pressure early on, I think it would have turned out very differently for Whole Foods. You can do the same! But you first have to find that North Star and stay maniacally focused on it. It’s so much harder than it sounds. You can do it.
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