Finding purpose is, arguably, one of the fundamental quests of humankind. From ancient Chinese philosophers to modern time visionaries, we’ve asked the same question when learning and doing: “Why?”

The Japanese has a term for our purpose called “ikigai”, which loosely translates to a reason for being. This reason lies at the intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world needs.

Whether you’re building a startup or running a business, discovering your purpose is necessary, not optional. Bestselling author Simon Sinek popularised this concept in his book “Finding Your Why”. He emphasised that figuring out your why should come before the what and the how of your product or service. It turns out purpose is a critical building block for successful businesses.

Why is your why crucial in product development?

1. Your why creates your product vision

Your product should solve a problem or meet a need. And asking why will help define exactly that. When you understand why you’re building a solution, then the product vision, strategy, and roadmap creates itself. Everything else will fall into place seamlessly.

There are many different types of purposes, from monetary and personal fulfilment to social change. As tempting as it sounds, making a lot of money from your product should not be a primary reason. Profit is the result of building genuinely useful products. Without it, turning a profit is difficult.

When I started Relab Studios, I was looking at how to offer bespoke digital product design services without the hefty price tag and long development timeframe. This middle ground is what our company thrives on.

2. Your loyal customers are invested in your why

Sinek argues that your customers are more interested in your product’s why than what and how.

Think about it. Everyone started small. To grow your startup, you must develop a base of loyal customers who will vouch and advocate for you. And you can easily do that with a purpose-led product.

These are some interesting stats for you to ponder:

Customers are more likely to forgive genuine mistakes when they believe in your purpose. This happens when your core purpose becomes a part or an extension of your customers’ identities.

3. It’s easier to get buy-in from teams

For a lot of people, a job isn’t just a job. We crave for something deeper than that monthly pay check. A strong product vision can band people towards one goal.

It goes beyond that. Passion and enthusiasm are contagious in a group. One bright spark can carry the whole team forward. Projects and meetings become simpler when teams support a common cause. And your team is more likely to avoid burning out at work.

4. Your why is a compass towards a great product

When you’ve hit a roadblock, feel lost or confused, it helps to circle back to the why of the product. Asking why will cut down on any bells and whistles in the product, whittling it down to its core purpose.

And because you’re constantly trying to fulfil a purpose, you will also constantly be improving your product. You’ll ask the right questions, fix critical issues, and build the right things iteratively, until you arrive at a product good enough for customers.

How to find your why

1. Find a problem worth solving

Sometimes, the problem is crystal clear to you because you’ve been facing the issue for a long time. In this case, it is much easier to muster the passion for it, because it is personal to you.

Sometimes, the problem is not clear in your head. You may have a range of problems you’re keen to solve and build products for.

List down all the issues and ask yourself:

  • Which problem resonates more with you?
  • Which issue keeps pulling you back to it?
  • Would solving the problem give you a high level of satisfaction?
  • Would you regret not attempting to tackle the issue?
  • Would you be proud of yourself for trying, even if you failed to solve the issue?

Call it gut instinct or intuition. Either way, there’s a part of you that already knows the truth. You just need to drown out all external noise to listen to it.

2. Keep asking questions

Maybe you’re not quite sure what you’re solving or who you’re solving for.

Keep asking questions. Talk to people who are facing the same problem. Listen to their gripes and you will find a common theme. It will give you greater clarity and direction to your purpose. After all, these people could potentially be your customers.

It’s important to keep questioning, even when there’s an existing product for it. Because no solution is perfect, and there is always an improvement you can build on.

3. Fall in love with problems, not solutions

Many entrepreneurs fall into the trap of obsessively loving their ideas.

When you do this, you’re setting boundaries on your solution. You’re less likely to listen to your team and customers. You may argue senselessly, ignore feedback, facts, and research that can improve your product. And when you make a wrong turn, you’re less likely to scrap everything and rebuild from scratch.

But if you love the problem you’re trying to solve, instead of your ideas, the solution is now secondary. You’re not as invested in the product. You care more about the challenge, and whether the product is the best answer for it.

And if it wasn’t? You have no qualms to start from page 1 again.

4. Stop thinking, start doing

Business coach Marie Forleo says, “Clarity comes from engagement.”

The best way to find your reason is to dip your toes in the water. By applying the design thinking approach, you can identify what the actual problem is and why it’s vital to resolve the issue.

Design thinking puts potential customers and users at the centre stage. By getting to know your customers better, you’re able to empathise with their challenges, and craft a deep and meaningful purpose for your business or product.

5. Craft your mission statement

Keep your why simple and actionable. Don’t overcomplicate your purpose. Don’t be tempted to embellish it, extrapolate it, or add any assumptions. Keeping it open ended leaves plenty of room for further investigation, ideas, and solutions.

To illustrate with an example, Relab Academy’s purpose is as simple as this:

“To help people learn how to build digital products quickly, simply, and effectively.”

What are examples of mission statements?

Sergei Brin and Larry Page wanted to download the whole Internet and be able to search for whatever they need instantly. This was the birth of Google, during a time when web pages were growing exponentially, and other search engines were plastered with ads. Bill Gates envisioned a world where personal computers were easily available for everyday people.

The Body Shop founder, Dame Anita Roddick, believed it was possible to be ethical in business. She promoted fair trade, used natural ingredients, and banned testing on animals way back in the 70s, long before such practices were considered cool.

“Business shapes the world. It is capable of changing society in almost any way you can imagine.”

Dame Anita Roddick

You’ve probably read all about big brands and their purposes. I’m paying homage to the little guys. The smaller brands that deserve a worthy mention for the social impact they are cultivating.

1. Thankyou brand – Reducing extreme poverty

This is a home grown brand in Australia. They sell everyday goods such as hand wash and nappies, contributing 100% of whatever remains to the Thankyou charitable trust, with a mission to reduce extreme poverty globally.

2. Nadaam – The world’s fairest cashmere

One of the reasons cashmere is expensive is due to various mark-ups from traders, brokers and big brand names. Nadaam cuts the middlemen of cashmere trading and buys raw materials from nomadic goat herders in Mongolian dessert. This gives herders a fairer share of the economic pie, and the company gets to sell cashmere clothing at reasonable prices.

3. Everlane – Ethical factories with transparent pricing

Everlane is against using sweat shops in third world countries. They sell fashion made only in ethical factories with fair wages, reasonable hours, and good working environment. Going even further, the brand publishes the true cost of materials, labour, shipping, and taxes for their bestselling products, and the mark-up amount they charge – leaving consumers to decide how fair it is.

So, what’s your purpose? Does your product have a greater cause it fights for? I hope this gets you thinking about the impact you could make no matter how small your business.

Alvin Hermanto

Alvin Hermanto

Alvin Hermanto is a design leader who is passionate about practicality, quality, and human-centred design. As founder of award winning digital design agency, Relab, his clients include leading businesses in retail, education, real estate, and hospitality. He has personally grown Relab to be one of Australia’s leading design sprint agencies. You’ll find him speaking at design sprint, business, and educational events. His mission is simple: help others build and launch products faster without compromising quality or sacrificing user satisfaction. He also thrives on mentoring small businesses and startups, getting them to simplify processes, build better businesses and create productive teams.