Hack The Why

Three hacks to finding the purpose behind your startup faster.

My previous post noted the question that caught me unprepared during a pitch for my first startup:

What’s your motivation?

Though I knew the answer implicitly, I wasn’t ready to share the raw version. Here I want to examine the importance of identifying purpose as a founder. I should let you know that I won’t be sharing the purpose behind my startup in this post. Rather, I’m looking at others; I think that’s a useful part of the journey, and I’ll share my own in a post to come.

So, why is a founder, or group of founders, the best provider of a given solution?

It’s an important question but how much self-actualization is required before you know you’re ‘the one’. Surely I can be clear enough in my motives to build something that people want.

For early stage founders, the test lies at that moment when you’re put on the spot as I was. ‘Why do you want to do this?’ is the kind of big, cumbersome question that makes me want to look for a hack.

Unearthing The Why

One idea to address this interview question is to prepare an answer that sounds right. This approach works for some interviews, but it’s a false economy. If the prepared response suffices — you may be in the wrong interview. Those with rigour and discipline to unearth the true why will be partners that challenge, stretch and improve your execution.

What do I mean by rigour and discipline? I give you Toyota’s Five Why’s. A good interviewer confronted with a non-authentic why will repeat the question with various syntax and context until they get the answer that isn’t prepared. When all other words fail, the real ones will be all that is left. This style of cross-examination is far less sinister than it sounds; it’s quite natural for high-value decisions.

I was buying a car recently and noticed myself using this technique without even realising. The hotly contested SUV market in Australia has 36 competitors selling over 30,000 vehicles per month. Every 18 months it evolves substantially, and I’d been out of the market for three years. To get up to speed on the new features I quizzed sales people across dealerships. When I found a gap or inconsistency between their responses and my reading, I pushed to learn why.

Potential investors aren’t the only party to dig in when hearing a non-authentic why. Those that you rely on will ask you a version of these questions before you get started. Journalists, bloggers, podcasters will always cover this area because it can be the juiciest bit of your product story.

Last week Startup Smart recorded a podcast at General AssemblyMelbourne. The panel had a diverse set of experiences in social change, and the discussion touched on the founder/solution fit — referred as the why. Each founder startup held a clearly articulated reason for being; together setting a stellar example.

The panel was asked about their why. Jarryd Burns, co-founder at Thankyou Group, used a word in his response, which I’ll detail further in a moment, that initially struck me as out of place but soon made sense. The word was anger.

It seemed that anger was a shortcut, or hack, to arrive at your why without the cost of a self-discovery world tour. I’ve since thought of two more hacks and hope, amongst the three, you find a method that suits you.

Hack 1: Find your angry thing

What’s the thing that makes you angry? Not a generic pet hates like traffic or bill shock. What pain point indexes higher with you than the rest of the population. Jarryd’s answer nailed this and in lieu of a recording (I can’t find the published podcast just yet) I have a TEDx talk from another Thankyou Group co-founder, Daniel Flynn.

The founders of the Thankyou group were incensed that so many people, 900 million, had to do without the basic freedom of clean water. Juxtaposed against the large sum of money, $600 million, spent on clean water by Australians for the sake of convenience. Surely, with some planning, one figure could help the other.

The important bit here is that these founders didn’t stop at anger; they turned that motivation into a force for change. After eight years Thankyou Group has a variety of products stocked in Australia’s largest supermarkets to drive social change projects around the world.

Hack 2: Find guidance through others

This second hack is one that has helped me in developing productivity software. In comparison to social change, a B2B product can feel somewhat self-serving. I saw this interview around a year ago where Bill Gates, who transitioned from large-scale B2B products to large-scale social change, drew an interesting link.

He argues that the downstream benefits of development scale far better than direct donations.

It’s far more impactful than doing that as a handout.

In particular, he mentions Word and Excel as tools that enabled productivity. It’s a big idea — think of how publishing and law have benefited from a common drafting platform in Word. Think of how many finance and data science concepts are taught through Excel. Both tools are tremendous gateways to, well, lots of stuff.

The purpose of creating a useful tool is further removed from the end result, but the value is immense. Open source movements like Node JS hold this sense of scale close to their heart — creating, for many, the power to create.

Hack 3: It’s your minimum endeavour

For this hack, you’ll need to take a little walk with me down hypothetical lane. It’s an idea borrowed from the ‘mincome’ concept — a Guaranteed Basic Income from governments to citizens. It’s covered in depth by this Freakonomics podcast from April (heard through PK Rasam).

Without diving headlong into the for and against of this concept I’ll let it set the background of this brief scenario (excuse the bullet points):

  • The bots have taken over, turns out everyone is fine with it
  • there’re a few bookkeeping issues but (see next point)
  • burgers, organic food, coffee and love are free
  • work is optional, but you need to do something to secure a minimum income
  • this means you could teach, work out, serve tacos or whatever
  • it doesn’t matter what it is, just as long as it’s an endeavour of some kind

So, what’s your minimum endeavour?

I hope these hacks help; if they do, please let me know. If you have a different approach, drop a note in the comments below.