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Look to the RNLI for the reasons to have a purpose of your startup

October 11, 2016

The RNLI is the charity that saves lives at sea, providing on call, a 24-hour lifeboat search and rescue service around the UK and Ireland. With lifeboats, lifeguards, safety advice and flood rescue, they are committed to saving lives.

When their pager beeps to call them to the lifeboat station, breakfast, dinner or tea, the volunteer crew leave their families at a moment’s notice to commit to their purpose of saving lives at sea. I imagine that countless meals have gone cold or been left uneaten.

To me, it is an organisation of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I like the way they have framed their purpose as an organisation, with simplicity and clarity: The RNLI saves lives at sea.

The RNLI has saved more than 139,000 lives since its foundation in 1824. The charity was founded, with royal patronage, as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck after an appeal made by Sir William Hillary. Hillary lived in Douglas on the Isle of Man, and had witnessed the wrecking of dozens of ships from his home.

The name was changed to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1854, and cork lifejackets were first issued to crew members that year. In 1891, the first RNLI street collection was held in Manchester. The C20th saw the RNLI continue to save lives through two world wars, and lifeboats moved from sail and oar power to petrol and diesel, and the first women joined their crews.

Without doubt, the bravery, performance and contribution of the teams of voluntary lifeboat men and women can give us clear learning points to take into our business about teamwork. However, at the heart of a great organisational success you will see a team transformed from a collection of individuals into a single entity with a shared identity – team members become a plurality with a single-minded focus and purpose.

It’s the concept of a clear, shared purpose of an organisation, and how the RNLI have captured this, which is the key learning for me to explore in this blog, and why it is essential a startup defines it’s north star around a clearly articulated purpose.

I define ‘purpose’ as Organisational purpose expresses the company’s fundamental value – the raison d’etre or over-riding reason for existing. It is the end to which the strategy is directed, why the organisation exists in the first place and what ultimately matters in its work.

Research shows that most people want their organisation to
have a purpose beyond making money. A purpose
of simply maximising profit leads to employee disenchantment and a lack of loyalty and commitment. In contrast, an invigorating purpose conveys something distinctive that is uplifting.

Leaders draw people into a shared sense of purpose by creating a distinctive, well-crafted and compelling vision of the organisation’s future. This is essential for a startup in terms of attracting and retaining early employees and early adopter customers, as advocates.

Harking back to the RNLI, although the organisation has significantly expanded its services and its geographical presence since 1824, its core purpose remains the same – the charity that saves lives at sea. This unifying purpose underpins the organisation’s vision, values and strategic and operational priorities.

How the purpose enables the RNLI business model offers insight for startups. For example, all its funding is from donations, the general public give to the RNLI because they respect the purpose and the work the organisation and lifeboat crews do. Maintaining the organisation’s reputation amongst the general public is thus key to sustaining the organisation’s business model.

Also aligned to the organisation’s core purpose is maintaining a strong volunteer ethos. This ethos enables the RNLI to prioritise spending on areas that allow it to achieve its core purpose, as opposed to staffing costs.

What also resonates with startups is that the purpose helps with high levels of organisational engagement too. While most staff find it relatively easy to identify with the organisation’s core purpose, not all staff find it so easy to appreciate the impact of their individual contribution on the wider purpose of saving lives at sea.

For a startup, the thinking that it should stand for something bigger than profit has become an important dialogue around creating customer engagement. When your customers can identify what you stand for and why you do what you do, this creates alignment with their own values.

The hard part is figuring out how to make it more than just words. For purpose to really count, it needs to go beyond an initiative or fine words of intent that sit around the organisation. It needs to be a central part of ‘why we do what we do’ and customers can see tangible existence in your every day work.

I find that entrepreneurs want to make a profitable living, but their purpose is to make a difference. Creating a culture of purpose is how you do both, create enduring customer value and leaving clear footprints. Simon Sinek’s work where he states people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it captures this.

This is why you must find the deeper purpose of your business. Here are some example of deeper business purposes:

  • An architect’s practice: Architecture design that inspires.
  • A furniture factory: The most beautiful tables in the world
  • An electrical contracting business: You’re in safe hands

If you were in the market for a table, wouldn’t you like to check out the furniture factory? Of course you would.

For other examples of purpose, look at ING, the financial services company Empowering people to stay a step ahead in life and in business, the Kellogg food company Nourishing families so they can flourish and thrive and IAG, the insurance company, To help people manage risk and recover from the hardship of unexpected loss

A good example comes from Volvo, which found its new purpose by looking to its customers’ needs, rather than simply their demands. Their purpose is epitomised in its company slogan: human made – making people’s lives easier, safer, better. To help in this came a new organisational approach to reinforce the new ways of working, with new independence, which in turn led to new ways of thinking. Volvo is focused on its customer-centric purpose.

For your startup, you need to have the same clarity on your north star as the RNLI and the corporates highlighted above for your purpose, and then you need to know how to do this in a manner that make a difference to your customers. Some companies are obsessed with growth, and have forgotten to see the real purpose they started up in the first place.

Having a purpose creates a sustainable and scalable competitive advantage. Competing on price is not a sustainable strategy for success of your startup. You can avoid having to compete on price if the purpose of your business relates to your customer’s needs.

Focusing on profit as the purpose of your startup has one major flaw: your customers have no interest in supporting you to just make money. They are quite happy for you to make a profit, but only after you have met their needs and delivered value first.

In other words, customers want you to explain to them why your business exists, what it is here for and why they should care. In working with my startup clients to find the deeper purpose of their business, I always ask them those questions first and invariably I get the following three answers:

We do great work. At a great price. And we give great customer service.

Undoubtedly true, but all your customers expect those three qualities as a bare minimum starting point and secondly, your competition makes exactly the same three claims.

So, as a startup, what is the purpose of your business? Have you clarity of this? Do you ever think about that throughout the course of the day? Ten years ago I would have gone with Peter Drucker’s answer – The purpose of a business is to create a customer. Today, after years of working with several hundred small business owners this very question, I have to say that your why matters more than just your what.

I had one client who’s reply to my question What is your purpose? was to provide the highest quality technical support within the terms of the service level agreement. An interesting answer, sincere intent, but is it a genuine purpose, or a KPI? It certainly could be a valid purpose, but surely it is description of what the business does. It’s the thing they do which, if they do it well, will achieve their purpose. It wasn’t their Why?

In the end, we reworked it and decided that the purpose of the business was to enable customers to continue to trade in the event of a technical failure. That was the problem their customers paid them to solve and where they made a difference and it created alignment. With this definition of their purpose, it was easy to see how they could grow the business.

Founders need to truly believe in the purpose of their company. Although many of us see Facebook as a social media platform, founder Mark Zuckerberg encompassed his personal vision in the purpose of his company.

Through Facebook, Zuckerberg aims to give everyone in the world the power to share and make the world more open and connected. By making the mission personal to the founder, it is authentic and sets the tone to attract a like-minded, vision-aligned team where everyone is working towards something in which they can believe.

A purpose-driven organisation believes it can advance society by harnessing the influence and power of its impact. The company’s purpose provides the fundamental reason for its existence and underpins its product or service offering. That’s exactly what the RNLI is all about, and is an authentic role model for startups.

If you do believe in purposeful organisations, then support the RNLI. This weekend, 14-16 October, there is a major fund raising event, Host a Fish Supper. The RNLI ask that seasoned chefs and amateurs alike dish up the fish for their friends and family in a fun themed evening.Every penny raised helps to protect the brave crew and the families who love them. Visit the Fish Supper website to sign up and receive your free fundraising kit full of recipes http://fishsupper.rnli.org/

Purpose really comes down to mindset that taps into your sense of being. At dna people, my purpose is to help build a more entrepreneurial society. I want to enable innovation with purpose from people with great ideas, intelligently investing in the future. My purpose drives me to ask better questions – to challenge, inspire and unlock new solutions. Why am I doing this? Because, quite simply, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else, it’s my purpose.

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