How do you create a purpose-led business?

Activating Purpose

Are you at a stage in your life where you are beginning to wonder what your legacy will be?  Or maybe you’re at the end of where you want to go with the corporate 9-5 and are looking for a worthwhile escape route? Do you feel it’s about time you were in business for yourself?  If you’re going to take the plunge and create a new business, why not build something which is going to have an impact on the future sustainability of our planet and create a purpose-led business.  That doesn’t mean you have to know everything there is to know about sustainability, it just means you’re going to build a business with purpose.  So how do you start the process of creating a purpose-led enterprise?

Let’s just qualify what I mean by purpose-led enterprise.  It’s not a global definition, it’s my view.  It’s not about finding your passion, although passion has a role to play.  It’s not about living a passionate life.  It’s not even a discussion about whether you can make a living out of something you’re passionate about.  It’s about a deliberate choice that if you are going to create a business, you choose for it to be purposeful.

And by that I mean that you will be aiming to address key social and environmental issues facing the planet, your country, your county, your town or your community at some level.  Now I can’t imagine that you won’t be passionate about it, or that it won’t have some kind of link to an issue or subject you feel passionately about.  But just to be clear: this is not about ‘I love knitting and I want to create a business and a lifestyle around knitting.’  Absolutely no offence to all you knitters out there.

A purpose-led enterprise is shaped around four things – if you want it to last and have impact.  They are:-

  • What you love and care about – the intersection of passion and purpose
  • What you’re good at – things you do naturally well and are highly experienced at doing (note you can also choose to create a business where you buy in those skills and in an area of adjacency to your career history)
  • What the world needs – it needs a lot of help so there’s a lot of choice
  • What you can get paid for – last but not least and extremely important

Now if it was that simple, everyone would be doing it.  Of course in each pillar there are many questions to be asked and obstacles to be overcome.  There are legal structures, funding raising and finance, brand development, culture, operations, partnerships etc – all those good things to be considered.  But here in this post we’re just starting by refining an idea. So here are some very simple pointers on each of the pillars to get you started.

What you Love and Care About

If you already have a single minded vision and know exactly where you want to focus your efforts, great. If you’re anything like me, this is a very long list. Here is where the first hiccups can happen.  To succeed you need a very clear mission on which to focus and it has to be something around which a business or social enterprise or charity can be built.

  • If you care about the lack of self esteem in children, you can create a funded campaign, an educational programme for schools, a parenting business.  These are respectively a charity, a social enterprise and a commercial business.
  • If you have a haulage business, you might find your stakeholders care passionately about the refugee crisis and want to integrate that into your business as one of my clients has done.
  • If you care passionately about biodiversity loss – especially bees – you might choose to develop a lavender business, or a plant business which focuses on encouraging gardeners only to design using bee-friendly plants. Another client.
  • If you care about quality of life in ageing populations and the loneliness epidemic, you can design care homes in a way which integrates the community of all ages, and introduces passion-reviving experiences like dance, singing and storytelling – as a good friend of mine is doing.

There are many roads to Rome.

If you’re a bit confused at this stage because you have many different things you care deeply about, know this.  If you want to create a successful, sustainable enterprise, at some point you have to choose where you’re going to put your efforts.

This is also an excellent time if you haven’t done much personal development work on yourself to get started.

What the World Needs

The world needs a hell of a lot of help right now.  One of the best places to start are the UN Sustainable Development Goals or Global Goals.  After 15 years of working on the Millennial Development Goals, this is the set of priorities laid out by the United Nations that need to be addressed for a sustainable future for all life on the planet

There may be only 17, but each one covers a multitude of areas in which to act.  I believe anyone making the decision to go into purpose-led business of any kind should start here.  If you’re going to develop a purposeful enterprise, why not make sure it’s something the world is desperate for.

Let’s take just one Goal: Sustainable Cities.  In 2014, 54% of the world’s population lived in cities. By 2050 over 70% of the world’s population will live and work in cities. Many world cities are unpleasant places to life and work.  The air quality is poor, they are expensive, draining on health and high on stress.  The world’s your oyster if you care about the future of sustainable cities.

  • You can build a business that designs bio-walls like Biotecture.
  • You can design flooring which captures electricity and data like Pavegen.
  • You can run educational workshops on growing food from pots on rooftops.
  • You can design and build affordable housing.
  • You can crowd fund to acquire green spaces where terminally ill patients can have access to outdoor recuperation, and their families can grow organic vegetables (one of my ideas I haven’t got around to implementing yet – tut tut).
  • You can invent an app which tells people which hotels, restaurants and public shopping malls have the best air quality so that consumers can encourage better air management by voting with their feet.
  • You can reinvent spaces to be socially inclusive and environmentally educational like The Medicine Garden

Ok, because I get excited about possibilities, let’s try one more:  Life Below Water. Many people have heard of the damage being done to coral reefs around the world.  Some people have heard of the problem of plastic pollution in our oceans. Most people will know that some fish stocks are critically low, if not fished out, and that some of our deep ocean-going mammals are under threat of extinction.

Love eating fish?

  • Build an acquaculture business of the future, improving fish farming both in terms of affordability, health (currently a challenge), and animal welfare
  • Launch a fish food business promoting sustainable fish, write a cook book, hold cooking workshops where you have to catch your own first like Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall
  • Build an alternative food business; it looks like kelp farming is taking off all around the world. We need huge spaces to make it commercial, but it’s definitely do-able.

Love engineering and inventing?

  • Invent tools and techniques to capture plastic and convert it into something useful or buoys that capture rubbish
  • Invent a submersible that can get to the bottom of the deepest trench in the world

Love sealife, nature and travelling?

  • Launch a whale watching business in the Azores and educate schools at the same time
  • Launch a diving business where customers only go to contaminated/damaged reefs and collect data and information as well as rubbish while learning to dive.
  • Teach hotels how to teach customers to be more sustainable tourists.

In case you’re wondering, these are all real start-ups underway today.

What you’re good at

Now I’m sure you know what you’re good at.  Or do you?  Funnily enough many of us don’t.  This is especially true if you have been doing something for such a long time that you are naturally good at it and take your skills for granted.  You might not even know any more exactly how you do something.

That was certainly true for me when it comes to developing creative brand communications. It’s so second nature to me, I had no idea at first to explain what my special gifts were in doing that.  It happens to be about lateral thinking and joining dots to form new patterns other people don’t see.  Once I understood that joining dots was one of my core skill sets I realised that creating events and conferences where I bring real experts and specialists together to share insights and knowledge was a possibility for me.  I don’t have deep insights myself, but I a really very good at taking someone else’s insights and making it bigger and better that they had ever thought it was possible to be.  This made me naturally good at PR, at creative brand propositions, and at putting together educational courses and teaching.

It is really worth taking some time to think about this if you’re unsure and you’re likely to be creating a smaller or local initiative or business.  You need to be sure what you can do yourself, what you should be doing and what services, expertise and support you’re going to bring in.

It’s equally important if you’re planning on building something sizeable.  Often it takes several years of planning to put together the right team for launch.  You need to work out who all the groups are whose support you’re going to need, look at the collaborations you could make, the partnerships you could forge and the people you need to hire or bring into your business.

What You Can Be Paid For

Critical. If no one wants to pay you to do it, or no-one want stop give you funding or no-one wants to make donations, you’re never going to get off the blocks.  So validating your idea in the ‘real’ world is essential. How do you do that?

Fail fast is one of those little maxims in the start-up zone that can be a little irritating but has a really good intention behind it.  The challenge in failing fast sits somewhere between how long it takes in the preparation to get a good concept off the ground in a way that it is successful and sustainable, and finding fast ways to know that your idea is viable as an enterprise.  Given that we’ve already said some businesses are up to 2 years in the planning before they launch, what do we have as a framework that we can measure our own progress by. Here’s a good approach:-

  1. Deconstruct your purposeful idea into a 1-page business model
  2. Test whether your business model is worth pursuing
  3. Identify what’s riskiest in your business model
  4. Systematically stress test your business model through experiments
  5. Define, build, and launch a minimum viable product (MVP)
  6. Find paying customers using an offer

Let’s look at a couple of these points.  How do you create a one page business model? Ash Maurya’s LeanStack and The Business Canvas both offer fast ways to validate an idea by creating a simple business model that can be done in up to 20 minutes and is easily read an understood.  Soon my own model Purpose On A Page will be available online .  It adds purpose, values, mission, social impact and environmental impact to these existing models in a way which will be better suited to businesses that are purpose-led.

How do you test a Minimum Viable Product?

What’s a Minimum Viable Product? Eric Ries now describes it as ‘the smallest thing you can build that lets you quickly make it around the build/measure/learn loop’ and Ash Maurya ‘the smallest thing you can build that delivers customer value (and as a bonus captures some of that value back’).  Now depending on your business it could take a lot more investment to get to one MVP than another, so in some cases you are going to have to go by market research and data.  Let’s consider a few different cases of products I have tested myself.

Online course in Personal Resilience Training for Entrepreneurs

Many change makers I work with suffer from  burn out.  Although I was helping with their business and brand strategy, this was often the critical area that holds them back from creating real long-term impact.  Now you could easily say that wasn’t my job.  But as I have a Masters in Psychology and have done a lot of work on my own personal resilience, I felt there was potential for adding extra value to my clients through live training and an online course. What did I do before I decided to introduce this product to my consultancy services?

  • Looked at market information: there are a handful of other online courses in resilience.  Those on Udemy have sold relatively well, they are of two very different types. One theoretical and almost academic, the other delivered through animated shorts.  The fact that there are really only 2 courses could indicate a market opportunity or no market appetite at all. In assessing this market data you would need to know a) how Udemy works (i.e. not all sales are made at the price shown) b) whether the individuals were good at marketing and their audience targets. This information alone isn’t good enough to know if you’ve got a market opportunity.
  • Tested the best possible post I could write on resilience through targeted Facebook advertising, followed up by a webinar and course sale,  and studied conversion rates.  All this is dependent on knowing exactly how to find your audience on Facebook, having a high conversion sales page and an engaging webinar.
  • Target a specific audience live (fire brigade) and test course content with local station and seek feedback.

Outlay: in terms of time, probably 14 days for the whole process; cost under £500; long term market opportunity assessed as reasonable future return as a value-added product although quite a stretch for existing clients to accept from my brand initially.

Family Educational Experiences in Indigenous Wisdom & Nature

I have a strong belief that we need to reconnect ourselves with nature, and recognise again that we are part of a single whole living system, to really address the grand challenges we face as a planet.  This project was an opportunity I saw to start through educational experiences with families and children by bringing indigenous tribes to the UK to share their knowledge and wisdom through fun weekend experiences.  Here’s how I tested the market:-

  • Partnered with a single school with a captive audience
  • Created a programme presentation for parents evening
  • Tested 3 variations on weekend experiences over a single Summer
  • Learned, adapted, developed a product for the following Summer (this year)

Time: 6 months part time to pull the programme together; delivered over 1 month full time over 5 days a week. Future prospects for developing additional school experiences in year 2 plus educational partnership with schools long term deemed highly possible and currently under way. The initial cost of the presentation and materials to sign families onto the programme was negligible, no website was created, just a simple brochure with a single web page payment portal.  Inwards investment was cost of uniforms for staff, equipment and facilities hire, accommodation & transport for indigenous teams (travel paid by their own organisations), food & beverage, insurance etc.

These are two very different product propositions.  One is part of delivering services to entrepreneurs and an additional value-added product within my consultancy work; the second is a completely new business venture.

Let’s consider an even longer term business: Pavegen.   Pavegen harnesses kinetic energy and data through flooring to provide electricity and information to support more sustainable cities in the future.  It took this company 6 years and 129 prototypes, several funding rounds and a lot of hard marketing before they arrived at a truly commercial product. Their MVP was probably the first prototype which showed that it was possible to generate electricity from footfall; a very simple mechanical foot engineered in the founder’s bedroom and with the help of Loughborough University labs. Created on a shoestring budget and one man’s vision.

Again there are many roads to Rome.  What is essential is that early on in your business vision and model, you work out how you are going to test the market for the purpose and value you are bringing.

If you would like to speak to me about how you could create a purpose-led business, do get in touch either through the comment box below or email me at  Don’t hesitate!  It’s the fastest growing business sector, the most engaged, and the most profitable!




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