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Chris Ashby
September 21, 2021

The Single Most Important Lesson I Learnt from Starting My Own Business

How the most important things are often not what you think, and the power of asking ‘why’

Photo by The 77 Human Needs System on Unsplash

When I left my 9–5 job during the pandemic to start my own business, some people thought I was crazy.

But I wasn’t alone. Thousands of others out on furlough, or made redundant were also making this decision as well.

And I have to be honest. Going into small business ownership even when you have a plan can seem very daunting, especially when faced with the statistics. 60% of new businesses fail in the first 3 years they say. I can see why.

What proceeded my decision to start my own company though, was the most intense, and condensed period of learning and self-development I have ever had in my whole life.

I have learnt so much over the last year. About business, life, psychology, storytelling, finances, tax, strategy, motivation, planning, management, and so much more. Some of the most important lessons that I wish I had been taught when I was at school, or university. Some of which I probably was, but simply forgot over time.

It has been nothing short of incredible, and I’m still going through it as we speak. Hustling to find product/market fit, driving sales through as many channels as I can. Helping and speaking to countless people. Sometimes feeling like I’m shouting into the abyss as it stares into my soul, and other times leaping for joy out of my desk chair.

Thankfully, the single most important lesson I learned, one that pervades multiple forms of business advice from the legendary e-myth to Chris Do’s teachings on The Futur, came fairly early in my journey.

And at a time where the number of small businesses and startups is soaring, this couldn’t be more important.

Here it is.

Instead of worrying about ‘what’ you do, focus instead on ‘why’ you do it, and ‘how’ you do it differently

This is the secret formula if there ever was one.

Now it certainly won’t replace the hard work, but what it will do is this:

  • Provide you with a motivation and sense of purpose that runs deeper than any single activity or job — the story that connects and draws people to you
  • Give you a unique process that nobody else can steal — the way you do things that puts you in a field of your own

These are the two most powerful attributes of your business. These are the things that swing your prospective customers decision in your favour. This is how you create a shared vision that can engage and capture people when you need to hire staff.

But why are these two questions so powerful?

Let’s dig into each a little bit more.

Answering ‘why’ for yourself

Knowing why you are doing what you do is probably the single most important thing to uncover when starting your business. It controls and directs everything you do, and for good reason.

Knowing why impacts not only you, but your potential customers as well. ‘Why’ is incredibly powerful.

Simply put, ‘why’ gives purpose to everything you do. It is a guiding principle, that you can refer back to when you aren’t sure what to do next, or whether an idea has value or not.

Because of that, ‘why’ helps you in numerous ways. Not having a ‘why’ is the reason that a lot of businesses and even resolutions or commitments fail.

Because why helps you:

  • Understand your deep motivation when you just want to quit
  • Gives you a long term goal to which you can aspire to
  • Gives you a deeper sense of purpose that what you are doing actually matters
  • Allows you to frame what you do in the context of its value to other people

Think of the ‘why’ as the driving force behind going to work on your business every day. The reason that you do what you do. The feeling or the message that you want to communicate to your customers when they are in your presence.

‘Why’ is intangible, but people can feel it. ‘Why’ creates an inertia, a gravitational pull that draws people to you when they come into contact with you. ‘Why’ is magnetic.

It took me a long time to figure out, but my why is this:

‘To give startups and small businesses creative confidence, and to empower them to grow through design.’

The thing is, that might change, and that’s ok. And it might take testing the waters with your first clients to figure out what your why is. The ‘why’ is not always static, it can be iterative, especially in the early stages of a business. But as soon as you have a ‘why’, it suddenly puts every single thing you do into context.

Answering ‘why’ for your business

The second part of answering ‘why’ is about what it gives your business.

Most people who have previously done a job, and done it very well (technicians as the e-myth refers to them), know exactly what they want their business to do when they start it.

The trouble is, you then compete with every single other business who offers the same service.

This is where ‘why’ comes in, and why answering ‘why’ is incredibly powerful. You already know what you want your business to do — in fact you’ve done it for years already but just for other people!

Knowing ‘why’ is also incredibly important when it comes to scaling your business, and giving your staff (and you) a sense of purpose, and belonging.

As Jordan Peterson says, we must have a noble pursuit or aim to enable ourselves to cope with the inevitable suffering of life. It enables us a positive outlook on life, and it enables us to focus on something bigger than ourselves in order to give our lives purpose. And the best companies in the world, create an almost cult-like sense of purpose for their teams, and their staff, all focused around a central mission or ‘why’.

Answering ‘why’ helps your business to:

  • Differentiate itself from competitors based on something more powerful than what — by using a belief, and by showing what you care about
  • Create a feeling that no other company has, an emotional differentiation that users latch onto
  • Provide your staff and teams with a sense of purpose, so that they too can feel fulfilled and happy doing the best work they can
  • Create a stickiness to your company so that customers want to come back to you again and again

For example in my business, with my ‘why’ of empowering startups to have creative confidence and grow through design, I hopefully can create a sense of confidence with every prospective startup that I engage with. I can give them the sense that not only will we complete their design, but it will be perfectly aligned with their business objectives, because that’s our mission, that’s what we do, and they feel confidence in that decision.

Everything I have chosen flows from that why, from the colours of the branding, to the business name, to the tone of voice and copy.

The e-myth breaks this down further into different systems you create for your business, but the key is always the ‘why’.

Answering ‘how’, using your ‘why’

The last part of this important lesson I learned was in then constructing the ‘how’.

Or more simply put: creating a unique process through which to deliver my ‘why’.

Because ‘why’ by itself, although incredibly powerful, is nothing without a ‘how’.

‘How’ takes the ‘why’ and makes it tangible, it puts it into a form that prospective customers can understand.

They see:

  • Here’s a company that can give me what I want
  • Here’s why they do it, and why I can trust them
  • Here’s how they deliver what I want differently to everyone else

Think about what you do, and then go back to your answer for why you do it.

Then think of a unique process that you could deliver those through. Something that people can see value in, something that appears as value for money, and something that is different to anything offered in your market by your competitors.

In fact, you can even go and look at your competitors, and take parts of their process and mould it into something new.

Nike don’t sell a different product to Adidas, but they do create those products for a different reason, they have a different ‘why’, and they deliver those products in a different way. In a way that makes people queue outside sneaker stores waiting for the latest drop. In a way that makes people specifically fans of their brand. In a way that makes people come back to them time and time again.

And similar to the ‘why’, your ‘how’ can be iterative. Don’t be scared to create something quickly and test it. Put your ‘how’ idea out there, get feedback on it, speak to prospective customers, trial it with your first customers, and let it evolve over time.

What is your ‘why’? And how does that change your ‘how’?

Nobodies journey to business ownership or success is easy. If it was easy everyone would be doing it.

But one way to give yourself a better chance of success than the rest is to answer these questions.

Find your ‘why’, and that will keep you going when you’re burning the midnight oil cold messaging potential customers.

Find your ‘how’, and create a niche of your own within your industry, where potential customers see a unique value in your process, and trust and love your business because of it.

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