Why your ‘why’ is so important (and how to find it)

13th October 2022

What’s in a ‘why’? Well, where small businesses are concerned, pretty much everything.

Um…what’s a ‘why’ in the first place?

If you aren’t familiar with the term, your ‘why’ is your brand purpose; it’s the reason you do the thing you do (making money to keep the lights on buy petrol aside). Like fingerprints, snowflakes, or the 1001 excuses you use to justify not going to gym, all ‘whys’ are different. Sure – there might be other small businesses that are guided by similar purposes, but the way they implement and communicate their ‘why’ will be completely different to the way you do.

At the risk of sounding like a first-year Philosophy student, why is a ‘why’ so important?

It’s simple: your why informs your entire business story and operational strategy: from the way you deal with customers and suppliers, to the way you package, market, and sell your products. Take outdoor apparel brand Patagonia, arguably the epitome of a purpose-driven business. Their why? “Patagonia is in business to save our home planet.” A bold statement, but one that’s propelled the business to massive success and enabled it to make remarkable contributions to a multitude of environmental causes. As Corley Kenna, Patagonia’s Director of Global Communication explains in this interview, “Yvon Chouinard founded the company so that people could explore wild places, which led him to the conclusion that the company should also be in the business of protecting wild places”. In a testament to Chouinard’s commitment to Patagonia’s why, he recently gave ! the ! entire ! company ! away!  to a trust that will channel all of its profits into environmental efforts

Obviously, this move isn’t realistic for the average small business owner (Chouinard is a billionaire after all), but learning from Patagonia’s approach to embodying their why is something you can do to set your business up for success.

As Simon Sinek – author and inspirational speaker – explains in his now infamous TED talk on the topic, customers don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

Despite this, the majority of businesses (big and small alike), talk about their ‘what’ (the products or services they sell) or their ‘how’ (the way they go about it). And that’s… fine. But it results in pretty mediocre messaging that leaves customers feeling, well, not much at all. On the flipside, when you talk about your ‘why’, you have the opportunity to forge a connection with potential customers. For example, if Patagonia‘s why was based on the fact that their outdoor apparel is of high quality, or that they’ve been around for decades, it’s highly unlikely that the brand would be as successful as it is today. Why? Because there are a bunch of other outdoor clothing companies that say the same thing. On the flipside, a ‘why’ like “We’re in the business of saving our home planet” is something that people care about, connect to, and want to support. Case in point: Patagonia’s total revenue in 2021 was US$18.1 million.

In other words, your ‘why’ is the deciding factor on where people spend their money. And the people who resonate with your ‘why’ are those who go on to become loyal customers and ultimately, brand advocates.

Before we get into how you can pinpoint your ‘why’, we asked a few Yoco merchants about their ‘why’. This is what they had to say:

Cedar Coffee Roasters

The brainchild of Leigh Wenzel and Winston Thomas, Cedar Coffee Roasters began around the living room table in Leigh’s family home on Cedar Road in Thornton, Cape Town.  

“We want more people to drink better coffee, that’s our ‘why’”, says Winston. “Our first experience of coffee was instant coffee. Cedar wants to bridge the gap between the person who’s still drinking instant coffee and the person who’s drinking high-quality specialty coffee.”

(You can follow the up-and-coming coffee roastery on Instagram: @cedarcofeeroasters)

Pot Plant Club

Luke Doman and Salik Harris of Pot Plant Club attribute the drive behind everything they do to “A desire to create a richer cultural life for young people who see a little bit of themselves in our story. As people from previously disadvantaged backgrounds, we feel a duty to make things easier for younger generations – Pot Plant Club is a manifestation of that duty.”

Located in Bree Street, Cape Town, Pot Plant Club embodies their ‘why’ via a unique mix of established and emerging local and international clothing brands. (You can check them out at @pot.plant.club)

Ikhasi Uniforms

Thuli Jaqu, the name behind Ikhasi Uniforms, says her local community is at the heart of everything she does. Thuli started her business after seeing local parents struggling to find school uniforms due to a limited number of suppliers. Her mom gifted her a sewing machine in 2021 and she hasn’t looked back since. After winning R25 000 worth of prizes to grow her business in a competition Yoco ran in partnership with Metro FM, Thuli invested in industrial machines enabling her to increase production and extend her range to include sports and church wear too.

(Follow Thuli as she makes an impact in her community one school uniform at a time over on Facebook)

Now that you’ve got some inspo, let’s get started with the first step in using your ‘why’ as a competitive advantage: defining it

It’s easy to forget the reason why you do what you do (and then channel this ‘why’ into growing your business) when you’re juggling multiple balls and dealing with everyday admin. If you do know your ‘why’, and have it taped up front and centre of your office/store/bathroom mirror (or heck, even tattooed on your chest) – congratulations! You may now have a nap instead of reading the rest of this article. 

If you haven’t defined your ‘why’ – now’s the chance. Grab your preferred note-taking apparatus, find a quiet spot and/or your headphones and let’s get to it.

Begin by answering the questions below (or as many of them that resonate).

I’ve included hypothetical answers about my imaginary business: Right Meow: the Uber of Catsitters, to illustrate the kind of info you’re after.

What inspired your business idea?
I couldn’t find a cat sitter at 8pm on a Friday night.

What problem is your business trying to solve?
A shortage of vetted, trustworthy cat-obsessed cat sitters who are available at short notice. 

How does your business add value to your customers?
My customers get the priceless benefit of peace of mind that their feline babies are well looked-after, on demand.

How has your business evolved? Erm…TBC.

Is there a specific cause your business is supporting?
My bank balance
(don’t write this).

What do you believe in—personally and professionally?
Fairies (this is also an example of what NOT to write).

As you can see from my “answers”, the last few questions didn’t resonate and resulted in ridiculously useless info. However, the first ones gave me something to work with. From the above, I’d define my ‘why’ as “Connecting owners with catsitters who love their cats as much as they do.” Hopefully; you’ll be left with a clear idea of your ‘why’ too – one of the most important steps in running a purpose-driven business that fosters connection with the people who matter.

Keep an eye out for Part Two, where I’ll discuss practical strategies for putting your ‘why’ to work.