Building (and Sustaining) a Purpose-Driven Business
Instilling a company with a strong sense of purpose is no longer optional – it's crucial to success and expansion.
Robert E.G. Beens, co-founder and CEO of Startpage, shares his advice for executives looking to bake purpose into their brand and takes a look at how some of the world’s biggest companies have done the same.
While the definition may vary as to what it means for a business to be purpose-driven, fundamentally it comes down to delivering services, products or a mission aligned with values that drive the organisation to become a force for positive change in the world. While a “nice to have” at one time, establishing and following through on a higher organizational purpose is quickly becoming a necessity as more consumers call for businesses to stand for something meaningful and practice transparency.
As the co-founder and CEO of a trusted, 14-year-old private search engine, Startpage, people have asked how I built, and sustained, a purpose-driven business. Before founding Startpage, I was CEO of Ixquick, a meta search engine business, where I saw the ethical dangers of logging people’s search behavior early on. Aggregate search behavior from daily online searches, in combination with IP addresses or cookies, creates extensive personal profiles vulnerable to State interception and commercial exploitation. I encouraged our leadership to do some tough reflection on whether this use of people’s online data was in the best interests of our community. It wasn’t. From there, Startpage, the world’s first and most private search engine, was born in 2006. It was a risk (we chose a completely different path to our competitors at the time), but it was the right thing to do.
So why is purpose-driven business important and how are other organisations around the world creating positive change for people and the planet?
While the definition may vary as to what it means for a business to be purpose-driven, fundamentally it comes down to delivering services, products or a mission aligned with values that drive the organisation to become a force for positive change in the world.
The importance of authenticity and transparency
In 1914, the Ford Motor Company became one of the first businesses to see both profit and purpose as important to the livelihood of an organisation, stunning the world when Henry Ford raised wages. Since then, others have reflected on how their own businesses can impact communities and users. At Startpage, we pride ourselves on developing products and features that allow users to search the Internet in a private and secure way. Other examples include:
Patagonia, a global clothing company, could have taken the easy route (fast fashion), but not only has it led with purpose for nearly its entire 47-year existence, but it doubled down in 2018, changing its brand mission to be more authentic. Patagonia made the shift and announced that it was “in business to save our home planet,” making its values and purpose clear.
Having always been environmentally conscious, the company keeps leaning further into environmental activism. Following years of expanding its second-hand clothing initiative, investing in sustainable startups and launching a tool to connect its customers to environmental organisations, the company revised its brand mission and solidified what it stood for.
The popular European burger chain MAX Burgers announced a “Climate-positive Burger” in 2018. The company understood that becoming climate neutral was not enough. Instead, it chose to be transparent and shared how it planned to act on fighting climate change, altering how it would serve its popular burgers by decreasing the company’s gas emissions.
In 1914, the Ford Motor Company became one of the first businesses to see both profit and purpose as important to the livelihood of an organisation, stunning the world when Henry Ford raised wages.
Beyond the bottom line: The return on investment of purpose
Leaders of purpose-driven businesses understand that standing for something meaningful attracts the best customers, partners and talent, and can become a source of competitive advantage on top of simply doing good.
Many businesses are able to effect change and remain competitive. Millennial consumers are helping drive this trend (and pressure). The Deloitte Millennial Survey 2018 found that 40% of millennials believe the goal of businesses should be to “improve society”. For context, millennials’ buying power is huge — it is estimated that in 2020, millennials made up 40% of all consumers, influencing about $40 billion in annual sales.
In 2019, Unilever, maker of nutrition, hygiene and personal care products, found its sustainable products made up 75% of the company’s growth. The products accomplished two impact goals – communicate a strong environmental or social purpose to its users and helped the company halve its environmental footprint, all while driving growth.
Purpose-driven businesses may also find success in retaining employees when they invest in meaningful initiatives. Millennials, who will make up 58% of employees by 2030, were more likely to leave their job if their employers were not making a positive impact in the world, according to another Deloitte Millennial study. It’s imperative that businesses remain competitive both externally and internally – standing for something meaningful will help.
No “I” in team or purpose
At our company it’s important to me that our staff and new hires take our mission of privacy to heart and that the purpose becomes an integral part of everything the team does, in privacy by design, privacy by default and privacy by conviction. We take great pride in regular team discussions on the essentials of privacy, and its technical ramifications within our product, empowering each other to think big. Even at a small scale, an idea can reach and impact millions – unique for our times. While it’s easy to get lost in big picture ideas, we start at the human to human level – how can we make a single contribution that can support a grander level (in our case, the privacy of everyone on the internet)?
Top four accounting firm KPMG found a way to help employees personally identify with its global, collective purpose in its “10,000 Stories Challenge” program. The initiative empowered employees to create posters that would answer the question “What do you do at KPMG?” Over 42,000 posters were created, educating members of the team while reinforcing the KPMG purpose.
There’s no longer a doubt if an organisation should lead with purpose – the question is how. Creating a purpose-driven business takes time. My journey, and others’ journeys, to leading a purpose-driven business didn’t happen overnight. Whether you’re beginning on the journey today or looking for tips to improve what you already started, I challenge leaders to think about what is right, not what everyone else is doing. Asking tough questions about your intentions and business model, like ‘Is my business model ethical?’ and ‘Am I withstanding the pressure of short-term financial gains in order to stay true to my business’s purpose?’, will ultimately support your goals. Instil your values in every team member and everything you do. Stay the course and the world, and your business, will reap the rewards.