Business coach and founder of The Circular Entrepreneurs, Alexandra Nash, helps us move beyond the WHY – the purpose, the calling, the quest – towards the WHO, to finding even more meaning in the lives that we lead and the work that we do.
The WHY. We spend so much time pondering this as business owners, because perhaps we are convinced that this is where the rubber meets the road. But have we forgotten to peel off the last layer? Is there something beyond the WHY? I like to believe so, and let me tell you more.
The WHY is at the centre of Simon Sinek’s famous golden circle and stems from the saying: “People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.” Businesses should first figure out WHY they do what they do, then HOW they can do that and lastly WHAT they will be doing. In the famous Apple example used in the TED talk from 2009 Sinek states that if you were to do this exercise with Apple it would look something like this:
- WHY: We think differently. We want to challenge the status quo
- HOW: The way we do this is by making products that are easy to use, elegant, and well designed
- WHAT: And we just happen to make computers as our products
This is all well and good, even extremely powerful. However, what is often neglected is WHO. WHO are you as the business owner? What are your values? What is your life situation? If we take the example of a big company, and think about how much money has been invested into these businesses with a questionable WHO. How far is it ok to go to make your WHY a reality?
Where are the articles dissecting the WHO before we pour our money into their companies and products?
In recent years we have seen many of these successful 30 under 30 founders that have ended up behind bars. A recent example is Charlie Javice, founder of Frank, a platform helping students navigate financial aid. Frank was acquired by JPMorgan Chase for $175 million in 2021 and Javice later ended up behind bars for inflating user numbers in order to sell the business.
Another is Sam Bankman-Fried, a self-described “effective altruist”. Following the collapse of his former crypto exchange FTX, he’s facing many charges ranging from bribing a foreign government to money laundering to making unlawful political contributions.
Lastly, we have the controversial WeWork co- founder Adam Neumann, who oversaw the unraveling of WeWork’s attempts to go public as it was beset by an allegedly booze-fuelled frat boy culture, drug taking and demeaning treatment towards staff. WeWork’s 2019 IPO failed, 2,400 staff were laid off, and tens of billions in investor money was lost, while Neumann, on the other hand, exited the firm with a half-billion dollar payout.
Unbelievably, Neumann resurfaced a while back and has secured another $350 million to start another venture called Flow. Whilst the media is packed with articles on the problem that women, minorities, and other diverse groups are struggling to find funding, this is going on? Where are the articles dissecting the WHO before we pour our money into their companies and products? A politician or an artist will be quickly (and rightfully) punished for not showing a moral compass in their personal life, but business owners seem to get a pass?
I believe that an idea, business or creation is only as strong as its foundation. That foundation is YOU.
Perhaps you, the reader – like myself – operate a business on the smaller side. So how often on your business journey have you stopped and reflected on questions like; WHO are you truly? What do you want? How do you want to live your life? I believe that an idea, business or creation is only as strong as its foundation. That foundation is YOU. To illustrate my point, I will share a very personal and vulnerable story of how I learnt this the hard way.
Back in 2015 when I had just had my second daughter, I spent a lot of time pondering my WHY. I felt that what I had done up to that point had been rather meaningless and that it had just taken time away from what I really wanted to do, which was to spend more time with my family, in nature, and taking care of myself. I also had this burning passion to leave a mark, to do something that mattered for the planet and for other people. After reading a book written by Blake MyCoskie, the founder of TOMs shoes, about the one-for-one business model, I discovered my HOW. That one-for-one model, where for every product or service you sell, you give towards your chosen cause.
Without going into too much detail about this particular brand (Yuhme), we landed on our WHY being using business to do good – helping with clean water in the Central African Republic (CAR) – and for our WHAT we developed a sustainable reusable water bottle made from sugarcane. We got to work and created a wonderful business where we provided over 400 years of clean water and sold thousands of water bottles worldwide.
The company was acquired in 2020 and one of the reasons for deciding to sell was a sense of misalignment. While I did operate from my WHY, and had spent time uncovering it and believing I was done with the life and work ponders, I started to feel off; I didn’t like putting more consumer products out there in the world (a true minimalist at heart), I didn’t like working weekends and evenings (as an outdoorsy person that likes to spend that time in nature), and even though I enjoy traveling I don’t like to be away so much from my family.
I’d like to invite you to challenge yourself by taking out a blank piece of paper and asking ‘who am I?’ And ‘what do I really want?’
Whilst finding my WHY I had neglected WHO I was. How did I want to feel when working on my WHY? I didn’t know what my own values even were. You might have come across the exercise to write down your company values, but have you ever written down your own? As I did this exercise myself I ended up with my number 1 value being: My family (being there at bedtime, for breakfast, weekends & holidays). Doing meaningful work ended up in number four.
The lesson I learnt? As I figured out WHO I was, WHY ended up in number four and not in the first place. How has that changed the way I do business? It is still a work in progress, but it is the fundamental seed in my current business, for me and the clients I work with.
I’d like to invite you to challenge yourself by taking out a blank piece of paper and asking ‘who am I?’ And ‘what do I really want?’ Because the WHY of a business is only as strong as the WHO of the business.
Alexandra Nash has founded and sold multiple businesses and is a former tech CEO and co-founder of Yuhme. Under her current brand, The Circular Entrepreneurs, she works as a business coach, taking great pride in supporting small business owners on their journey of focusing on the human, planetary, and impact side of business and life.
Find out more about Alex on her website and Instagram, and watch out for her podcast, “We Are All Needed“, built around the idea that no act is too small and for those of us who care how we show up for each other and for the planet. I can’t wait to tune in.