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Building a Sustainable Business is About More Than Profits

I may be a bit old-fashioned, but I have always looked at a business first for its potential ability to be self-sustaining, and provide reasonable profits to feed my family, my lifestyle, and my retirement. Then secondly, I look for it to be a business I can enjoy, with the potential to change the world. Today, these top priorities of many entrepreneurs seem to have reversed.

I used to think this purpose phenomenon was primarily associated with Gen Y (Millennials), who grew up in a world of plenty. Now I see it also in Boomers, like Bill Gates, who have the longevity to enjoy a second career, this time prioritizing the purpose they may have sought in their youth. Even Generation X leaders, like Elon Musk, seem to be focusing more on purpose.

I feel obligated as a start-up mentor to look harder at how entrepreneurs can achieve the purpose objective, while still build a sustainable business. In a book I recently read by Aaron Hurst, “The Purpose Economy,” he argues that the next generation of corporate business and even the political economy is emerging based on the creation of purpose.

He starts by debunking the key myths that most successful business people in my generation have long held as facts. Here they are paraphrased:

Myth 1: You need a non-profit cause to have purpose. After survival is assured, it’s a natural human urge to find a higher calling, or purpose, to give self-satisfaction. Many people incorrectly pursue this as a destination, or cause, rather than a direction. Purpose isn’t a cause; it is an approach to work and serving others. Think of it as a verb, not a noun.

Myth 2: Seeking purpose is a luxury that most can’t afford. Purpose is a universal need, and even those with meager means still make it a priority. Purpose is not a luxury only for those with money and security. According to Atlantic Magazine, even the poorest Americans donate 3.2% of their income to charity, while the wealthiest donate an average of 1.3%.

Myth 3: Finding your purpose should come as a revelation. Too many people expect their life’s calling to hit like a bolt of lightning. But for most, it comes from living life awake and seeking new experiences, not as a revelation from above. Most of us will work 40 or more years, so we have plenty of time to find how we most enjoy contributing.

Myth 4: Only big impact types of work generate purpose. What we do is not nearly as important as how we do it, and what attitude we bring to the work. The truth is that you can find purpose in any job, if you approach it correctly. People in all walks of life see their work as a calling, or merely as a job, depending on their psychological traits.

Myth 5: Work accomplishing a purpose must seem easy to you. With athletes, the relationship between pain and gain is clearest, but the same holds true of doing any work where we are experiencing high levels of purpose.  Purpose will inspire and drive you to work even harder, give more of yourself, but make you feel better in the end.

Hurst argues that purpose is for everyone, regardless of profession or socio-economic status. It is not about a cause or something that we discover by revelation. It is a challenging and rewarding journey.

It’s also not related to the business model, or type of business you might start.  Your business doesn’t have be a non-profit or benefit corporation (B-Corp) to embody purpose. In fact, there are several business organizations that are intended to help you find and foster your purpose, including Conscious Capitalism® movement led by John Mackey, The B Team led by Sir Richard Branson, and the 1% for the Planet organization, but none of these are really required for purpose.

I’m convinced that it’s time to recognize the pursuit of purpose as a real and positive trend, which extends into and from the economy and markets that entrepreneurs serve. Every entrepreneur needs to take a hard look at their own business culture and goals, to see how well they have adapted and capitalized on this trend. Now you should have more fun at work, get more satisfaction, and be more successful at the same time. Are you there?

Martin Zwilling is the founder and chief executive officer of Startup Professionals, a company that provides products and services to start-up founders and small business owners. Check out his daily blog at http://blog.startupprofessionals.com or contact him directly at marty@startupprofessionals.com.

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