Why you have to have a Why

The future of your company is wrapped around the question why. Why does the company exist, what problem do you solve?

If you want to stand out and become hugely successful, you have to find a why. The more people you can touch with your why, the more people will want to make you successful, support you and push you forward. Not because of yourself or your company or your employees, but because of the why.

This question is central to your company’s ability to get funded, finding skilled employees and getting customers on board. Why is it you exist, what is the problem you solve?

Marten Mickos chats with entrepreneur and startup coach Aape Pohjavirta.


Marten: With me here today, Aape Pohjavirta, accomplished entrepreneur on his own, and a guy who has helped tons and tons of young startup CEOs to figure out their businesses and figure out how to grow their companies. Welcome, Aape.

Aape: Thanks. Thank you. It’s a great pleasure to be here.

Marten: Our big question today is the question why, and how to use that question when you are figuring out your business. Could you talk about that?

Aape: Yeah. Well, you know, why is obviously the most difficult question of them all.

Marten: Why?

Aape: Exactly. If you want to find out about why the why question is really difficult, you can go on YouTube and google for Richard Feynman and his why, and why, why is the why the why? There’s a lot of talk about that, but for an entrepreneur there’s a couple of things that you should be able to separate when you are growing up to become a professional. As a young founder – and I was a young founder about 10, 20, 30 years ago – it’s difficult for you to make a difference between what you can do and what your team can do, what you want to do, and a reason for all of this.

Most of you probably have seen the video by Simon Sinek, How great leaders inspire action and how they communicate with their surroundings. There’s a lot of things that are today covered by technologies or skilled employees. I can do this. I can do that.

The reason, the reason for your existence, the reason why you get up and why anybody should care about your company lies in the question why.

Why is about you and the universe. Steve Jobs said that the Macintosh team was there just to make dents in the Universe. Nowadays, the Universe is so dented that a startup entrepreneur who wants to be successful should be looking for ways to fix those dents, make the Universe smoother. Telling yourself what you can do is not the future. The future, I think, the meaningfulness of your work, your capability, your company’s capability of getting funding together, getting skilled employees, and getting your customers on board, and doing all these things, rewards are wrapped a lot around the why, the question why.

Why is it you exist, what is the problem you solve, and how many problems do you solve.

Marten: Are you saying, actually, that many startups today just do things because they can do them, not because it makes any sense?

Aape: Yes, that is by far, by far, I’d say out of the whys. If I’ve coached you in the past six, seven years in different ecosystems in the world, like, 1,000 startups.

Of those 1,000 startups I’d say about five exist for, you know, they know why the exist. 995 actually exist because they can exist or they think they could copy something and they’re onto something. It might be a feature, but it’s not a solution.

The companies that actually could provide the answer to a big question such as: There’s a lot of people who don’t have food. There’s no protein. How could we solve it? It’s not just a feature thing, it’s actually a mission driven thing. So why is a mission. Guy Kawasaki has written these books about how you should create your company slogan and create more meaning into your company’s existence. That “why” is a difficult thing to find.

Marten: If I’m here, an entrepreneur, and I’m just doing it because I can, and then you come and mentor me, and you realize that I never asked the question why, how would you approach me? What would you tell me?

Aape: The first thing is, how do you describe the world the way it is today, and how does the world look different after your service or your product has been implemented on the Universe?

If the change is, you know, here is your average Joe with $3 in his pocket, and after implementing your service tomorrow, he might have $3.02 in his pocket. It’s actually not. It’s isn’t a big change, right? Trying to find out what is actually the change that your product or service could produce when applied to something, what is it that it causes? What is the positive change? Trying to find it when I mentor the startups, I ask them blunt questions. I ask the founder, “Why?” In most cases they explain and explain a lot features, a lot of fine slidesets.

But simplifying the reason of your existence into a tweet, actually 137 characters is an exercise that you should be able to do.

Making things complex is the easiest thing in the Universe, but making things simple is the most complex thing in the Universe. Creating a good & compelling why for your company demands a lot of time and a lot of exercise and a lot of experience. That’s where the mentoring relationship becomes really important.

Marten: How long does it take, if I’m an average 25-year-old startup CEO? Will it take me a week to figure out the why, or months, or years maybe?

Aape: Probably years. If you start here in San Francisco. What’s a compelling why? Is it making more efficient things, being able to become more efficient than an Uber? No. It’s, like, if you look at the homeless people on the streets, that’s saying How? Why do you exist? My company, homelessawayfromstreets.com exists because we want to have these people find homes and jobs and employment. That’s a compelling why. Everybody appreciates why you exist. Then you go out with your three things. I do this, I do that, and I do this. Then the people are employed, are away from the streets, and everybody’s happy. This is important but it takes a long time.

Marten: Do you have to go through multiple whys? When you say, “Why,” and I say something, you say, “Why that?” I have to go deeper and deeper, peel the onion, or something?

Aape: Yeah. Not just that, you have to have different types of whys. When you as a CEO, you go out on stage and you present the company, the people in the audience, depending on their background, on their skill sets, they have different thoughts. They have approach the same why from different reasons. A technical person from a database side has different thinking and thoughts of the whys than a guy who approaches it from the sales side, or an investor. The investor asks about the market and you have to be able to dig into the trends and understand the socio-economic developments behind it. You have to have different types of mentors.

Marten: Is there a place where you can learn why – is there sort of a web service where you go and you submit your business plan, and it tells you whether it makes sense?

Aape: Yeah, there’s a place. It’s called life.

It’s only through experience you can find this, find out these reasons and find your why. If you don’t find your why, it’s okay. The absolute majority of people in the Universe travel through their lives without knowing what their why is. There are companies that are successful, also, in delivering products that don’t answer it; but if you want to stand out, if you want to become huge and successful, you want to become the billionaire you could be because of your skill set or those capabilities that you have, you just have to find a why. Why must be relevant to others. The more people you can touch with your why, the more people want to make you successful. That’s the thing. If you have a good why, all the people want to support you. They want to push you forward. They want to make you succeed, not because of yourself or your company or your employees but because of the why. It’s just so good that everybody wants to join you.

Marten: Wonderful. Thank you Aape.

Aape: You’re welcome.

Marten: We’ll stop here with the why, and we’ll hope that the why will touch as many people as possible.

Aape: Good. Thanks.

Marten: Thank you.

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