Defining the “why” of your small company

By Michelle van Schouwen

Recently, I collaborated with a start-up founder on an investment pitch, thus experiencing his challenge of best defining the purpose of a unique enterprise for its potential stakeholders.

Small business owners, too, can benefit from periodically defining the “why” of their companies, and not just when they open the doors for the first time. The purpose of a business can shift over time, even without its owner being fully conscious of the shift. Current and complete knowledge is power for the business owner.

So… why is your company in business? Why is your company important? Your answers to the following questions can help you determine if you are on the right track for yourself, your customers and the marketplace you define as your own, your employees, and the present and future well-being of your enterprise. If you’re not headed the right way, a better understanding of any disparity between your current direction and your true reasons for being in business can help you close the gap. You may add some questions of your own.

-What products, services or value do you offer that are important to your customers? Have you validated your answer to this question by asking customers or otherwise getting their feedback?

-Do you have return customers, and if so, what percentage of your business do they constitute? Where you have attrition, do you know why? Are you where you want to be in this regard?

-Is your business growing, mature or declining right now?  Is your overall market stable, growing, declining, or shifting?

-How do you differ from your competitors? Do you wish you were doing as well as they are, or are you at the forefront of the market?

-Do you want to expand your business? Do you want to add new offerings? Maintain current direction or pivot?

-What, exactly, is most important for you personally to get from your business? This could be money, emotional satisfaction, a sense of purpose… or whatever is true. (This truth often goes beyond the public mission statement – just saying!)

-What is your relationship with your employees? Are you strongly committed to the well-being of specific individuals, or is the relationship more transactional?

-Do you trust your employees? All of them? Why or why not?

-What do you want your personal and company reputation to be? Be as specific as possible in your answer.

-If a qualified and reputable buyer offered you full value for your business today – and said you could walk out the door tomorrow – what would you do? And why do you give that answer?

It is fair and realistic to find that your company’s “why” is in fact plural – it’s the “whys.” For example, your personal why may be “to support the family, put the kids through college and assure that I never have a boss again.” Your marketplace why could be: “To provide the community’s only comprehensive resource for families in need of indoor sports and recreation in all seasons.” Your why for staff may be, “To provide a great workplace for talented physical education professionals.”

It’s also smart to prioritize these various whys for your own self-knowledge and direction. For example, you may (and I would say should) place making a living for yourself over providing a living for others – even if both are important to you. You must place meeting customer needs as a “top why” or you likely won’t have a company for long.

What’s more, as a small business owner, your whys will generally change over time, whether through changes in the marketplace or your company’s and your own natural evolution. Someday, your why may include having value worth selling, or passing a strong enterprise on to your kids. Not everyone wants to work forever.

In the meantime, taking the time to do the “why” business spot-check every so often will help assure that you are on the path you want to be on, now and for the long run.


Michelle van Schouwen enjoys an “Act 2” career as principal of Q5 Analytics, providing advocacy and communications for climate change mitigation and adaptation. See For 32 years, Michelle was president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company. In 2017, van Schouwen Associates was acquired by Six-Point Creative Works, Inc. of Springfield, MA.

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