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Creating a business with purpose

Entrepreneur Holly Tucker MBE tells us how a business with a clear, socially responsible purpose can help society, your staff and customers – and you.

Last updated: 22 Oct 2020 7 min read

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The challenges of 2020 have made millions of us reappraise our lives and what’s important. Many of us are taking the opportunity to think about how we work and whether we can do it better – not just to survive now but to thrive in the future.

It’s not all in response to the impact of coronavirus, either. A culture shift to redefine success, and build a more inclusive, sustainable economy was already under way in the UK. Certified B Corporations, for example, are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. There are now 315 in the UK and more than 3,500 worldwide.

The way people are living is changing, as is what they expect from companies, as NatWest Group CEO Alison Rose said at a recent event hosted by the University of Strathclyde Business School.

“A lot of businesses talk about having a purpose; some live it better than others,” she said. “Ultimately, we will all be judged against our actions and the culture of our organisation, through the current crisis and beyond. Looking forward, it is clear that we will see permanent changes to the structure of our economy, how businesses operate and how people live their lives. As a purpose-led organisation, we are determined to be at the forefront of reshaping our economy and make a positive impact on society.”

Small business owners are also taking the opportunity to look at who they are, where they’re going and why, despite and sometimes because of the challenging circumstances in society today. As Holly Tucker MBE, founder of Notonthehighstreet and Holly & Co, explains, being able to define your own purpose is vital for success.

Beyond ambition

“Purpose is a reason for your business, beyond the product or service that you deliver,” she says. “It’s a single, central ethos. It makes you get out of bed even on bad days. Businesses with purpose are answering a consumer desire – and that clarity helps you recruit and retain staff.”

The importance of purpose was Tucker’s key message as she chaired a recent panel discussion at the inaugural Good Business Festival, a new type of conference that brought together creative people from the arts, culture and academia with business leaders. The aim was to examine the relationship between business and society, and consumers’ increasing demand for “conscious capitalism and purposeful business”.

“Purpose is way beyond ambition, fulfilling a creative need, or to fill a gap in the market,” says Tucker. “You need to consider: what do you want to do in the world? Covid has made us acutely aware of our own mortality – we realise how short our time is on Earth, and that we are just custodians. So how are you going to leave this world in a better place?”

“True purpose is not a trend, so it should not be something that is easily changed. Your brand can move with the times, but though your purpose can mature, it really should stay the same” Holly Tucker MBE, founder, Notonthehighstreet and Holly & Co

The Good Business Festival’s eclectic programme included business sessions around corporate activism, climate change, environment, social responsibility, sport and the arts. Tucker was ideally placed to lead a session titled ‘On Purpose’. A clear altruistic purpose was at the heart of Notonthehighstreet, which she co-founded in 2006 as a retail website that would sell individual, unique gift and homeware items not available anywhere else. Just as importantly, it would help build what she called the ‘kitchen table’ businesses, usually run by women, that produced these items. Notonthehighstreet now has 5,000 partner organisations, and its retail platform has helped pump over £1bn into these smaller businesses.

“We had a purpose from the start to connect small businesses with discerning customers and help small businesses grow,” says Tucker. “That has not changed in over 15 years and I am very proud of this.”

More recently, Tucker launched Holly & Co, a “cheerleader for the small business community” that mentors SMEs on four core pillars: promoting independent retailers, empowering female founders, educating children to be entrepreneurs and – perhaps most of all – “helping everyone to build a business doing what they love”.

Identifying your core purpose

So why does purpose matter so much? “Brands with purpose not only attract the best talent and retain brilliant people, it is also the glue within culture,” says Tucker. “It allows your teams to be proud and stand for something more than their day-to-day jobs. And, most importantly, it turns employees into ambassadors.”

Consumers also believe in businesses with purpose at their core – especially if it is something that has an element of corporate responsibility or altruism, or in some way benefits society. This summer, Tucker sought to inspire people made redundant in the coronavirus crisis to think about launching their own business, tweeting: “…if you can’t find a job, maybe you should create your own!?”

But, she adds: “Don’t start your business idea looking for a gap in the market. That’s great if there is one, but ask yourself more what makes you come alive; what are you an expert in? What can you not stop talking about? Enthusiasm and passion, if it is there by the bucketful, will be the fire that burns when cash is low or customers are low. Passion is the fuel and secret magic that creates success.”

And if you have established a business but feel it’s lacking such purpose, it’s never too late to build it in. But it should reflect your core passion and therefore not change, she says. Many businesses are refocusing or rebranding in these tumultuous times, but success and stability is about identifying and adhering to a single core purpose.

“True purpose is not a trend, so it should not be something that is easily changed,” Tucker says. “In fact, if it is possible to change it, it’s probably not right or deep enough. Your brand can move with the times, but though your purpose can mature, it really should stay the same.

“There’s no wrong time to introduce it,” she adds. “Maybe you started a business with no purpose in mind – that’s OK; no one’s there to be the ‘purpose police’ and say you’re too late. But now, understand it is the future.”

And a strong sense of ethical resolve doesn’t benefit just society, says Tucker, but also your business, its bottom line, its staff and customers – and you as a founder. A good business, she says, “has purpose, is unique, brings joy to its customers and allows the founders to live their fullest lives”.

Holly Tucker on business with purpose

  • Businesses with purpose are answering a consumer desire – and that clarity helps you recruit and retain staff.
  • Purpose is beyond ambition, fulfilling a creative need, or filling a gap in the market. You need to ask yourself: what do you want to do in the world?
  • Purpose allows your teams to be proud and stand for something more than their day-to-day jobs; and, most importantly, it turns employees into ambassadors.
  • True purpose is not a trend, so it should not be something that is easily changed. In fact, if it is possible to change it, it’s probably not right or deep enough.
  • A good business has purpose, is unique, brings joy to its customers and allows the founders to live their fullest lives.

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