Start-ups: the most important question to ask isn’t what you think it is

Businessman on blue blackboard background where thoughts bubbles with a red question mark are drawn in chalk. Business and success. Business ideas. Questions and challenges.

As a start-up co-founder, I often get asked what inspired us to create the company. It’s the ultimate existential question. Most attempt to answer this by focusing on their product – the thing they create. Others focus on their addressable market, value proposition or a novel way to engage their customers (AR! DTC! Gamify! Drones! Disruption!).

My co-founder, Craig Silbery, and I answer this question with another question: Why should we exist? 

When we started ilume, the market was already saturated, with each company claiming to be better than the next. Dog owners seemed happy with their current dog food, and growth was slow and fiercely contested. It was the textbook red ocean.

However, by answering the hardest question first, we discovered the keyhole that opened the door to something genuinely new. Admittedly, it’s a tougher bar to get over, but ultimately, it saved us from making early mistakes that could have sunk us.

This transformed us and our customers

Our answer was the basis of ilume’s founding philosophy. Our reason to exist is to recognise and strengthen the unique bond between dog lovers and their dogs. By building the company around this bigger, more personal philosophy, we uncovered how to help dog lovers achieve this. 

We designed our food and tech to help dog lovers lean into their dog’s health. For our customers, preparing their dog’s evening meal is more involved than scooping dry kibble into a bowl; it brings them and their dogs closer together. 

When our customers understand how much to feed their dog based on their daily activity and sleep patterns, they can finally connect the dots between their dog’s lifestyle and health.  

You’ll be in great company

Netflix didn’t see itself as another video rental company. They’re about personalised entertainment, anywhere in the world. To deliver this, they decoupled the experience of being entertained from the hassle of the purchase. Limitless choice, delivered instantly, with no late fees. Netflix created a whole new category that rivals some of the biggest media companies in the world.

Aesop is not your typical cosmetics company. They wanted products that rejuvenated the senses, without artifice or superfluousness. Rejuvenation sets a high bar for the formulation, the packaging, the store, the consultants, the communications: every detail is meticulously thought of and designed together. There are many imitators, but Aesop is the only one of its kind.

Hang on, isn’t this another word for “purpose”?

At ilume, we try not to get too hung up on labels. “Purpose” means different things to other companies. We love the galvanising force a great purpose can bring. However, if your “purpose” isn’t aligned to your “why”, you may struggle to make anyone else believe in it.

How did we feed it into our company?

We’re still young and learning, but here’s how we’re embedding our founding philosophy:

  1. We talk about it with everyone, and often. It’s easy for us because we’re aligned. If you’re a founder, it’s the single most important thing you can do.
  2. We empower our team leads with it to make decisions more efficiently. People join start-ups to lead and make a change, so empower them to do so.
  3. We designed our architecture around it, so the teams are set up to build meaningful customer relationships. The architecture of your start-up helps, or hinders, growth.
  4. We use it to attract and select new “ilumers”. It’s a key driver of our tight-knight culture and how we work together. Even though you’re often stretched, you can’t afford to get the talent and culture pieces wrong.