Find your startup’s Ikigai to grow with purpose
There is a notion that in order to find purpose, you must leave everything behind and go find it in a 10-day retreat to detox from technology and ambitious plans. But what if there is a way to use your ambitions for the greater good? How could this have a ripple effect that permeates your team and spreads across companies, cultures, and communities? What if you are able to find purpose and meaning while still making your investors happy?
This is exactly what ikigai is about.
What is ikigai and how is it useful for startup culture?
Ikigai is a Japanese concept. Unlike English, some languages operate in concepts instead of words. Ikigai translates to “purpose of being” or “the happiness of always being busy”. But it’s not about being busy for the sake of being busy. It’s not about just finding what you are passionate about. Ikigai is more complex and useful than that.
According to the book Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, the Japanese find this concept so intrinsic to their lives and work, that the word “retirement” is not even part of their vocabulary. They just never stop doing what they love.
They just never stop doing what they love.
Isn’t that an amazing thought for founders and executives?
Ikigai goes beyond fundraising efforts and board meetings or acquisitions. It’s about doing what you love, across decades and industries. It’s optimistic, inspiring, and it actually brings results.
Ikigai goes well beyond the workplace: the application of this concept in daily life has produced positive results for entire villages in Japan where people are not just living their best lives, but also outliving most of us, who struggle with finding satisfying work and lives among ARR rates, layoffs, and anxiety-ridden fundraising rounds.
In the diagram below, we find the 4 quadrants that make up ikigai:
- What you love
- What the world needs
- What you are good at
- What you can be paid for.
The beauty is in the intersections.
When looking for a startup career, it’s common to focus on what you’re skilled at and what can earn you money. However, this approach often lacks fulfillment because it overlooks the element of passion.
For leaders, the journey begins when they align their passion with their profession.
The next step involves working toward something the world genuinely needs. Together, these three elements form what’s known in “ikigai,” as a mission. While it can be personally fulfilling, it may not necessarily lead to financial wealth.
However, individuals who have found their mission can discover ways to earn a living while fulfilling it. This brings us to the core of ikigai, where personal passion, professional skills, a sense of purpose, and earning income intersect.
Startups have ikigai but they don’t know it yet
Most people in startups have found their ikigai and are working toward it, even if they don’t realize it.
Startups are businesses trying to solve a problem that either no one has solved before or solving it in a new and improved way. Using technology, people, and various techniques, they’re out to change the world, while getting paid to do it.
This desire is not only driving founders; it’s what drives their teams too, what makes them work hard, learn constantly, look for opportunities for networking, and use every resource available to them to help their companies grow. It’s about the commitment people have when they know they are changing the world.
It’s about the commitment people have when they know they are changing the world.
Along the way from PMF to IPO, this idealistic attitude may start to fade due to stress, burnout, constant rejection from investors or prospects and, most importantly, strained relationships between leaders and team members.
One of the most prevalent causes of startup failures is relationship issues, and this fact is well-known in the business world. Understanding that strained relationships can quietly (or sometimes quite loudly) undermine a startup’s success, leaders must embrace a crucial leadership lesson: managing relationships effectively.
To navigate this challenge successfully, leaders can begin by discovering their own sense of purpose, both in their personal lives and their professional endeavors. Once they’ve established their own purpose, they can extend this understanding to help others within the organization find their sense of purpose as well. This dual focus on fostering personal purpose and nurturing the purpose of others can pave the way for better relationship management, all while ensuring that the startup continues to thrive.
Even though ikigai has a very optimistic worldview, its usefulness isn’t limited to cheerful situations. Ikigai should stand the test of time, which includes all seasons: from dry winters to light-filled summers, bountiful springs, and harvesting falls. From long seasons of investor rejections to great seasons of closed won sales.
Rules in business have changed: Stakes are high in emotional intelligence
The business landscape has undergone a profound transformation: the importance of emotional intelligence has raised the stakes.
Today, authenticity and genuine leadership hold unprecedented appeal.
People are no longer merely drawn to companies with positive social impacts as an afterthought. Instead, we find ourselves in an era where consumers, businesses, and employees actively seek meaningful impact both in their own work and from the companies they support.
This shift in perspective is far from arbitrary. Increasingly, leaders recognize that sustainability isn’t just a fleeting trend; it’s the bedrock of long-term success, both for businesses and the world at large. Sustainability and purpose are intertwined, adding depth and meaning to every venture.
In the past, traditional workers and leaders often found comfort in the belief that having a job or career was meaningful in itself. The notion of loving what you do was an idealistic concept, more aligned with fantasy than reality. However, for younger generations, this is no longer the case. Meaning and purpose have become non-negotiable aspects of their professional journey, reshaping the very essence of work and leadership. The impact of finding meaning and purpose can even reshape the world itself when these individuals are the leaders of innovative platforms in startups.
How is ikigai helping leaders in startups
Startup leaders can reap profound benefits from embracing the concept of ikigai, particularly in three key areas:
- Personal Fulfillment
Leaders who truly grasp the essence of their ikigai are more likely to find personal fulfillment within their roles. When they align their passions, strengths, and values with their leadership responsibilities, their work takes on a deeper sense of purpose and joy.
Steve Jobs’s passion for design, innovation, and creating user-friendly products was at the core of his ikigai. His visionary thinking and ability to bring groundbreaking products to market were a testament to this alignment.
By infusing his work with his personal values and strengths, Jobs not only found personal fulfillment, but also transformed Apple into a global tech giant.
- Employee Engagement
Effective leaders adeptly apply the principles of ikigai to empower their team members to discover their own sense of purpose.
Notably, the energy sector has emerged as a prime example of this trend.
According to Forbes’ annual ranking of America’s Best Startup Employers for 2023, the energy sector has witnessed a remarkable surge in popularity among startup employees for another consecutive year.
Nowadays, the energy sector is associated with the social mission of “saving the Earth” by reducing “carbon footprint, limiting climate change, and impacting our planet meaningfully”. Their employees are engaged with this mission and find it motivating and energizing to be working for a cause, not just a company.
The energy sector is not the only one getting its employees engaged. The SaaS industry is also setting a great example. Take Tropic, whose mission is to make “procurement paradise” providing software that helps companies not just save money but also enjoy the ride. To get there, Tropic focuses deeply on their company’s culture. They are Great Place to Work certified, Glassdoor 5 stars, Best Places to Work Purpose Jobs, among other certifications.
Their co-founders David Campbell and Justin Etkin also work hard to give employees outstanding benefits ranging from flexible vacation and holiday time off; to medical, dental and vision plans, parental leave, and other stipends like WFH and learning that are clearly making their employees engaged with the mission of doing business as if in paradise.
- Organizational Purpose
Ikigai isn’t limited to the individual; it can permeate an entire organization. Startup leaders can lead the charge in defining the company’s purpose by considering what it’s passionate about, where it excels, what the world requires, and what can sustainably generate revenue. This process can pave the way for crafting a compelling mission that guides the entire company.
Because finding a purpose tends to rely heavily on sustainability efforts, TechCrunch Disrupt had an entire stage for the topic of sustainability at their 2023 conference in San Francisco. It strongly suggests that the trend for sustainable entrepreneurship is on the rise. There are many ways in which startups can work toward purpose and meaning while staying in business.
There are many ways in which startups can work toward purpose and meaning while staying in business.
Moreover, it’s worth highlighting that there’s a palpable connection between the absence of ikigai and the prevalence of burnout and stress. While everyone requires rest and recreation to function optimally, discovering work that aligns with one’s passion, contributes to the world, and yields financial rewards can make an immeasurable difference in the startup arena. It becomes the cornerstone of enduring success, not just for leaders but for the entire team and the organization as a whole.
Startups finding ikigai in their daily business
Whether they are aware of what ikigai is, or how it’s connected to their business and leadership, these startups embody principles of ikigai:
Patreon is a platform that allows content creators to receive recurring payments from their fans. The founder, Jack Conte, identified his ikigai by combining his love for music (what he loved), his skills as a musician and technologist (what he was good at), the need for artists to be fairly compensated (what the world needs), and the potential for a sustainable business model (what he could be paid for). This alignment of elements has contributed to Patreon being a successful platform for creators and supporters.
Cotopaxi, the outdoor gear and apparel company, embodies the principles of ikigai in its leadership and mission. Founded by individuals passionate about outdoor adventure and travel, the company combines this love with expertise in producing high-quality outdoor products. Cotopaxi recognizes the world’s need for socially responsible businesses and integrates a strong social mission into its core, demonstrated through initiatives like the Cotopaxi Foundation.
This foundation provides grants to nonprofits that help communities facing extreme poverty. By aligning their passion, skills, social purpose, and profitability, Cotopaxi has created a successful and impactful business model, proving that the principles of ikigai can guide leaders in building both meaningful and profitable organizations.
Viva Executive Assistants is constantly searching for their ikigai. Our social mission looks into the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG #5), which is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Viva focuses on increasing the participation of women in the workforce providing meaningful career opportunities to women in emerging economies within Latin America. Our EAs are skilled professionals who can use their talents, knowledge and perspective to pursue their passions and goals.
Viva also provides benefits to all employees like a six-month maternity leave, medical, dental and mental health insurance, WFH and learning stipends, and growth-sessions. We work closely with Latinamerican organizations to support women across the region. Employee’s ikigai and Viva’s social impact share a common vision and purpose that propels not only their careers but also their social impact goals.
Ikigai leadership extending to product/service level
Discovering ikigai within startups extends seamlessly to the very essence of the products and services a company offers.
For instance, incorporating sustainable efforts into the core of a business, such as reconfiguring global supply chains for circularity and sustainability, can resonate deeply with today’s conscious consumers.
This move toward socially-conscious products and pricing not only aligns with the principles of ikigai but also positions leaders to capitalize on the growing demand for sustainable and purpose-driven offerings.
Ikigai serves as a compass, guiding companies away from the comfort of purposelessness and toward a landscape where every decision, from sourcing products and services to embracing best practices, is infused with meaning and impact.
It may seem daunting, but the journey often begins with small steps, and the rewards for both leaders and their organizations can be transformative.
Leadership that is focused on a more holistic approach to growth can reap significant benefits from combined efforts into the single cause of finding purpose while they grow.
To delve deeper into the realm of leadership and purpose, explore our leadership section for further insights and inspiration.