John Bohn

My thoughts on software, tech, business, and more

Keep your new business on track by asking why

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

TLDR; To ensure that you are doing things that matter, always ask why.

To do things that matter, always ask why. There was an brief article today on Lifehacker about not asking why. In all fairness, this article said not to ask why in existential circumstances. Things like, “Why are we here? What’s the meaning of life?”. Stuff like that. I wasn’t crazy about the post but it did get me thinking about the question of why.

If you ask anyone I’ve worked to tell you my favorite response to a proposal for a new feature or project, you’re almost sure to hear them say say, “Why”. I ask why to make sure we are doing things that matter. It might matter to the customer in the case of a new feature. It could be important for an employee in the case of a new workflow or set of processes. There are many reasons to justify a project, but when you ask why, you open yourself to really understanding your decisions at a deeper level.

Why is powerful. Why ensures that you are spending time on things that truly matter. This is really important when you are first starting your business. Too many businesses start with the a lot of hows. These implementation details are important down the road, but they are a waste of time until you figure out why you are doing what you are doing. For instance, I’ve seen too many new business owners who are trying to get customers to purchase their product or service, but end up on the wrong path. They spend hours, days, even months figuring out pricing for their product/service, signing up for social media accounts, figuring out tax implications, getting business licenses, coming up with business plans and more. These types of chores can be important later in your business, but when you take care of them this far upstream, you are just wasting time.

“It’s not enough to just give it a whirl; you’ve got to give it a whirl with purpose and direction.” – Eric Ries, The Lean Startup

It’s also important to say why more than once. If you accept the first answer, you may not be getting to the root of the problem. You may find yourself accepting a superficial reason to justify the time you are spending on a project. Take the following example. A young interior decorator is just starting out and booking a job or two a month. She’s setup homes for family, friends, and even some outside clients. At this point in her career, she has validated that she’s good enough to bring in more clients. Her challenge now is to go out there and and grow her business. Unfortunately, she’s getting wrapped up in all the wrong things. She’s thinking about business licenses, checking accounts, invoicing, insurance, and taxes. All the wrong things! When her business is in this stage and she wants to grow your business, these tasks are time wasting distractions from her real goal. She’s not focusing on bringing in new clients which would really take her business to the next level. If she were to start asking why before doing these tasks, she might second guess their value.

I’ve started using a method that I calling The Five Whys. The premise is that if ask yourself why five times, and you haven’t gotten to an answer that directly relates to your current business goals, then you are doing something that doesn’t matter. Let’s take the five whys to our designer friend. She’s interested in signing up for an EIN (employer ID number) because she knows it’s one of those things that new business owners “have” to do. Let’s see what happens when she applies the five whys to getting an EIN.

I am signing up for an EIN (employee identification number).
So I can get a business checking account
So I can keep my personal money separate from the business.
So I can have separate accounts for when taxes come due
So I can pay my business taxes from that account

(Usually this answer is just a long pause followed by, “Ummm…”)

If she did this exercise, she would realize that none of these answers have anything to do getting more clients and growing her business. She would stop here, pick something else of her todo list, and try the five whys again.

So next time you start a new task, before asking, “How am I going to do this?”, start with the five whys. At least very least, ask yourself “Why am I doing this” at least once. You may find that your time could be spent elsewhere.