There are so many variables to address when starting a business. Idea validation, overhead estimates, revenue estimates, your marketing scheme; the list goes on. But there’s one critical factor that gets overlooked far too often. Just as important as any other consideration is the answer to one question: why are you building this business at all?

That’s not a rhetorical question. It’s a question that needs a clearly defined answer, because that answer is the foundation of your business. It’s the key to its possible success— not because answering it “correctly” will make your business succeed, but because the answer is your definition of success. Without that definition, you lack an overall goal. Not knowing what you’re aiming for is the easiest way to miss.

Motivation Matters

All things being equal, no one is more successful than someone who knows why they’re doing something. This is true for everyone from athletes to politicians to business people. In business, the motivation may seem obvious: profit. But there has to be more to it than just that, even if it’s only to define how much profit and what, exactly, all that profit is for.

Before you make the huge commitment that the entrepreneur’s lifestyle requires, explore your motivations. To define success in a way that’s personal to yourself is what will give you the edge. It’s what will allow you to push forward when the well-paid but poorly motivated would maintain the status quo. It’s what will move you to innovate and test your limits, even when you don’t have to.

For example, some want financial independence. In that case it’s not the money a person’s after. It’s the ability to put their conventional job behind them. Some want to take care of a struggling family, or provide their children with an education. Some just like to compete. For alpha-types, the amount of money doesn’t matter as long as it’s more money than their competitors make! The point is that there’s a “why” beyond the profit.  

For some, the goals are even less tangible. Some entrepreneurs mostly seek recognition. The satisfaction of being a trendsetter or thought leader is worth just as much to them as their earnings. Some seek validation, the sense that their audience proves their worth in the industry. Some work on sheer principle, with a genuine wish to change an industry for the better, angry at the thought of customers being underserved or competitors profiting from sub-par products. These people have a “why” that’s more potent than any promise of revenue.

The Right Biz For Your “Why”

It’s important to not only start with a clearly defined “why,” but to periodically check in with it. You may find that your aspirations should be changed or modified. You may also find that your business—regardless of profits—is moving you further from your ultimate goal instead of closer.

For example, let’s say your hypothetical “why” is a vision of independence that would allow you to travel. Lots of entrepreneurs (especially the online kind) use the freedom of self-employment to see the world while they work. But what if you’re working so much that you don’t have time to travel? You may be making money, and business may be booming, but if your passport doesn’t have any new stamps you’re not succeeding!

Alternately, say you’re writing books. These books are informative, helpful, and well-received by a grateful audience, but they’re not making a lot of money. Books usually don’t! While writing books can be a great marketing tool, it’s not usually that profitable. If a certain level of financial success is your “why,” it’s not going well. Perhaps what you really enjoy—what you really want—is recognition, to be influential in your subject area. Maybe it’s time to realign your “why” with the reality of your work.  

Soul Search

Tony Robbins likes to say that different people have different values. That’s not a moral judgment. It’s meant literally; we each find value in different things. Some value security. Some prize family or spontaneity or influence. What’s your own priority? Do you value freedom more, or stability? Fame or craft? Money or recognition?

Only you can answer these questions, but answer them you must. You’ve got to discover your “why,” and it has to go beyond the obvious profit motive. Yes, we all want to make money. But some of us make far less than we actually could, because we make enough to get what we value. Some people make far more than they could ever use, simply because they value competitiveness.

If you want to travel frequently, you can do so on a relatively modest salary. If you want to provide for a family, you can do it without becoming a mogul. If you want to educate people or change the way a certain service works, or simply kiss your corporate job goodbye, you can. You simply have to ask yourself what it would cost, and then make that much!

Put this principle into practice with a simple exercise. Sit down with a piece of paper (or word doc), and ask yourself what success would look like to you. What is winning? Where exactly would you be if you “made it”? Write it down. Be ruthless in your honesty, even if it means reevaluating your approach to your business. Every so often, repeat this exercise to make sure that your business is taking you where you really want to go.

There are no wrong answers. No one’s values are more valuable than anyone else’s. It’s ok to want money, if you know how much and what you want to spend it on. It’s ok to want to have an impact, to be known for changing the way something works. It’s ok to just want to live near the beach. Whatever it is, have the courage to define it before you chase it down.

The boxing biopic Cinderella Man tells the true story of a mediocre fighter who is only able to keep his children fed during the Great Depression by becoming a champion. Asked by a reporter how he so drastically improved his fighting record, the protagonist explains that he started winning once he knew what he was fighting for. Asked what that was, he replied simply, “milk.”

Work hard, and you’ll move forward. Know why you’re working hard, and you’ll be unstoppable.