Refections on Purpose in Entrepreneurship

By: Mahmud Johnson, Founder/ CEO

September 2, 2018

This envelope has been missing for 5 years. Finally found It among my stuff at my parents' house this afternoon.

5 years ago as a student at Dartmouth College, I decided to take the risky path of becoming an entrepreneur. I had no substantial prior business experience and no money - just a desire to make a difference using business.

I wrote down why I wanted to pursue entrepreneurship, and wrote down a few business ideas (I can't share everything in this post 🤷‍♂️).

The initial idea for J-Palm was to make palm oil distribution more efficient across Liberia. Over the years, we've faced the tough realities of doing business in Liberia (and doing business in general, period), and the model has evolved into what it is today. But fundamentally, the driving purpose remains the same: "to bring business solutions to everyday social challenges people face in Liberia and across Africa."

It's the greatest joy of my life everyday to see how J-Palm has morphed into an organization that really does strive to make a difference. Of course, it's extremely challenging to create any sort of social change, and the pace is often much slower than I'd imagined when I wrote on the back of this envelope in my college dorm room. But it does bring me such joy to look back at the driving mission, and see it concretely come to life today.

One key lesson: every meaningful company should be driven by ideals and values that transcend the textbook definition of "maximizing profits." This is because no business ever goes according to the initial business plan. For J-Palm, it took us more than four years to even become profitable. The challenges and setbacks sometimes are so massive that they paralyze us, sometimes sending me personally into a depressive spiral where it's difficult to even get out of bed in the morning. When things are so bleak, I find it helpful to reflect on the 'Why'. It's always helped me keep things in perspective, this clear vision of why we're on this journey. In other words, the vision has pulled us forward during some of the darkest times.

These days, the challenges we face are less existential threats our existence as a company, and more about how we build systems to scale. Thankfully.

Through it all, I remain very grateful to the more than 300 individuals who have literally and figuratively taken this envelop and this vision on their shoulders everyday- who go to work everyday to ensure that we continue to make this vision a reality. For without this incredible group of (mostly young) people, J-Palm would have remained a pipe dream, stuck to an envelop somewhere.

These days, I get to meet so many people who want to start businesses. There's a tendency to focus overly on the "market size", "unit economics" and "market potential". While these are all critically important, I always have one question:

"Why are you doing This?"

The answer to this question tells me a lot about the future potential of the venture.

For other entrepreneurs reading this who are currently running businesses or want to start, can you articulate why you started or want to start a business? If you can't, put everything on hold and do so now! The 'Why' should be one that scares you, inspires you, and perhaps even gives you goosebumps. That way, you know that when things go rough, you can always tap into that vision to pull you forward.

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