Why Give a Damn:

The question all entrepreneurs should ask themselves: What are you married to? If you don’t know what you are married to, you might not make it to the honeymoon part of the start-up!


The author of this post, Daniela Papi, spent six years working in Cambodia where she founded PEPY, PEPY Tours, and Learning Service. In terms of her next start-up dreams, she’s still trying to figure out what business to get married to next!


Through my work at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship in Oxford, I get the chance to interact with a lot of successful and aspiring entrepreneurs. I see a key difference between the groups that effectively get their organizations off the ground and the ones that stall. The ones who are able to move forward are easily able to answer the question:

What are you married to?

By “marriage”, I mean: What is the ESSENTIAL part of your plan that you are married to and unwilling to break away from?

Entrepreneurs who successfully launch can answer the question: What are you married to?  Tweet This Quote

Similar questions might be: What is your goal? What does success look like? Why are you doing this?

People often start enterprises with more than one goal in mind. They may have a lot of different reasons for launching and might be able to visualize success in many ways. The good thing about the “What are you married to?” question is that it implies a commitment to something specific. Without that, I have seen numerous projects, including my own, flounder or fail to get off the ground.

Founding teams seem to get stuck on these issues in two ways: they are either not married to ANYTHING and get torn apart by lack of direction and different priorities. Or they marry themselves to too many things at once, making it impossible to realize their goals.

Let me give you an example:

Helping the “Poorest of the Poor” & Mobile Technology: I met with a group of people who were looking to bring their business model to a remote area of Africa and in their plan they stated that they were committed to reaching “the poorest of the poor.” They also expressed their resolve to deliver their product via mobile phones. And they wanted to base themselves in the UK while they did it.

My questions to the team were: What are you MARRIED to? Which of these “requirements” is fixed? Because if they ALL are, you might not get anywhere!

Mature businesses rarely look anything like the original business plan (i.e. Nokia started as a paper mill, and was a boot company at one point!)

If they were resolute in their marriage to the idea of using mobile tech to deliver their platform, they might have needed to give up the idea of reaching “the poorest of the poor” given their business model. Or, if they were unwaveringly married to the idea of reaching “the poorest of the poor”, then they needed to first consider the BEST way to reach those communities, and be open to the possibility that it might not be through a mobile app. Or, if they were committed to staying in the UK and steadfast on that decision, then they needed to figure out a different business model, team structure, or split leadership plan which allowed them to accomplish their personal goals and get their business off the ground. And, if they were married to the idea of running a business, not a non-profit, then they needed to come up with a model to achieve all of this that would make enough money to keep their business afloat.

In this case, it would have been impossible to be married to all of these things at once, which prevented them from even getting off the ground.

The right pivots are impossible to make if you have a laundry list of ‘fixed’ criteria.  Tweet This Quote

Knowing what you are married to can help you and your team prioritize when fundamental concepts around your business are challenged. Mature businesses rarely look anything like the original business plan (i.e. Nokia started as a paper mill, and at one point was a boot company!), start-ups need to be prepared to pivot away from their first idea. Pivots are possible with a few fixed points (i.e. we know we are married to a for-profit model and we are committed to helping employ people from XYZ community). A group with these fixed criteria might have started with a business model involving mobile phone based sales, and then later realize their model wasn’t achieving their impact goals, so they pivot their business to an in-person sales model.

Pivoting away from your plan becomes impossible if you have a laundry list of “fixed” criteria (i.e. we know we are married to a for-profit model, that serves the “poorest of the poor” in XYZ community, and must use this specific mobile technology, and we need to be based in this other specific location while we do it, and…). If this group’s initial business idea starts to prove ineffective, it will be really hard for them to pivot if they are indeed “married” to all of these things.

You want to create social impact? You need to be married to the desired impact.  Tweet This Quote

From the groups I have worked with and mentored, I believe this can specifically be an issue in social entrepreneurship. As an ideas person myself, I too often get caught up in a new concept, and get carried away with thinking about the business model before I step back and ask myself, “What am I married to with this idea? Is it the business model I’m in love with, or the impact this model will have?”

I have seen a few social enterprises drift away from achieving their mission by failing to get married to the impact they wanted to have. One group had trajectory similar to this:

Here is another example.

They might have decided to throw their social business idea out the window…

Employing Immigrant Women & Sewing Classes: A group of budding social entrepreneurs noticed that many immigrant women were having problems finding employment in their city. They decided to set up a business employing recent immigrants to teach sewing classes to paying customers. After a year’s trial they realized that the unemployed women were not great teachers, so they began to employ professional sewing instructors to teach the classes.

In this case, it didn’t work to marry themselves to their original sewing classes model AND the goal of employing immigrant woman AND running a for-profit business. Their business model proved to be financially unviable with that setup. At that stage, they asked themselves: What are we married to?

If the answer was, “We’re married to employing immigrant women”, then they would have needed to significantly shift their business model, perhaps throwing their sewing class idea out the window and asking themselves “What OTHER businesses could we run to employ these same women?” If they decided they weren’t married to the idea of running a business but instead married themselves to “helping immigrant women get jobs” they might have decided to throw their social business idea out the window and instead run a non-profit that was doing skills training and job matching for immigrant women. Instead they married themselves to the sewing classes, meaning that their impact changed. They were no longer trying to help immigrant women, but focused on teaching more people how to sew.

There is nothing wrong with running an awesome sewing education business…. if you are extremely passionate about teaching people how to sew!

Sit down with your founding team and do some pre-marriage counseling.  Tweet This Quote

So to all the budding social entrepreneurs out there: If you are married to a specific change you want to see in the world, make sure you make that clear to your team, your funders, and yourself. Look at your original business plan and ask yourself – “What parts of this plan am I MARRIED to? Which part, if it needed to change, would make me NOT want to do this idea any more?” If you are married to achieving a specific impact, that might mean you need to be willing to throw out other parts of your business model if your plan fails. Sit down with your founding team and do some pre-marriage counseling – make sure you are all on the same page about which things you would be willing to change, and which things are grounds for a divorce. If you don’t know what you are married to, you might not even make it to the honeymoon part of the start-up!

About the author

Daniela Papi

Daniela Papi

Daniela is the Deputy Director at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, co-founder of LearningService.info, and owner and founder of PEPY Tours.

  • danielapapi

    Have you had an experience where you were part of an organization that went off-track as the team didn’t know what they were “married” to, or because different members of the management team were married to different things? If so, share!

  • jbrycewilson

    Ooh I really like this. It focuses precisely on the necessary point that start-ups shouldn’t get married to a component of their business, but should be married to a goal or objective. This allows the opportunity to pivot, instead of trying to make something work that isn’t providing the value that a market is seeking. Reminds me of aspects of the book the Lean Startup.

  • anp042

    Good stuff. Taking a step back and asking yourself “why?” goes right along with this in my opinion. I think this is why it’s so important to have a focused and concise mission that reflects what the founder is “married” to in the organization. This guiding principle will help those with too many desired circumstances to throw out the BS.

  • natebbeard

    Really enjoyed the insight, Daniela! It seems like reassessing the entrepreneurs’ core motivations returns the focus of startups back to the founding team. The group of people committed to solving a problem in the most effective way possible by possessing the ability to adapt. Adaptation doesn’t have much value if the person’s end-goal isn’t clearly defined. Strategic implementation of a business plan seems to be based off of this concept. The environment is always changing and there will always be uncertainties and unknown events caused by a decision. Maybe the only real response template that can be used in a business plan is how to frame a problem keeping one goal in mind: what are we married to.

  • tayler_schroeder

    I love the unique “married” aspect for describing the essential part of a business plan. This reminds me of the business plan I am working on now for my senior synthesis class. We are working with a start-up company that wants a restaurant and nightclub. We have researched and discovered that their vision isn’t the best for the location they want. They are “married” to their idea and really want to open up a restaurant so in our business plan we are able to present them with recommendations on how to go about pursuing a restaurant in a more successful way. Great post!

  • Amanda Laatsch ?

    I think this is a great article to read because you can
    apply it to everyday life. Often time’s
    people get themselves involved in too many things and they become overwhelmed
    and they end up failing in all of the things. If you want to be successful you
    have to focus on your attention on one, maybe two things. Focusing your
    attention on this one thing will make it so that all of your attention is on
    this and you can put your whole heart and all of your time into it. And
    sometimes there isn’t one certain thing someone is passionate about, and how
    can you be successful if there isn’t something you are passionate about? My
    question for you is how do you determine what you are married to?

  • amykahl8

    This is great advice because it’s important to really know what you want and to go after it! One thing I don’t understand is how a business can suddenly change it’s target group or the product it was making. How does this happen? Also, how does an entrepreneur know which part of their business idea to be married to? What if they totally make the wrong choice and they end up nowhere?

  • katie bartlein

    Never would have thought of this idea on my own! I think this advices allows start-ups to look at the big picture before they even get started. Like stated in the post, in other words it is the main goals of the program. The only question I had while reading this, was can the ‘marriage’ change throughout the program? Such as Nokia, who ‘pivoted’. Would the marriage aspect of the company change as well? Or when does a person know it is time to make such a huge change and commitment?

  • Jessica Walker

    This was an interesting approach to goal setting. At first I was uneasy about the topic because I think it is important to have goals, but I also realize you have to actually want your goals. It is also key to realize why you want to reach that goal. Because in the end, you most likely want to be successful, and if you aren’t sure why you want to reach your goal, you probably aren’t going to. Having a set in stone reason for why you would do anything to reach a specific goal will lead to success. This may be hard to do, but I feel it will block out the outside distractors and keep you focused on why you really want to do this. I do like having multiple goals, is having more than one too many? Can you “marry” more than one goal?

  • Frank Seidel

    Met somebody similar to the “Helping the “Poorest of the Poor” & Mobile Technology” entrepreneurs: she wanted to sell a tool kit to illetarate African women to enable them to do online work. Some crazy ideas out there.

  • Tkachukme11

    So I completely agree with being “married” to your main goals behind your company. Being part of a marriage means being loyal and having full devotion, so those two aspects are definitely required when having a strict business plan. However, can you ever “divorce” your business plan? Is that what you would call it if you completely had to switch things up. For example, lets say there is a big crisis in your business, would you have to remarry different ideas? Or would you stay loyal to the marriage and defend it since you love being part of the marriage? I am a PR major so crisis communication is a big part of it and this is something that I am just curious about.

  • Tammy Hartmann

    Skoll, great article, thank you for sharing. I really liked, “Entrepreneurs who successfully launch can answer the question: What are you married to?” Also, I love how you chose the word “married.” It’s a good time to revisit to make sure we are all on the same page. My question: how can we work with people who don’t have the same passion or are not on the same page about businesses/organizations/events.
    Any advice?

  • danielapapi

    Hi Tammy – If you are looking to get into business with someone, especially as a co-founder, you do indeed need to make sure you share the same goals for the work you are doing…. or else you are likely to both be disappointed! If there are people you think are fantastic, but who don’t align with your vision, you could bring them in to train your team, work with them as a consultant, or share your learning with them in some way, but you probably don’t want to get “married” as co-founders!

  • danielapapi

    Thanks for the questions. In this case, by “marriage” I don’t mean committing your life to a specific business. If your organization is not working, not having the impact you want it to have, or you think your skills would be better used to reach your goals for the world in some other area, then closing down operations is not a bad thing. The point I am trying to make is actually the opposite of “getting married to the business”…. I think social entrepreneurs, who really are committed to a specific change they want to see in the world, need to get married to the IMPACT they want to have, NOT to the business model they come up with. Then, if the business model proves to not be aligned with achieving their goal, they can pivot, change their model, or move forward with a totally different organization, as they will have been married to achieving an IMPACT, not to a specific business model. Does that resonate with you?

  • danielapapi

    And it’s not that the ideas are necessarily “crazy” – they usually are fueled by good intentions…. but if we try to move forward with a specific business model and are also trying to help a specific set of people or solve a specific problem, and we see that those things are not all aligned we need to ask ourselves, “Am I willing to change my business plan? Or would I prefer to change my target audience or the impact goal I have for the world?” The choice is yours, you just need to know which one is more important to you!

  • danielapapi

    Good question. I think you indeed can have more than one goal, and in fact you will probably have HUNDREDS of smaller goals along the way, but the question is, which thing(s), if it changed, would make me NOT want to be a part of this business anymore.

  • danielapapi

    Thanks for the questions, Katie. If your goal as business is to make as much money as possible while operating ethically, and that is what you set up your business to do, well then you can certainly pivot and sell hundreds of different things while still saying true to your original goal. You’d probably select the things to sell which look promising to bring in the most money. On the other hand, if you set up a business or organization to help improve the environment in your community, and your work started to prove that it was actually HARMING the environment, you’d have to ask yourself “Am I committed to the goal of improving the environment?” – in which case in order to stay married to that goal, you’d need to change your business model.

  • danielapapi

    If they don’t know what their “goal” is for the business, they probably will indeed go nowhere! What is most important is that the whole founding team has the same goals, or else everyone will be pulling the organization in different directions. Businesses shift all the time – based on the environment around them, the team and skills they bring in, the opportunities they see in the world, the actions of their competitors, new technologies, economic conditions, etc…. in order to stay in business, an organization has to be able to adjust to changing situations around them. What is important though, is if the goal of the organization is more than just making money (so if it has a social or environmental mission) the organization needs to pivot if those positive impacts are not being achieved. if they are NOT willing to do so, then they are not married to that impact after all!

  • danielapapi

    If you aren’t passionate about something specific, then you probably aren’t going to put all of the energy and commitment it takes into starting a start-up. Instead ask yourself, what do I want to learn? Then go out and get a job in a place where you can learn those things. As you learn more, and gain more skills, if you get to a point where you think starting a start-up really does make sense for you, it will be because you are really passionate about something you want to create in the world, and you’ll know it when that time comes!

  • danielapapi

    Good luck! And thanks for your comment!

  • danielapapi

    And then aligning a way to “test” success towards that goal. That is easy if your main goal is making money: all you need to do is look at your financial reports to see if you are on the right track. But if your goal is a specific change you want to see in the world, then you have to set up systems to check to make sure you are indeed still following your north star!

  • danielapapi

    Indeed! This is a matter of asking yourself “WHY are we starting this business? What are our goals and how will we know if we got there?”

  • danielapapi

    Thanks! Indeed – knowing what your goals are is essential to any start up!

  • AmandaBrom

    I believe
    your question of “what are you married to” can be used in almost everything
    people do. When you start a new business or go on to get a higher education you
    are always making a commitment. Once you find your reason for that commitment
    or your many goals, it makes it easier for you to stay true to yourself and
    your goals. This article can help anyone who is about to make the next step in
    their life or anyone who is looking to start a new business. When you first
    started out what were you married to? Are you still married to that same idea?

  • Brandon

    Thanks for the article!!! I would say i am married to working out and have a great goals to look forward to and achieve them. I think its true you have to be “married” to something. If you don’t you have any hobbies or something you will be good at in life. Helps you be successful in the business world to have goals and make your company successful.

  • Evan Hibbs

    Daniela, thank you for the article. I would say I’m married to coaching basketball and school. I know what I want to do with my life and I have a structured plan. I love coaching, I don’t love school, but I know to become a teacher I have to love school if I plan on getting through it. I want to be a great coach and get better year after year if I can. What was the start-up plan for your marriage?

  • Kevin Weber

    Thanks for the article! I would say I’m married to staying fit and educating people on eating healthy. It’s something I have a passion for, and it’s what I am pursuing in college. People need to find their passion in life and become married to it. You can’t half-ass something, otherwise it won’t get accomplished. I believe that this concept can be applied to everyday life. You look at what you want to accomplish and you become married to it. My question for you is are you still married to the same things when you started off?

  • Jcoppa

    I’ve never thought of this before. Being completely determined for one thing, that’s a great ideal. I often get these spurt of energy where I am so excited about several things and I try to develop too many skills, get overwhelmed and quit everything altogether. Having my mind set on one thing would help build that skill and then I could move onto the next possibly.

    Thank you for this article, it gave my fresh perspective that I need. My question is how can you stick to one thing when your interested in a new idea every month?

  • danielapapi

    Thanks for your comment, Amanda. When we started PEPY, we were interested in “supporting education in Cambodia” – and the best way we thought to do that was to build a school. It turns out, school buildings don’t teach kids…. people do. So eventually we shifted focused and started investing in people. If we had been married to the idea of “building schools” we might have kept on building more and more school buildings which might have sat empty. But since our larger goal was improving education, once we realized that a school building couldn’t do that alone, we needed to change strategies in order to stay on focus. Hope that helps!

  • danielapapi

    Hi Brandon. I think we can all have MANY goals at once, as I am sure you do. What I think is important though, is that if you start a business or an organization, you know what your goals for THAT business is. In other words, you could get involved in a non-profit that had a goal of improving education (see my comment below to Amanda for more on this) and also get involved in starting a business that is committed to making light affordable to people who don’t currently have electricity (see here for example http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniela-papi/5-tips-for-how-to-solve-t_b_1940980.html) Both of those have different goals, or things they are “married” to – which is fine – what matters to stay on track is that everyone involved in the management of each of those two organizations is onboard with the main goal of that organization. Hope that helps!

  • danielapapi

    Hi Evan – Thanks for your comments and question. One way to look at this might be to say, “Whenever I take on something new, I am going to ask myself, what are my goals for myself, and for the world, in taking this on.” For example, if your goal in being a coach is to help young people gain self-confidence through sports, and you find out that your coaching style is diminishing your players’ confidence, even if they are winning games, then you will want to change your style… etc. Read the comments below for Brandon and Amanda as well as those might help illustrate this further!

  • danielapapi

    Hi Kevin –

    I think we need to be willing to/open to/give permission to ourselves to change what we are passionate about. I am sure that during your lifetime you will have many different jobs. That said, if you are committed to always having a job with a positive impact on the world, if you eventually start working for a company that you later find out is not very ethical or causing harm, then you might look at your goals and decide you want to quit, change companies, or try to fix or expose the problem. What you are married to might be best achieved through understanding what change you want to see in the world, rather than HOW to achieve that change. In other words, if you are currently “educating people on eating healthy” through a specific type of training you are offering people, and you later find out that it isn’t working (aka the people you train are still keeping their bad eating habits) then you might want to change the course you are offering, or try some other type of intervention. Your goal (helping people become more healthy) might be the same, but HOW you do that and WHAT you offer might change. Hope that helps ! If you read the last three comments below that might help as well!

  • danielapapi

    Hi Jcoppa. You are certainly talking to the right person – I have new ideas each week that I want to get involved in! I don’t think that is a problem. You can be involved in more than one thing at once, if you have the time/interest/commitment to do that. That said, if you know that one of your goals is to be involved in organizations that are having a positive impact on the world while maintaining a calm lifestyle, and you feel like your life is becoming to stressful with too many commitments, you’ll then need to reconsider and reallocate your time. Hope that helps! The last few comments below might also be useful!

  • Evan Hibbs

    Daniela, thank you for the reply. After reading some of your comments about furthering education in Cambodia, many times when a person sets a goal, they end up changing their goals along the way, and find new and better ways to accomplish their ultimate goals. You mentioned that school buildings weren’t the solution, but the people in the buildings were the real solution. I also agree that the technology of a school doesn’t matter if the other people in the school aren’t willing to make a difference. Thank you for your reply and positive feedback.

  • Tkachukme11

    Thank you for explaining that to me!

  • alexlavine

    I am married to coaching. It has been been such a valuable experience and opportunity for me. I started coaching because I loved the game and the sport, but as you get into its the relationships that you develop along the way that makes its special. Its helping the players you have to be as successful as they can be. Its about developing a team us before me culture. When everyone is pulling from the same end of the rope coaching is most enjoyable thing in the world. The ability to impact young people and help them is something that has no monetary value. The relationships will last forever, but money will not.

  • gaulrappkj17

    I think it is okay to be dedicated to a goal or an idea, but married to it? I am finding that this is a bit over the top. I do not understand why so many people would rather be married to things, rather than to a husband or wife, or married to the idea of being a great father or mother to your children.

  • CamilleYip

    I definitely agree with you on this article. I do feel as though sometimes people think that they need to be “married” to their idea in order to make it really successful or to be able to actually make a dent in history.

  • Alexa A Dralle

    I agree with you as well. I think that dedication is extremely important to success, and without it, failure is a lot more likely. But i also think that being “married” to a goal is too much. you need to be open to other things and be more well rounded. People and relations are far more important in success.

  • Kaylie Mae Kuhnke

    i think of myself as a very goal oriented person. some goals i obsess over and other are just there in the back of my mind. i dont think being passionate about something and wanting to achieve a curtain thing or dedicated to work makes you a bad person. but sometimes that focus on one thing can make you miss out on others

  • RadebaugVP02

    I agree that dedication is key but I also believe you can dedicate yourself to more than one thing. You can dedicate yourself to more than one goal. I don’t think people should just have one goal, set many and become married to them all.

  • barema28

    I agree! Being married to something that you really care about is something special. What a lot of people are saying is that if a person is married to their idea they can’t be married to their husband/wife. And sometimes this is the case, people marry their business/idea and don’t think that a personal marriage is necessary for their happiness. I am also a coach and doing it every day is awesome. Seeing the impact it has on players. So rewarding.

  • Travis Mattice

    I like how you described your coaching experience. Seems like you are working to really make a difference and I think that is important. I think if the opportunity to coach comes up for me I will give it a try and see if I can make that difference too.

  • kgonyo

    Understanding what the most important aspect is to us is essential to moving forward. By maintaining a clear vision and knowing what you are willing and unwilling to compromise on, you can grow with a purpose and create a loyal following.

  • Tyler Hebert

    I think that it’s super cool that Nokia was a paper mill company and then a boot company. Business plans don’t always go the way they are planned and I find that super interesting. Also some ideas get thrown out the window like the example in this article.