Conscious Business/Focused Growth: A Conversation with Doug Ulman

In Brand Strategy, Purpose, Mission & Values

In March we launched the Storyforge Conscious Business Series, a monthly event to share case studies of purpose-driven companies and to chat with purpose-driven business leaders about how their approach helps them outperform the competition.

At our inaugural event we welcomed Doug Ulman, CEO of Pelotonia – the country’s single largest cycling fundraiser based on ridership – and former CEO of cancer charity LIVESTRONG. During our conversation Doug shared how a singular purpose as the defining strategy for Pelotonia has affected hiring, marketing, fundraising and community outreach, and has enabled the company to raise $106 million in just seven years. We also talked about how clarity of purpose helped him grow LIVESTRONG into a $500-million brand and what private businesses can do to replicate this approach in order to differentiate themselves, attract the best talent, and facilitate growth and expansion while satisfying the needs of all stakeholders.

Below are some excerpts from our discussion:

Haley: You grew LIVESTRONG from a very small non-profit organization into a $500-million global brand. To what do you attribute that remarkable growth?

Doug: I think one of the reasons for the growth was the authenticity of the brand (and I know that sounds strange given the drama that surrounded the founder and the organization). The LIVESTRONG brand was created through a long process of focus groups with cancer survivors and their families. We asked survivors, “What were you thinking [when you were diagnosed]? What do you think about the future? What did you seek out?” The agency came back to us with LIVESTRONG. We asked them why they thought they’d nailed it. Because half of people in the focus group loved it and half the people hated it. You want something that is so emotional it drives people to debate and discuss and become passionate about it. The reason half the people loved it was, they said, “That’s what I aspire to do … I aspire to live strong and have a healthy life post my cancer diagnosis.” The reason people hated it was, they said, “How dare you tell me how to live?” I think it would have been different if it was a corporate-developed slogan that then was superimposed upon a small non-profit organization.

Haley: What did you articulate as your purpose at LIVESTRONG and how did that inform your thinking through all these years of growth?

Doug: The mission there was really all around improving the lives of people affected by cancer. That really became the filter for everything. So when we were faced with a decision, we always asked, “Is this going to help improve people’s lives?” We had a lot of tough decisions to make over the years, but it made it so much simpler to have one filter. There were political issues, policy decisions, things that were very controversial nationally and internationally that we had to decide and we were fortunate that our board basically said, “Let’s look at it through this lens: if this is good for people with cancer then that is the answer we are going with – no matter the backlash, no matter what happens.” They said, “Our purpose is not to raise more money; our purpose is help people with cancer.” It allowed the board and the management team to have a real, singular focus. It made it so much simpler to make decisions.

Haley: How does having a singular purpose affect recruitment and talent management at Pelotonia?

You know, we are fortunate. I would say non-profits have this inherent advantage because it is so much easier to see the purpose. So we have never had a problem attracting talent. But I think we want the right type of talent and so one of the challenges is – when you are focusing on something so broad like cancer – it is hard to focus. We have people who want to come to the organization with the best intentions, wanting to change the world and with a personal connection to the mission … but maybe not a desire to be focused on one specific piece of the puzzle. It’s like Jim Collins always used to say, “It’s easy for us and our business to have indigestion of opportunity.”

Haley: What advice would you have for the for-profit business leader?

Stay really focused and true and don’t get caught up with the shiny objects that are always out there. That is my biggest challenge personally because I honestly think anything is possible, which is good and bad. We can’t lose sight of the engine that really drives Pelotonia, which is the experience of engaging people in a way that they feel like they have just changed the world … and they have.


The second event in the Storyforge Conscious Business Series will be a panel interview titled Conscious Business/Happy People, and will take place Thursday, April 7. For this event, we will be interviewing the leaders of Improving, a conscious business voted a Best Place to Work for six years in a row. For more details visit us at, and register for tickets on Eventbrite.