The first time I get a sense of a startup’s mission is when a founder describes the problem they want to solve.
If I relate to the context of the problem, I quickly start calculating how a business can be built around the opportunity.
This is also how co-founders and early hires initially band together.
They galvanise around a problem and believe they can play a role in the solution. They may also have a sense of the opportunity’s size.
My theory is that if you ask 80% of new teams, ones who are yet to take a product to market or have released their first version, they won’t articulate the same vision or mission.
That’s because creating a clear and compelling vision and mission is difficult. And the time it takes to land on the right set of words is universally underestimated.
You want co-founders, first hires, partners and investors to be instantly captivated by what you stand for. But how do you do that when you don’t know if your starting hypothesis is correct?
In other words, how do you nail a vision and mission statement when you don’t know if people are going to buy what you plan to sell?
I don’t think you can.
Some will disagree. They will claim it comes down to sitting down and methodically working through a framework.
And I understand that people can feel paralysed without guiding principles to start a journey.
But many startups I see and mentor face this challenge and it usually plays out in one of two ways.
The first way involves founders having an interesting idea and creating a prototype. Shortly soon after they receive an enormous amount of conflicting feedback which (ironically) bogs them down. Their response is sequential. They pause on product development and spend time defining their vision and mission.
The second way is founders spend a large chunk of time defining a vision and a mission in a vacuum. They write without any real feedback on their business model and as a result, they (often) end up with generic, noun-rich statements that do little to inspire, much less provide clarity to the job at hand.
I have fallen into both of these traps. And even with the help of the branding agencies, we could afford at the time, clarity on something that should instinctively be simple to nail still felt miles off.
That said, there is a way.
The LinkedIn standard
I have long admired LinkedIn. One of CEO Jeff Weiner’s first orders of business when he joined the company, 6 years after it was co-founded by Reid Hoffman, was to codify LinkedIn’s vision, mission, value proposition and values.
Vision – Create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce
Mission – Connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful
Core value proposition – Connect talent with opportunity at massive scale
Values – Members first; relationships matter; be open, honest and constructive; demand excellence; take intelligent risks; act like an owner
These statements are elegant, simple and inspiring.
And I have an admission.
I spent hours trying to deconstruct and (somehow) re-engineer LinkedIn’s messages in an effort to achieve clarity for my own ventures’ guiding principles,
Jeff proved that formulating compelling strategic narratives is doable.
However, he has a vastly different experience set to most founders. Jeff also benefited from arriving at a company who already had momentum and clues about how they would change the world.
For the most part, early-stage founders won’t have access to this experience.
Instead of putting the brakes on product development to focus on vision and mission or trying to define them in a vacuum, consider another option.
The third way
Here are five steps that have helped me to craft the dream (vision) and the overarching objective for the business (mission).
And while I don’t have your context, I assume you have read this far because you are frustrated and tired of not having strategic clarity for your venture.
1. Go back to basics
Coming together on vision and mission usually elongates when founders develop an obsession for word-smithing these statements. In doing so they also often disconnect from what inspired them to start in the first place.
Go back to the experiences that inspired the venture’s genesis and then look objectively at the three ingredients that need to exist in order for a business to operate:
- Science – Do we understand and can we communicate the discovery or insight that was uncovered?
- Technology – Do we understand and can we communicate the processes that mean the discovery can be repeated efficiently at scale?
- Business model – Do we understand and can we communicate how to create and capture value from the technology?
At the very least there should be a hypothesis behind answers for each of these questions.
2. Keep learning
If you’re not learning you’re wasting time. Keep working to validate the hypotheses you have around your science, technology and business model.
These experiments will continue to inform vision and mission. And the alternative (no learning and postulating in a vacuum) isn’t useful and a surefire way to kill momentum and enthusiasm.
3. Add minds to the challenge
I’ve written about thinking publicly before and this is the next level.
Open a Google Doc (like this one).
Share it with your co-founder(s) and/or selected mentors.
Give them permission to add their versions of vision, mission, value proposition and values no matter how half-formed their thinking is.
Ask these same people to refine their thoughts each month.
You will be surprised at how this level of collaboration will help.
I was speaking with two mentees recently, Nick and Tristan, co-founders of Sempo.ai and they shared a valuable habit that has helped them advance their vision and mission: Apply for pitch competitions and accelerators once a month.
The point is to practice, regularly.
And if you’ve just asked yourself, “what if we win?”, you’ve missed the point.
5. Interrogate the feedback you’ve already got
I remember hearing a regular piece of feedback from AirShr users (our previous venture, this Shazam but for anything you hear on the radio).
“Your product makes me listen differently to radio”. We had provided a way for people to hold on to moments on the radio that they liked and wanted to dive deeper on or share while they were driving.
Over time we realised that listen differently was an important part of the value proposition and our users were telling us that from day one.
The moral of the story: Your users and customer have probably already given you your value proposition (and a key ingredient to help articulate vision and mission).
One last thing …
I understand how fatigue, waning cash and feedback paralysis can make achieving clarity feel like an insurmountable task.
Clarity comes with time.
I subscribe to the idea that learning and practical collaboration with people trying to achieve the same objective IS the way to craft clear, compelling and inspiring business strategy.
However, it’s one thing to be fatigued and frustrated at the lack of vision and mission and quite another for your heart not to be in it.
Every entrepreneur knows the difference.
If it’s the former, I hope these five steps help. If the latter, chalk it up to learning and move onto your next hero’s journey.