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Why should your company exist on this earth?
There should come a moment in your life where you wake up and realize that this is your life, your one and only life. You’ve got to find something worth living for.
If you're a founder of a startup then you better damn well think what you're building is worth living for. Really, the early stage of your journey should be the best time of your life.
I can tell you - my friends and I look back at ‘the grind’ as the best days. It’s a fact - to be successful you will spend the next three years working twelve hours a day without stopping. No breaks. If you don't believe in what you're working for, then that is going to be painful.
To make your startup the best days of your life instead of a constant mental beatdown, you need to find a mission statement. And in this post I will motivate and inspire you to find your mission.
Why have a mission statement?
To separate yourself from the herd of opportunists and quitters. To attract and excite co-founders, partners, customers, and investors.
If you're a tech investor in this country - whether it's in Silicon Valley, in some back Silicon Alley, or in a Silicon Galley - you're looking for a person with talent, tenacity and a mission. This is how investors think.
If we’re meeting you before you have traction, all we can do is bet on you as a person and your mission. We call it ‘betting on the jockey, not the horse.’ We need to believe in your mission, because even if you have a ‘million dollar idea,’ in reality it’s just a paper tiger, meaningless.
No investor will take your idea seriously without that mission. I don't care how much market research you have or whatever your product looks like. I don't care if you have a team or a thousand slaves (interns) at your disposal. I don't care that your pitch is AirBnB meets IronMan for Santa Claus (although, a service where you give gadgets in exchange for a place to sleep sounds kind of cool). All that I care about is your mission and your chops.
If the goal of your startup is to pick up the scraps of another business or to beat another company at their own game, you haven't found a mission, just a way to work and maybe make a little money. Teams without missions don’t follow through, they quit. In the early stages of investing, where StartEngine lives, that’s a very bad bet to make. Quitters never have a mission, and quitters always are a waste of investment capital.
All this is to say - if you’re having a hard time coming up with a true and inspiring mission statement that matches what you do, it’s a great warning sign that you’re headed for trouble.
Missions, strategies and tactics
Usually when I ask a founder what their mission is, they will say, “build a website for people to buy our stuff”. But that's not a mission. That's not a rallying cry. A website for people to buy stuff is just a tactic. “Alright,” the founders will say, “Then I want to build a company, and we’ll bring in customers through our value in blah-blah-blah” and at that point I'll tune out because that's not a mission either, it's a strategy.
When I say that I want to know your mission, I'm really saying that I want to know how you're going to change the world. It has to be inspirational. Your founders, employees, friends, customers, investors, and mentors all have to buy into your mission and rally behind it.
At StartEngine, we take missions very seriously. Every one of our startups has their mission right on the first slide of their deck.
Let’s talk about StartEngine’s mission - make LA a top tech city. Everyone at StartEngine knows and wholeheartedly supports this mission.
It just so happens that our product, mentorship and entrepreneurial success, falls in line with that mission. But entrepreneurial success isn't our mission. In order to accomplish our mission of making LA a top tech city, we offer the product of entrepreneurial success. Our mission comes first, and our product follows.
Let me break it down one more time:
Mission: Make LA a top Tech City.
Strategy: Create as many companies and successful founders as we can. This creates a ‘feed forward’ effect on the LA startup ecosystem.
Tactic: Give money and mentorship to highly talented and inspiring founders who will use those resources to create something of higher value - a company that employs and provides value to many.
Easy enough, right?
Finding the right mission
You can’t logic your way into a great mission statement. If you don't have a sense of purpose in life and business, then whatever mission statement you come up with is going to sound half-assed and forced. Rightly so, because it reflects reality. Take that as your canary in the coal mine, and adjust accordingly.
To find the right mission, first start by asking yourself some very basic questions. Who are you? What do you do? How do you do it? Who do you do it for? Who is your customer? What does your customer expect? What are your core values? Don't just list your core values as honesty and integrity, everyone does that. Think about what is at the core of your business.
You seen Shrek? Course you have. Startups are like onions (of course, considering that ogres are like onions as well, then startups are like ogres, but that's a different blog).
You have to peel away all your layers to find your mission. All of them. Get to the core of your startup by peeling away your waxy outer layer of skin and moving past your superficial exterior (that one ring that gets stripped along with the skin), past your fears and regrets (the bulk of the onion), past your college years and any time you spent in high school (the inner onion-sanctum).
Most importantly, you have to ask yourself “Why?” all the time. This will make sense when we review what other of our companies went through to establish their mission.
All the big guys have great mission statements. Not a coincidence.
A mission statement needs to be unassailable; a mission statement must be a rallying cry. It should be so inclusive that it’s almost scary, yet still simple.
Google: Organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.
Wikimedia Foundation: Empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally.
Microsoft: Help people and businesses throughout the world realize their full potential. (Originally it was “put a PC on every desk” but they had to change it after they accomplished their mission. By the way, I wish I had problems like that.)
Amazon: Be the earth's most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.
Ebay: Provide a global trading platform where practically anyone can trade practically anything.
Yahoo: Connect people to their passions, their communities, and the world's knowledge.
Every one of these missions is lofty and short. Nothing should be more than 25 words (Wikimedia's 30 really pushes it). Notice there is no mention of strategy or tactics, except in Wiki’s case.
Looking at the missions of behemoth companies can be discouraging, I realize.
So let’s talk about a smaller company and their journey to develop a mission statement.
When GoodFit first came to me, I asked them about their mission. They didn’t have one. It no longer surprises me like it used to. Par for the course these days.
Thankfully, they had already identified their problem. People return clothes they’ve purchased online due to the opacity of the fitting process when you buy online. Their solution is to use big data and a simple quiz to find out whether a pair of jeans will fit you, making your decision more transparent. They suggested that their mission, therefore, should be to help people pick the right size before purchase.
I told them that helping a person pick a size is just a tactic to bring a person in. What they really are doing, at the most basic level, is making it easier to shop online and be satisfied with your purchase. They do it using math and science. A huge number of people in the US and abroad are using online shopping. So GoodFit is changing the world by making online shopping better, and that’s the basis of their mission statement.
Here’s what the new mission statement is: “Improve the online shopping experience using math and science”
As I mentioned above, they currently use a simple quiz that’s 10x better than their competitors and very accurate to get it done. But they are open to using whatever strategy and tactics they must to accomplish it. No one knows exactly what that could be in a few years, which is why mission statements are helpful in the long run.
Look here at the beauty of the mission statement - it makes their lives a whole lot easier. Presented with any choice, simply refer back to the mission.
Q: Should I come out with a product that makes an ecommerce store prettier?
A: Nope, doesn’t involve math and science.
Q: Should I sell GoodFit belts?
A; No, doesn’t improve the online shopping experience, and also doesn’t use math or science.
A: Yes, because it improves online shopping experience (returns suck) and does it using math and science.
Q: Should I use data analysis to see what people who buy jeans also tend to buy, and offer that to them at a discount through an app or plugin?
A: Yes, but not right now. This improves the shopping experience by illuminating unseen possibility for the user, increasing relevant options, and uses math and science to do so. Potential business opportunity for GoodFit after they get significant traction/returns from their current strategy.
Above, we've seen that the mission statement not only allows you to clear your mind of things you should not do, but also to realize things you should do.
Now what do you do once you’ve found your mission?
You follow through, of course. Take Microsoft for example. Microsoft's first mission was to create a world in which there was a computer on every desk. A computer on every desk is a great thing for the world. It is not an easy feat by any stretch of the imagination, and succeeding at this lofty mission would be difficult even for the biggest of companies. Yet Microsoft was able to succeed because they followed-through with their strategies and tactics.
In the early days of computers, every computer manufacturer and hardware maker had their own operating system. Microsoft, by licensing their OS, was able to standardize the software and revolutionize the business. Microsoft allowed software to become portable between companies. They allowed companies to become successful by building software that ran compatible with their own. People could suddenly build software for everyone, instead of just a particular maker's clients. The standardized OS allowed for computers to be mass produced because it turned out people were more interested in the software than the hardware of the machines. IBM lost a step but Microsoft excelled.
So Microsoft made it possible for nearly every American, and many millions of people around the world, to own a computer and change their lives for the better. They were successful and now their mission is to “Help people and businesses throughout the world realize their full potential.” Having accomplished their one mission, they didn’t stop working.
It also didn’t lessen the impact and value of their first mission. Quite the contrary, by succeeding in a lofty mission, by accomplishing their task and following through with their intentions, it makes their second mission all the more important. It makes Microsoft's credibility go through the roof. If you can accomplish your mission, it means you can do almost anything, so you’d better pick a new one and get to work on that.
You’ll know it when you feel it
If you create a great mission statement, you’ll make better decisions, attract good talent, convince investors, and get lots of customers. If you don’t, you’ll repel all of the above.
Recently, I was at Patagonia, the clothing company, because their fund, 20 and Change, has decided to begin investing in tech. But the most important thing that I took away from my visit to their office was that their mission was everywhere. It was scrawled on walls, people printed it out and posted it in their cubicles, it was printed on clothing and office supplies. It was everywhere. Wherever I looked I saw, “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions towards solving environmental crises.” And you know what? It rubbed off. Every person I talked to felt strongly about their mission. All their employees, every single one of their board members honestly believed in it.
How do you know when you’ve created a great mission statement? You’ll know it when you feel it.
** What’s your mission statement? How’d you come up with it? Tweet me @HowardMarks or comment here.
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