Most startups are created in support of an innovation. The innovation should help people somehow and represents an evolution (and likely not a revolution) in our field. Sometimes these are tools to support engineers or engineering teams. Other times, we’re looking to help a company get more telemetry into the devices in the field. Other times, we’re helping people connect to one another or buy or sell or find or even find peace.
In the software industry, these innovations usually fall into one of a few buckets, and this is important, as we’ll call back to this list throughout this blog:
Productivity: The first few decades of the computing industry were all about improving productivity of first mathematicians, then scientists, and then other knowledge workers. Along comes robotics, new industries created as computing became ubiquitous, and productivity gains took on all sorts of new shapes. It’s important to consider the innovation a new company might support in this lens, because many a tool focused around productivity. The best example of this might be a how accounting was done before the 1970s: armies of human computers updated paper spreadsheets, using physical calculators to calculate each row as the column dictated. Then Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston wrote VisiCalc, which was the first spreadsheet. Suddenly, a single person could get done what it previously took multiple people to accomplish.
Telemetry: Once we’d moved a lot of processes into computers, we were able to gain more and more insight into what that data about each process and the status of which meant. This is huge, because it comes with connotations for so much more than just the productivity tools. Once computing became ubiquitous, we could see more than how many widgets were delivered to Pretendco and on what date and for what price. Suddenly, we can see the temperature in our homes, whether there’s a leak in the basement, how many people are at our favorite mall, the price for a hotel if we get stuck at the airport. And these days, we can go a step further and have that information analyzed by various machine learning algorithms to tell us the answer to most any question we can think to ask.
Quality of Life: There are a lot of things we do on computers that have absolutely nothing to do with productivity. In fact, games are quite the opposite in most cases (for those trying to convince themselves otherwise, stop kidding around and get back to work). Quality of life goes beyond seeing the temperature in the home but telling a smart speaker to make it more comfortable. Or giving us instant access to every photo we’ve taken or every song ever recorded in the history of humankind.
The mission of our organization is then to foster an innovation around one or more of these. The mission is then to bring the technology to the people and so improve productivity or improve the telemetry to a given pice of data not previously available or improve the quality of someone’s life. Hopefully we’re able to do all three, because that’s a mission that we can easily recruit others to join us on.
Then the mission statement becomes simple. OK, so not quite simple...
Define the Mission
A big idea just isn’t enough. We have to distill our passion down into a simple to read statement about what we do, who we are, and why we do it. Writing a lot of text is easy. We have 400-500 pages to go through the life of a startup in a book. Or an unlimited number of blog posts. But writing a single, impactful sentence is hard. Less is more (work).
Mission statements should be between one and three sentences. Nearly every startup ever founded should have a one sentence mission statement. If it’s two sentences then we’ve likely overcomplicated what we’re doing. We boiled our passion down into one powerful sentence long before Twitter began. We use it to be aspirational but honest about what this new organization is here to do. Remember, productivity, telemetry, and quality of life. We are improving one or more of those for humans. Once we have the what, the why is often self-explanatory.
We don’t want to be overly-aspirational or visionary - as that’s what a Vision Statement is for (we’ll get to that later). We want to ask a few questions and think about which are at the top of our priority list:
Who are our customers?
What do our customers value?
What kind of image do we want the company to have?
What problem is the company in business to solve? Do we have a purpose beyond that?
Why do we want people to want to work here?
What are the company goals?
How do the products we make support those goals?
How are we different from competitors?
Now that we’ve answered those, make a list and prioritize them. Try to connect them with a philosophical theme - what is under the hood of everything else? Take a Plato-esque stroll through an olive garden (not the restaurant) and try to think more deeply about, if most businesses fail, why start one? Pro-tip: it’s about more than just the money.
Write the Mission Statement
Once we understand and can articulate a little more about what we’re here to do, let’s take another step and try to put that into a single sentence called the Mission Statement. Before we try and write our own, let’s look at a few from existing companies. For example, the mission statement should be inspiring. Take Tesla’s:
“To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.”
It’s succinct, and if we look at their website, ever since they integrated the panels from Solar City into the main Tesla site, we can see that it’s about more than cars. But if they weren’t an Elon Musk company that might seem like overly inspirational. Take TED, the makers of TED Talks:
Now, here’s where ambition creeps into the picture with these missions statements. Once a brand name is a household name, we can have lofty statements like that. A startup is likely to more closely resemble the mission statement from LinkedIn, who was once a startup and still often acts as a startup (in a good way):
“To connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful.”
Other than using the word “to” twice, we like this because the statement says they make professionals more productive and successful and the how: by connecting people from around the world. Let’s also look at Workday, a lesser known brand but one almost universally known to people that have worked in large or growing enterprises:
“To put people at the center of enterprise software.”
The makers of Workday were the CEO and former Chief Strategist of PeopleSoft. They created the company after Oracle did a hostile takeover in 2005. By 2012 they did an IPO for close to ten billion dollars. They are probably one of the simplest HR tools to use and most workers would only see a fraction of what it can do. This is because they put the people first - which roughly translates to great UX and when faced with a decision of code complexity versus ease of use complexity, making the choice that helps people. Here, not only is the mission statement a flag in the ground that Workday is an enterprise software company - but it’s an instruction to employees to put the user of a tool at the center of the decision making. It’s part of the culture.
For our last example, we’ll look at Patagonia because they pack a lot into a simple sentence:
“Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”
If we pretend not to care about the lack of an Oxford Comma in the Patagonia example, we can see that the organization puts product first. But only when not doing harm. And here we can use our imaginations: to the environment, to humans through predatory business, etc. And to go further and actually try to implement environmental solutions - which makes a reader think that maybe some of the Patagonia profits go to such ends. And indeed, 1% of Patagonia profits go to such endeavours.
The above examples are brands we all know and love. Let’s go back to what the innovation that our organization is built to support does. We make a thing and we want to say why. If we’re new, we need to keep it to a sentence. If we have space in the sentence we can go further and say either how or inspirationally what we might do if we’re successful like Patagonia. But don’t lose sight of which bucket we fall into.
Now, let’s just write the sentence. Or put it off and think about value statements (and so values) first... We'll cover that soon...