How to define a mission and vision for your startup

(and why they’re so damn important)

[box type=”tick” border=”full” icon=”none”]Today’s awesome guest post is by Jason Halstead, the founder of Gist Brands. I asked Jason to write this because I am a big fan of his work and this is really important stuff for you to think about as you bring to life your idea. Enjoy. [/box]When we say “startups,” we think about bootstrapped, edgy, adaptive, and agile cultures that don’t get caught up in the way things have always been done…and don’t really want to. That frequently means they look at “strategy” like the plague and written plans as nothing more than a vehicle for dust.

After all, a lot of startups can’t think beyond a single month in advance, and not just because they’re wildly busy or just ADD. In some cases, they are pioneering market areas or business models that are truly changing week-by-week, and keeping pace means not being too attached to any specific roadmap or tactic.

But honestly, if you want to be an effectively responsive and rapidly evolving culture, what could be more valuable and helpful than knowing the baselines; the “what and why” behind your business (your mission) and “where you want to go” (your vision)? In fact, how effective do you think your path will be without them?

They’re already somewhere in your DNA, and unlocking that code will help you grow and evolve better and faster.

If you think about it, the two concepts of mission and vision were likely part of the inspiration behind starting your business in the first place, even if you’ve never clearly articulated them. And rather than getting in your way, those principles can really help you be adaptive and smart. A good mission and vision keep you focused on your bigger goal and opportunity in the entrepreneurial maelstrom, rather than getting lost in the tyranny of daily details.

Likely one of your interests in being an entrepreneur or founding a startup is the inspiration of the culture, vision, and values of other startups or small businesses you’ve read about or experienced. They were “different.” They had meaning. They were more (insert one:) personal, inspirational, socially responsible, tailored to you and your needs. Many of those cultures were casually accidental, driven simply by a founder’s personality and character, but even then that founder typically felt a calling (mission) and had a direction they wanted to develop it (vision.)

It’s smarter to get out in front and articulate them, though. Distilling those two ideas down into short, accessible, and appealing language goes a long way to not only communicate your passion and idea to others (customers, employees, investors, shareholders) but also setting your own clear intention. They can equally drive your desire, business model, value proposition, and customer engagement. They can inspire others, demonstrate shared interests to potential customers or partners, attract or prequalify employees, and give everyone something to rally around.

Money (and mission and vision) talks.

When something doesn’t quite exist yet (i.e. startup) it’s even more important to be able to easily share with people what it’s meant to be. Startups actually exist in the future, not so much the present, so this makes being able to make your ideas exist outside your brain and beyond a business plan, VC presentation, or incubator desk even more important. In essence, you’re telling people how great a company you will become; and while the numbers, business model, and market analysis are all key, the kind of company you want to become speaks equally as critically to your success and sustainability. Maybe more. Your future state is actually the “selling point” of your start-up.

They don’t have to be pointless or painful.

There’s a reason most of us hate these business statements. Traditionally, well…they suck. For more on why we hate them so much, and why most of them are engineered for failure from the beginning, see this related post on the Gist Brands blog: “Why Mission and Vision Statements Can’t Be Passé (Even if You Hate Them.) [insert link: But the fact that so many people screw them up doesn’t mean they’re not critical to your success and worth some focused time.

So kick stale formats and dictionary definitions out the window. Let’s talk about what questions these strategic statements actually answer—what they do!

A mission statement answers the questions: What is our purpose today? Why do we exist?

A vision statement answers the questions: Where are we going? What do we want to achieve or accomplish?

Pretty basic stuff, right? But basic doesn’t have to mean boring. These statements should resonate for you and your team. They should match your excitement about why you come to work recharged every morning to build this great new thing. A good mission and vision can be the nucleus of your organization, identifying what it is that everyone is uniting and revolving around (founder, customers, employees, investors, or shareholders.)

It’s less important that they exist in a certain format or even that they be in two separate statements, than that they exist, period. Use your search skills on Google to familiarize yourself with good and bad examples of short (that’s critical) mission and vision statements. Test them against the questions above. Do they qualify? Do they answer these essential questions? Find and emulate the compelling formats and inspiring language of your favorite brands’ mission and vision statements for inspiration. But ultimately make sure they’re your own and that they’re true for you.

Some Leading Questions to Get You Started

Mission and vision statements are typically developed along with an exploration of values, another big contributor to “culture.” (Values statements answer the questions: “What are our core beliefs?” and “What principles guide us?”)

The following lists of questions can serve as beginning discovery (either solo exploration or in small group discussion) of the big picture questions and ideas that can inspire your mission and vision statements. If you don’t think you can answer one, move on to another to get the wheels turning and then cycle back. Think of them as fuel, not as a direct path to the statements themselves, though sometimes the answer to one of these questions can become your mission or vision with a few tweaks and some distilling.

Mission Statement Discussion Questions:

  • What’s our purpose?
  • What’s our reason for being?
  • Why do we exist?
    • Who do we serve?
    • How do we serve those customers?
    • What problem(s) do we solve?
  • What was the unmet need, inspiration, or fulcrum event that compelled us to start a new business?
  • How do we add value?
  • How do we want to make our customers’ lives, our category, or society better?

Vision Statement Starter Questions:

  • Where do we want to go?
  • Why do we get up and go to work every day?
  • What truly motivates us about what we do?
  • What do we want our brand to become?
  • What do we want to achieve in the future?
  • Five or 10 years from now, how would we know we’d been successful?

Guidelines for Development:

As you play with the key phrases and ideas that come out of this raw material and begin to draft your vision and mission, keep the following guidelines in mind.

  • Keep them short and simple.
  • Believe in them and associate with others that believe in them.
  • Make them personal, motivating, and captivating in some way.
  • Integrate them as a living, breathing part of your culture.
  • Use them as a yardstick regularly in judging your opportunities, decisions, and direction.
  • Refine or rediscover them if you find that they are no longer resonating or meaningful.

For more practical how-to tips on developing your own statements, see the section,“9 Tips for Developing Mission and Vision Statements That Aren’t Dumb” in that earlier post.

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