Having a clear vision and a big mission is the first step to creating a company, service or product which people can really empathize with and get behind.
On face value, one could incorrectly assume that AirBnB’s big mission is to make travel more affordable, and provide extra income for homeowners. However, according to Jonathan Greechan, co-founder of the Silicon Valley incubator The Founder Institute, “that mission is purely driven by economics, and it completely shortchanges the way their product makes people feel.” It is AirBnB’s bigger mission to create a world where you can “Belong anywhere” which has turned it into one of today’s success stories.
When attempting to gain media coverage, raise funding or simply attract the best talent out there, the temptation might be to focus on your product or service, trying to explain what it is you are doing better than anyone else. However, with the startup ecosystem becoming so cluttered, to really stand out from the crowd it is who your company features, and why you are going to make a difference, which you need to place in front of your audience.
Why should we buy your product? Why should we work for you? Why are you making a positive change to the world? These are the answers you need to be providing.
I spoke to Jonathan Greechan, about why it is important for startups to have a clear vision, and sell their big mission from the outset.
Sell your story to the media.
Your big mission does not have to be something you will achieve this year or next. It is the dream which your company is trying to realize. It is also the hook that reels people in, the means of turning your company into a story which consumers and the media can buy into.
Elon Musk is the master of creating stories which spark people’s imaginations and tug their heart strings.
With SpaceX, his big mission isn’t to make commercial space tourism a reality, it’s to colonize Mars and save the human race from extinction. His aim isn’t to create electronic cars which are cheaper for consumers thanks to rising gas prices. It is to combat climate change. This is one of the reasons that the media lap him up, because he artistically turns the -- albeit valuable -- problems he is solving into huge global issues which everyone can empathize with.
Gaining media coverage is an important step in scaling your company, putting your great ideas and products in front of millions of potential new clients and investors. Journalists and potential customers need to be able to understand the “what” of your company very quickly, but it is the “who” and “why” that they’re really interested in.
When my current employer’s CEO Conrad Egusa set up a co-working space in Medellin, Colombia in 2012, it was featured in TechCrunch. Why? Certainly not because it was a globally newsworthy event -- co-working spaces are ten a penny -- but because of the big mission which he communicated to the press. His aim was to make Medellin, which is formerly one of the most dangerous cities in the world and now an award winning city of innovation, the Silicon Valley of Latin America.
“People and causes are just a lot more interesting than companies,” said Jonathan Greechan. “If you were to do a random search and read five recent articles about new companies on any media channel, four of those articles will focus on the personal back story of the founder (the who) and why they are building the business (the why).”
When selling your story to the press, it is important to link your company to global trends, and show why what you are doing is making a difference.
This is especially important for "unsexy" products or when working within a saturated market. While fintech apps or SaaS platforms might not be saving saving humanity from extinction, it is up to the founder to uncover their own story, make it personal, and communicate it as a “cause” that is bigger and more interesting than the actual product or service they’re developing.
Related Book: The Brand Mapping Strategy by Karen Tiber Leland
Greechan shares an extremely useful PR hack: “If your pitch starts with words like “I”, “My”, “Our” or “We”, then you’re almost definitely pitching an advertisement, not a story. However, if you force yourself to start your pitch with phrases like “There are..”, “Today..”, “Since 2009”...you will effectively start pitching a trend or larger cause that makes your company relevant, rather than beating your chest about how awesome you are.”
Bring the right people on board.
Having a clear vision and an eye grabbing big mission is essential from the very first step. Most startups need to spend the first few years in business with a tight hold on the purse strings to make ends meet.
Consequently, when you launch a company, you need a means of rallying people behind your idea and cause. Whether it be banks, potential employees or investors, you need a mission big enough to convince people that this idea in your head is worth caring about, and devoting time or money into.
Limited resources can make attracting the best talent out there challenging, especially when searching for highly sought after design and development teams. Most startups simply cannot afford to offer Silicon Valley wages until they have scaled, and raised seed funding. But it’s hard to scale with an empty office. You are trying to get the best talent out there to devote their time for low wages with no long term assurances other than equity in a company which could fail like 90% of other startups.
Luckily for startups, Millennials are a lot less money driven than their parents generation. When searching for opportunities, Millennials are driven by the opportunity to make a positive difference globally and desire a role which they are emotionally attached to.
“During the early growth stages you probably don’t have a product yet, so at this point the only thing you can sell is the reason you are starting the company (your 'vision'), and what you are trying to accomplish (your 'mission'). If you don’t have a compelling story and can’t articulate it succinctly, then your sales process becomes much, much harder, and you may find yourself building the company in solitude.” said Greechan.
Greechan offers the example of Snapchat. He argues that the company has a huge user base because they have a great understanding of their audience and have translated this into new and relevant features. However, it is their grand vision that allows them to recruit top engineers, excite the world’s best investors, and intrigue the media at large.
Snapchat’s grand vision is that we are on the cusp of a new era in personal computing. They believe that the proliferation of powerful smartphones and always-on connectivity are essentially creating our first “cyborgs” -- or humans enhanced by machines.
In the short term, Snapchat sees the days of recording and sharing our lives post-mortem a thing of the past. Their vision is to create technology that enhances life as it happens, whereas most traditional computing has been centered around crafting experiences before they happen, or recording them after. It is a vision that attracts the brightest minds in tech to come onboard, is easy to get behind, and is attractive to people that have never used their product or that even care about social media.
Keep your company on track.
Your vision and company values should be the backbone of your company culture, and act as the "north star" which keeps your company moving in the right direction, the reason why it exists. While naturally you will need to experiment, try new angles and methods, you should always come back to the same vision.
Take AirBnB for example, and their vision to allow users to “Belong Anywhere”. Helping users to “live” in a place, instead of just traveling to it, conjures comfortable themes of inclusivity, and culture which appeal to consumers, and allows them to create a community around their product. However, the idea of ‘belonging’ is multifaceted and also gives the company a wide scope in the future for creating innovative new features which add value to users as their product matures, while still working towards their central vision.
If their vision was less romantic and purely focused on lowering cost for travelers and increasing income for owners, their platform could easily devolve into a jumbled mess of features around discounts and referrals like price comparison platforms like Priceline or Expedia.
“If you change the vision for your company mid-stream, you are essentially trying to change the direction of an arrow that you originally fired at the inception of the business,” said Greechan. “You might as well just start a new company at that point.”
Your company’s tactics can and should change over time. These are your strategy for achieving your vision, and should be flexible and adaptable to market feedback. However your big mission and vision should always stay the same. So before you invest time and money into an idea, and expect other people to do the same, make sure that you are prepared to explain why your service or product is important and will make a positive change to consumers, employees and the rest of the world. If you can’t think of a reason, and aren’t able to put all of your energy into convincing others to follow your dream too, then maybe it’s better to head back to the drawing board.