Don't Let These 3 Threats Kill Your Startup's Mission in Its First 5 Years
The first five years can be brutal, but sticking to your mission -- the reason why you started -- is the way to go. Do that by avoiding these pitfalls.
Believe it or not, border walls and driverless cars now have something in common: When Quanergy launched in 2012, it was a promising Silicon Valley startup that seemed destined to play a major role in the driverless car revolution. But, when Quanergy's particular technology for autonomous vehicles fizzled, the company shifted its mission substantially -- toward surveillance.
Because Quanergy’s lidar sensors (the same technology as that used in driverless cars) "see" in 360 degree views and spot objects from about 100 meters' distance, they’re being tested in outposts along the U.S. border with Mexico. The company’s hope? That instead of steering consumers' cars, Quanergy’s technology replaces a physical border wall with a virtual one.
Sure, Quanergy is clearly on a mission. But is its trajectory veering toward profit rather than purpose? Its mission shift to the illegal immigration issue is reportedly wounding employee morale, as well. And that's hardly a first: Google, Salesforce and Microsoft are just a few other big tech names that have received employee pushback after making partnerships with the U.S. government.
Quanergy isn’t the first company to have drifted from its mission over the years. At young companies, "mission" tends to be the most well-defined component of an organization. After all, the orginal idea behind the company's being is what makes the work necessary and drives employees to action.
Unfortunately, as forces push and pull on that mission, crises of identity may lead companies to bounce around and forget what made them great in the first place. Fool’s gold (think: early-stage funding) can knock brash startups off track. It then becomes easy to fall into the trap of misaligned revenue streams; and, here, only companies with defined missions have the grounding they need to resist temptation.
Although it may difficult, founders have to remember that mission (not revenue) determines whether their company will sink or swim. Every other piece -- whether related to strategy or structure -- depends on the power of the mission driving the business.
What makes your mission so special?
By the time I joined LaunchCode, we already had a clear mission: Our business existed to close the talent gap in technology through free training and apprenticeships. We didn’t need to wonder what to do in pivotal moments because this framework was our guide.
In fact, this overarching goal is what drew me here over all other opportunities. Sure, other companies were pursuing similar goals -- but this company was explicit about why it wanted to pursue this business. The big-picture view of the the mission that resulted made it easy for me to do my job and for the company to grow.
We’ve grown to 42 employees in the last five years, and our alignment has helped us create positions and hire people who can immediately help us move in the direction we want to go. If we’re unsure about a hire or the need for a new position, we look to the mission statement and find our answer.
Having a solid groundwork is essential to gaining the trust and support of the right stakeholders. The mission lays the groundwork for hard decisions, financial factors and other variables, consistently communicating what everyone inside and outside the company can expect.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple Inc. in the '90s, he brought the company back from the brink of bankruptcy by doubling down on a mission to build customer-centric products. Today, Apple is one of the biggest consumer brands in the world. This is largely because of Jobs’s contagious commitment to what Apple was all about.
As new challenges rear their heads, a company’s ability to snuff them out will depend on continued focus.
How to identify and avoid 3 threats to your mission
Threats to company missions are everywhere. Luckily, founders can employ a few simple strategies to mitigate the most common ones.
1. Gradual drift
Decisions that pull organizations away from their stated purposes (usually for money) help in the short term, but they can create long-lasting issues and rifts. And, according to research by Wiley, businesses that accept more money and influence from venture capitalists have greater mission drift.
To combat this problem, sit down with your leadership teams to set intermediate and long-term goals for the company, with your overall mission in mind. Don’t take shortcuts or count on windfalls; set attainable goals that don’t require compromises to your mission. Place benchmarks along the paths to those goals to keep morale high in the bad times and check yourself during good ones.
2. Irrelevant offerings
Although it’s now the poster child for the failure to adapt, Blockbuster once enjoyed a reputation as an industry disruptor. By creating customer-centric inventory practices that didn’t cut into profit, Blockbuster founder David Cook changed the dynamics of the industry. Unfortunately, the company remained committed to an irrelevant mission after industry change occcured in the company's final years.
Industry and technology factors outside a company’s control can cause irrelevance, but not necessary if the company determines it should act. Being ready to pivot is important: When disruptive technology or drastic economic change comes crashing down, a company's original mission might no longer fit the market in its original form.
At that point, it's critical that the company evaluate the core idea of the mission, determine whether the market demands an update and remain committed to the new principle. In many cases, outside pressures positively influence startups by forcing them to shape their missions for the long haul.
3. Misinterpreted meanings
A good mission provides a clear foundation, but clarity does not guarantee understanding. Because many people read the mission statement of the company before they read anything else, founders must ensure that their missions are understandable not only when they're read in isolation, but also when they're read in context.
According to Capgemini, 75 percent of companies surveyed said they identify as customer-centric, but only just under a third of consumers agree with that assessment.
So, make sure you overtly align other components of your company’s identity with its mission. Create a vision statement, values, testimonials and more to back up your primary claim. If someone doesn’t understand your goals at first glance, supporting materials should make up for that problem. Avoid miscommunication by picking clearly defined mission parameters and delivering on them.
During the first few years of growth, mission really is everything. It determines sales, partnerships and possibilities, both today and in the future. Don’t let easy mistakes turn big opportunities into big regrets. Navigate the potential pitfalls and lean on your mission to shape your company for years to come.
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