Why startups need a strong vision

Meaningful companies are built upon a strong timeless vision. Let’s look at some examples…

  • “To organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” — Google
  • “To be the pulse of the planet” — Twitter
  • “To be 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.” — Amazon

These statements may sound abstract and grandiose, but as you begin to think about it, you realise why a plan like “To be the Best iPhone Photo App for Sharing Pictures with Facebook Friends” or “Let’s Build Stuff and See What Happens, Right?” just won’t cut it.

The vision for a company must be robust for years at a time. Technologies, social networks, trends, all come and go, and a company must stay relevant regardless. Notice how Google doesn’t mention search, Amazon doesn’t mention books, and Twitter says nothing about apps or tweets. This is long term thinking. You can’t base your company around current technologies, trends, or other companies. It’s about what you are doing for your customers. If you set out to build “The Number One MP3 Player for Bebo Pages”, well, sorry about it.

What startups need a strong vision

Pyramid showing Vision, Goals, Strategy, Tactics and Activities (from ground up)

A vision lets you set goals that define your path and progress. For each goal, whether it’s “10% market share” or “100K Users”, you can plan a strategy for achieving it. A strategy lets you choose tactics, that is, different ways you can go about achieving it. Each tactic lets you pick your activities, the actual work to make it happen.

Ok, that’s a lot. Let’s take a specific example…

Pyramid showing examples of Vision, Goals, Strategy, Tactics and Activities (from ground up)

In practice there’s more than one goal, and as a result there’s multiple day to day activities. Here’s how that looks…

Pyramid showing Vision, multiple, Goals, Strategies, Tactics and Activities (from ground up)

Setting a vision lets everyone know what direction they’re going, even in small teams. It helps you understand what activities are beneficial and which ones are valueless distractions. It tells you when to say no, and when to say Hell Yeah. As Michael Porter wrote in What is Strategy, “Overall advantage or disadvantage results from all a company’s activities, not only a few.” A strong vision lets you define those activities.

The Cheshire Cat Problem

The Cheshire Cat Problem, what road to take, when you don’t have a vision

When you see all activities as being useful, no activities are useful. The problem with a plan like “Let’s keep adding good features” is that it’s hard for people to agree what’s a useful thing to spend time on. This is fine during exploratory days when you’re fishing around for a niche or an angle, but when you’re specifically trying to achieve something you need a common vision to help you define what you should be doing. When you don’t know where you’re going, any road looks good.

Obviously letting a vision guide your team requires smart, motivated, and trustworthy people. In the world of startups that’s just table stakes.

Long road image by Stuck in Customs.
Pyramid concept borrowed from Diane Railton.
Intercom on starting up book