2 Nov 2018

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that building a business is an onerous task. Much of the rhetoric around startup life calls for heroic levels of hustle, hunger and hard work. It asserts that leaders need to be tireless and fearless if they want their business to survive.

But a cursory examination of the factors cited in startup deaths — in addition to anecdotal evidence from investors, founders and operators — shows that, when businesses die, it’s rarely because people didn’t try hard enough.

Instead, amongst the fatal factors identified in startup port-mortems, are symptoms caused by a lack of alignment, focus, strategy and planning. These include: having the wrong people, poor marketing, ignoring customers, and team (or investor) conflict.

Unlike external factors — such as poor launch timing or a sudden change in a market — these symptoms are within a leader’s ability to treat and cure. But how?

“Who questions much, shall learn much, and retain much.”
Francis Bacon

When starting a startup, you build a Minimum Viable Product to answer questions like: Is there a market for this? Can I figure out who wants to buy it? Can I compel them to part with their cash?

But what building an MVP doesn’t fully answer is in which direction to travel or how to ensure you won’t get lost along the way. That’s where the other MVP comes in: Mission, Vision and Purpose.

A well articulated Mission, Vision, and Purpose is the best inoculation against often fatal ailments like misalignment and misdirection. So why doesn’t everyone have one?

The hard thing about hard things: when there are no easy answers…

Articulating one’s Mission, Vision and Purpose is a job often left undone for several reasons.

Taking time from the day-to-day can feel like a luxury when your outstanding tasks are more numerous than Trump’s Twitter transgressions.

Plus, deep reflection can stir up dormant disagreements and diverging ambitions within a team. Rather like a check-up with a doctor, no one wants to discover that they are in anything other than the rudest of health.

Further, squinting far into the future can be intimidating and reveal an underlying lack of direction. Or, worse, the absence of a viable solution to the problem being tackled. It’s enough to deter even the most determined.

But mostly, it’s the fact that, despite their ubiquity, there’s a lingering uncertainty as to what these terms actually mean and what value they offer.

So here we’ll break down the three core ingredients of the Mission, Vision, and Purpose strategic framework.

“When you’re surrounded by people who share a passionate commitment around a common purpose, anything is possible.”
Howard Schultz

Purpose is the answer to “why are we here?” It’s the reason for your existence beyond making money, though that doesn’t necessitate having a social or altruistic ambition for the business.

It should be phrased in a way that means you can never fully accomplish it and should make sense when prefaced with “we exist to…”. For example, Google’s “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Research has shown that companies with a clearly articulated and understood purpose perform better on numerous initiatives, ranging from expanding geographically to being part of an acquisition.

Done right, it’s the true north by which you navigate your strategic direction and it should inform everything you do, from the products you build to how you communicate. When it doesn’t, the disconnect can be punishing.

For example, when Toyota attempted to overtake GM in size, it subordinated its purpose around listening and responding to customers in favour of aggressive expansion. The outcomes were quality problems and vehicle recalls. As noted in the Financial Times, “purpose is an unforgiving taskmaster.”

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
Lao Tzu

A Mission gives an answer to “what step must we take to realise our vision?”. It’s crucial for providing focus and a near-term goal — even if it’s five or 10 years away — towards which to strive.

It’s entirely reasonable to have more than one mission but it should always have an end point and, ideally, be measurable. You should know when you have fulfilled your mission. And then you can give yourself another one.

For example, if NASA’s purpose is to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind, putting a man on the moon or circumnavigating Saturn are missions that bring them closer to delivering on that purpose.

“Every person takes the limits of their own field of vision for the limits of the world.”
Arthur Schopenhauer

A Vision describes the world you’ll create by fulfilling your purpose and nailing your missions. Your ultimate destination. The Promised Land.

The often far-off, lofty or utopian nature of visions can make them feel inaccessible or abstract to some. But good visions offer a clear picture from which to plot back, which is essential for effective mission-setting.

Further, it’s an inspiring idea to draw upon in the harder times and a powerful recruitment tool. Candidates who are unmoved at the prospect of creating that world, will likely be less motivated.

“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”
Henry Ford

At Multiple, we advise some of the most talented, committed and ambitious entrepreneurs on defining their ‘other’ MVP because doing so expedites scale. How can the people who matter to your business — your team, customers, and backers — move forward together without aligning around these fundamentals?

So once your product’s up-and-running, we suggest you discuss and map out your ‘other’ MVP to guarantee your people are on board for the journey. Define it well before disseminating it so the message can move across offices, borders and timezones without distortion. And — crucially — after time has passed, measure whether it’s been explained to and embraced by everyone. Communication alone ≠ understanding.

Ultimately, be aware that execution without alignment will have you running in circles until you’re out of breath, cash and time. And that’s a surefire way to kill your startup.

Katy Turner is Managing Partner at Multiple, Hanover’s Culture & Brand Consultancy.