“I can’t even decide where to go for lunch today - how am I supposed to know where to take my startup three years from now?”
When founders are asked to describe the direction that they are taking the company, they are usually expected to reply with their long-term strategy. But the issue still remains: it’s difficult for a fresh startup to have a fully fleshed out idea when they aren’t even completely sure of the future actions of their competitors or themselves. Paradoxically, startup founders who do have a perfect vision for their companies suffer from the constant expectation to remain “according to plan”.
Venture capitalists and other startup founders ask the day old question of what the company’s “vision“ is. However, when my co-founders and I were asked this question at Launch, we didn’t have an answer. We didn’t have a 20/20 vision of our company’s biography - but we didn’t need to.
Imagine this: your friend takes off their glasses and you ask how many fingers you’re holding up. Your friend will probably respond with the correct answer. They don’t have 20/20 vision but they can see the silhouette of your fingers, which is all they need. In the same vein, while it is crucial for startups to have a vision for their startups next steps, what’s more important is a mission statement of value. A mission statement is nothing more than a written catalogue of an organization’s values and aims - a summary of what makes an organization itself.
For elore, the startup we founded at Launch, our mission was to transform aspiring computer scientists to coding rockstars. Our mission was definitely vague (as most are), but we let our mission statement guide us throughout our string of pivots. At first, elore was like a social network for coders, but as our competitors slowly began to ebb into our territory and school began to take more of our time, we knew that our model was not sustainable. So, we looked back to our mission statement for guidance.
We knew we wanted to help other developers, but the question remained how. As a previous nonprofit founder, I had a bit of a predilection for letting a community take the reins of an cause and letting it suggest the direction of the organization. Thankfully, we already had a substantial following through the incredible open source community. Additionally, the elore team began writing crash courses on computer science concepts (e.g. machine learning, cybersecurity, software engineering) through Medium and began to amass regular readers.
In 2016, the elore team put its faith in the internet coding community and was not let down. Currently, we maintain two open source projects: a library of data structures and algorithms to help new developers bootstrap their projects, and an award winning cryptographically secure accounts manager. In addition, we’ve been adding writers to our Medium publication to get their work noticed by our thousands of readers.
If our co-founders had perfect vision for our organization, none of our accomplishments in the past year would have happened. Sometimes, 20/20 vision can be blinding because it can force you into tunnel vision. Here are some ways to avoid the blinders that can come with the perfect delineation of your “vision”:
Understand what you want your company to do. This may involve some soul searching as it will involve discovering what your team’s passions are, and how they intertwine with the operation of the company. A good mission statement will be a recurring theme throughout any number of pivots that your company goes through.
Nintendo (my favourite company) used to make playing cards. It wasn’t just technological advancements that pushed Nintendo to make generation defining video games, it was staying true to their original mission of showing users a good time. Startup founders are always expected to embrace change by definition of some crazy pivots in history, but it often goes without saying that every pivot was intentional and related to their original mission. If you accept chance as a startup founder, it must be a branch from your original vision - not a whole different tree.
Reading first-hand accounts of companies undergoing change and pressure from competitors is a great way to learn more about how to steer your own company. My favourite book with this subject is /Onward/, a booked written by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz about how Starbucks bounced back during the 2008 economic crisis by staying true to its mission of putting people over profits.
If you are an aspiring computer scientist, or a student who wants to get involve with software, check out elore - the company I describe in this piece. We help launch new developers into the coding community by introducing them to open source and educating them on various computer science topics. Check us out at elore.io!