Operating Your Business
So you’ve hit the ground running with an idea that seems scalable and set up the basic framework for your startup. You introduced your co-founder to your family, knowing you’ll be married for a while and doing life in the trenches together. Peers, mentors, and investors have heard your revised pitch after it’s been fine-tuned for the umpteenth time.
When you have a network of support built on trust and good faith, you can breathe easy. There’s no way these people are in it for the money—at least not right now. Your idea is big, but your company has a net-zero profitability. You may even have a net negative cash flow, depending on how much money you spent on pitch competitions and startup accelerator programs. People are investing in you because they like your idea and believe in your vision. The return on investments will hopefully materialize in the years to come.
As you toast to your new company name, you probably weren’t thinking about how to recruit and retain the best talent, how to hire a lawyer, or how to decide on a bank. Back up two steps. Celebrate your company’s milestone first. Then, before you deal with human resources, legal, accounting, and finance, let’s talk about your vision and values.
This could be freely discussed over drinks with your co-founder. But have a follow-up conversation where someone is taking notes. Be honest and open-minded about what kind of work environment you want to create as founders and what experiences and perks you believe will give people incentive to join your team.
It’s easy to push vision and values further down your list of priorities and skip ahead to business modeling and building out your products, but at the end of the day, your employees are the most valuable assets to your company. And in order to hire and retain the best talent, you need a vision by which people will feel motivated to work for you, invest in your business or buy your products.
Vision is more than getting people to achieve a common goal. It requires thinking long-term and outlining the values your company will hold onto regardless of timeframe or circumstances. It gives people direction and a purpose knowing that they’re making a difference by being part of something greater than themselves. It also informs the culture of a workplace and is the glue that holds a team together when products and markets fail.
Let’s look at some examples of successful companies with strong timeless visions.
Google upholds the idea that it wants to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Twitter wants to “be the pulse of the planet.” Amazon is determined to be the “earth’s most customer centric company” by building a place where “people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”
Notice how the visions of these companies are not specific to one product or service. A company’s vision shouldn’t be narrow tailored by trends, technologies, and social media that often shift with the tides as new ideas and gadgets emerge. These visions are general for a reason. They leave room for setting clear goals that define their path and progress.
Here are three high-level strategies that can help shape your long-term vision and values.
1. Be clear. Companies spend a great deal of time trying to brainwash employees, investors, and clients about how awesome their products are. This isn’t very effective if people don’t know how their investment into your company—whether financially or as a brain trust—will benefit them. Make it clear how your vision impacts things people care about, like money, time, transportation, or health. Spend very little time talking about what you envision the end product to look like. Sure, you may have state-of-the art technology and best-in-class services, but the premium you place on your products should never outweigh or overshadow the value you put on the people you serve and want to attract to your company. After all, a business is no business without its investors, employees and clients.
2. Be enthusiastic. It’s true you don’t want to brainwash people. But you are essentially selling your long-term vision. So whether or not you like public speaking or advertising, learn to draw people in with emotion and imagination. You could illustrate your vision with a metaphor, story, video or your own excitement. Your vision should come from a place of genuine passion. If you’re not the person who is most sold on this vision, it’ll be a hard sell to win your best critics.
3. Follow through. Anyone can talk the talk, but people need to trust that you can walk the walk. In order for a vision to be tangible, you need to align practices and policies in your company so that people have the resources, motivation, and rewards to do things differently. For example, Zappos, a popular online retailer, provides an insane degree of customer care. This is because customer service is their most important value. The company goes as far as to shop at other stores for customers, find them the right products, and deliver the goods by hand if it’s not in stock. Sometimes, the goodwill that a company generates does more for the business than any marketing or advertising program it can ever spend money on.