When you don’t know where you’re going, any road looks good.
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 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 #1 Video Chat Service for Facebook Messenger”, well, sorry about it.
What’s a vision made of?
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 let’s you choose tactics – different ways you can go about achieving it. Each tactic lets you pick your activities — the actual work that needs to done to make it happen.
Whew, that’s a lot. Let’s take a specific example…
In practice there’s more than one goal, and as a result there’s multiple day-to-day activities. Here’s how that looks…
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 yes. As Michael Porter wrote in What is Strategy:
“Overall advantage or disadvantage results from all a company’s activities, not only a few.”
A vision let’s you define those activities.
THE CHESHIRE CAT PROBLEM
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.
Written by Des Traynor, co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Intercom. This post first appeared on the Inside Intercom blog, where we regularly share our thoughts on product strategy, design, customer experience, and startups.
Intercom is a platform that makes it easy for web and mobile businesses to communicate with their customers, personally and at scale.