Finding your North Star

At its core, starting a company is all about finding your north star to strategically guide your team along the journey towards product/market fit, and beyond.

A north star is born from the company’s mission & vision.

Mission answers the question “Why do we exist?”

Vision answers the question “What will the future look like as we deliver our mission? What will be different?”

If mission is about today, vision is about tomorrow — the future of what the company will become.

Designing a winning strategy to get there

After articulating where the company is going (and why), it’s time to figure out how to get there. That’s where positioning comes into play.

Who is your product for? Your product can’t be everything to everyone, but it should be something for someone. What problem are you solving for them? What is the key benefit? How is your solution differentiated from other products?

By committing to a target customer, certain brand attributes will start to arise like personality traits and tone. For example, Slack wouldn’t be Slack without it’s color palette, welcome messages, and quirky tone.

Slack loading message, when you first open the app. Personality, FTW.

With a clear mission, vision, positioning, and personality, you’ll be well suited to start crafting brand principles and guardrails.

Principles are the foundation of your north star. If done right, they guide the team to make “on-brand” decisions and drive consistency across the customer journey — from inception to activation.

If principles are the recipe for the overlying company strategy, guardrails are like the cookbook. Effective guardrails help you not only articulate what you are, but even more importantly, what you’re not. These constraints keep everyone on the same page, especially as you grow.

Finally, a north star has to be grounded in reality. Reasons to believe are an essential ingredient to build trust and authority with your customers. These RTBs are the genesis for the product roadmap, as they should live on a spectrum from today to tomorrow.

Who is the North Star for?

Product Managers

A north star is a PM’s secret weapon. It aligns the design and development teams around the target customer, inspires feature ideas to solve their problems, and serves as an input to make hard decisions in the interest of fulfilling the team’s mission & long-term vision.

An effective north star informs a “metric that matters” for teams iterating their way to product/market fit. For most companies, this metric tends to coincide with the activation stage of the funnel. It’s the “magical moment” the customer experiences the first time they use the product that delivers on their expectations, and gives them a reason to come back. In an ideal world, it also helps the user recommend the product to the right kinds of friends and colleagues who will get just as much value from the product.

According to the chief analyst at Mode Analytics, many leading tech companies have promoted “aha moments” — the instant a user understands the value of their product — as a key to growth.

“Most notably, Chamath Palihapitiya declared Facebook’s “aha moment” — getting to 7 friends in 10 days — as Facebook’s North Star on the path to 1 billion users. Twitter, Dropbox, and Zynga have all emphasized the importance of similar simple metrics and Slack, the current poster child for rapid growth, recently shared theirs.” - Benn Stancil, Mode Analytics

Marketing Managers

An effective north star successfully positions the product in the mind of the consumer. If the product team can activate users to experience their magic moment, it will give the marketing team a tight brief in which to brainstorm engaging ways of bringing the brand promise to life across the customer journey — from awareness campaigns to partnership opportunities.

According to Skillshare’s content lead, the company uses brand as a partnerships north star.

“With a clear brand strategy as our north star, the decisions we make when considering everything from who we partner with to how we partner with them, down to the details of who we hire look drastically different than they would if our partnerships team was charged with more generic standalone goals of driving growth or revenue at all costs.” — Abigail Besdin, Skillshare

Founders

Finally, a north star serves as Yoda for the founding team. It’s the foundation for OKRs. It’s the driving message for every all-hands meeting.It informs hiring decisions. It’s the holy grail to revisit when the going gets tough.

For a founding team, a north star is everything. What’s your north star?


Midnight is a brand-driven product design firm in NYC. We help startups change the way people experience their product. Sign up for our weekly newsletter here.