Finding Your North Star: How to create a product vision to guide you and your team

In our previous post, we covered why the North Star is important for your product: it is that singular purpose that drives you and your team. If you’re building a Radical Product, your North Star is the root that anchors your company and products. Your business strategy and your product strategy should all be aligned to your North Star — which is why it’s worth spending some time getting it right from the very beginning.

What we’re calling “North Star” is often also called the Mission or Vision Statement. However, mission statements are often written and then promptly mothballed. We typically find that good mission statements are hard to come by. How many of us have read mission statements that read something like “To be a leader in…” or “To revolutionize” or my pet peeve, “To reinvent”?

This post gives you a repeatable approach to ensure you never write a statement like that… ever.

Here are the key characteristics of a statement that makes a good North Star:

  • Articulates the problem that the company is looking to solve. The “Why” is the most important part of your North Star. Make sure that you are able to succinctly describe the problem you’re looking to solve. When your North Star articulates the problem clearly, it’s easier for your team to intuitively understand the problem, and gives everyone a clear purpose in solving it. It’s best to steer clear of words like “to revolutionize…” or “to reinvent…”, because these merely state the “How” rather than the “Why”.
  • Presents a visualizable end state. Your North Star isn’t about your actions, but rather your desired outcome. When it’s a tangible, visualizable end state instead of something abstract, people can internalize it and make it their own dream.
  • Galvanizes both your internal stakeholders and your external customers. Your North Star is also going to be a guide for your sales and marketing teams, and will form the foundation of your external messaging. It’s important that your North Star resonates with your customers, since you want them alongside you on this journey. This is why we recommend steering away from mission statements like “To be a leader in…” — your customers don’t care who the leader is! They just care that they can buy a great product that solves their problems.

The SpaceX mission statement in my mind is one of the most inspiring ones that I’ve ever read. It articulates the problem the company is working to solve, and many of us instinctively share their dream of exploring the stars.

“SpaceX was founded under the belief that a future where humanity is out exploring the stars is fundamentally more exciting than one where we are not. Today SpaceX is actively developing the technologies to make this possible, with the ultimate goal of enabling human life on Mars.”

As we mentioned in a previous post, your mission may not involve changing the world in a major or obvious way. In fact, even if your end goal is utterly audacious, your near-term goal should probably be more achievable. Your near-term vision should be inspiring, of course, but it also needs to fit into the realistic scope of your capabilities.

Your North Star is composed of two parts:

  1. The Vision statement, which is the mission you’re willing to reveal now that allows you to plan a thematic roadmap towards a sustainable company. In the SpaceX example, this may be the vision as far as reusable rockets. This should be shared throughout your organization, and with your customers and prospects.
  2. The Vision Evolution, which is your audacious end goal for which there may be many interim steps needed, and too long of a roadmap to outline today in detail (e.g. colonizing Mars). Your Vision Evolution should not necessarily be shared outside of your core leadership team, especially if it involves major changes to the types of customers you serve — otherwise you risk alienating your current market with a vision of the future that they don’t share.

In a startup we recommend creating your North Star together as a leadership team; it becomes an exercise to ensure the whole leadership team is aligned. If you’re the Product Manager empowered to make strategic decisions on the product, it’s very helpful to create this for yourself, and perhaps with the product team.

Below is the framework in a “Mad-Lib” format that you can use to put a stake in the ground for your Vision statement.

Today, when [customer segment] want to [desirable activity/ outcome], they have to [current solution] . This is unacceptable, because [shortcomings of current solutions]. We envision a world where [shortcomings resolved]. We are bringing this world about through [basic technology/ approach] .

The following is the Vision Evolution statement which helps you lay out the final end goal.

We started by changing the way that [customer segment] did [activity/outcome] through [basic technology/ approach].
We’ve learned and grown since then, and now believe that the next big step is…

We’ll detail the different approaches to your Vision Evolution in a future post. For now, let’s focus on the vision statement itself.

Here’s an example of a vision statement that we had for Likelii, my last startup. As stated earlier, your North Star doesn’t have to change the world— but to our team that loved wine, this end state below was inspiring:

Today when [people who are interested in learning about wine (specifically those whose wine knowledge level is 2–6 on a scale of 1–10)], want to [try wines], they have to [pick wines based on attractive labels or try what’s on sale]. This is unacceptable because [it’s hard to learn about wine this way and leads to hits and misses (mostly misses)]. We envision a world where [buying wines is as simple as renting movies on Netflix]. We are bringing this world about through [our algorithm that gives you recommendations for wines you’re likely to like, and our operational setup that quickly delivers wines from your queue to your table].

You will find that you have to iterate between filling out the Vision, Vision Evolution, and the Product Strategy to get to a point where you and your team feel satisfied that they are aligned. Your product strategy is important, because it will help you tie planning and execution to your North Star. In the interest of keeping this article short (well that ship has sailed), we’ll cover the Radical Product approach to product strategy in our next post.

Share your experiences as you put together your North Star! We look forward to hearing your comments and questions.