North Star: The Root of the Radical Product Framework

Early in founding my startup I learned an important lesson that has stayed with me. I was fundraising and every investor I had spoken with that week had a different idea on why the problem we were solving was the wrong one and what problem we should be solving instead. At the end of the week I met with my advisor — I was processing all the contradictory feedback from the week and needed a sounding board.

After listening to me for a while he responded, “Fundraising is not about convincing the skeptics, but rather finding the true believers. But before you can find your true believers, you have to have your conviction first. What’s your conviction? Where’s your North Star?”

Whether you’re leading a company or a product team, every successful team is driven by a common vision, a conviction. Without that, your team is like a boat in the middle of passing currents — unless you’re guided by a North Star, you soon begin to drift.

While you can iterate on the methods to achieve your purpose, no amount of iteration can ever help you find that purpose for your company or product. That has to be your mission, based on your deep understanding of what’s needed for the market (or for the world).

How do you know if you’ve found your North Star?

Here are a few simple questions you can ask to evaluate if you’ve found your North Star:

  • Is it a purpose that drives you, or are you describing a tool? Something bordering on an existential question is a more apt North Star. In speaking with a founder recently, he initially described his purpose more like a tool: “Building a platform to do…” After some probing, and once he showed me an artist’s rendering of the world he was trying to get us to, his purpose became clear to me. We reframed his North Star, which really started with: “To change how we interact with the world so that…”
  • Are your business and product decisions true to that vision? Does the team struggle to prioritize among hundreds of features and ideas in the backlog? It’s important that your North Star is not just a few words on slides but rather that it guides every decision at the company. When your team has a clear sense of true north, instead of seeing 500 features to prioritize among, they see interim steps that are derivatives of that purpose. This approach offers immense clarity on what’s important and how you prioritize features to achieve these interim milestones.
  • Is there a shared understanding of the vision across your team? Ask people on your team, “What do you believe our vision is?” Are you hearing an articulate vision? If you’re not, or you’re not hearing back what you expected, it calls for some introspection — you may not have found your North Star yet, or you may need to communicate it more clearly (and more often) to your team. A very important side effect of everyone internalizing this purpose is that you’ll unlock immense cohesion in your team — without this, it’s very hard to get through the start-up Tough of Sorrow.
Paul Graham’s famous “Trough of Sorrow” drawing. A shared vision throughout your team is critical for getting through the Trough and into the Promised Land

While my examples for North Star in this post were lofty, your purpose doesn’t have to be. But it must drive you. For example, at my startup Likelii, we were galvanized by the idea of creating a simplified and fun path to learn about and enjoy wine for every consumer who wanted it. Each of us on the team loved wine, and felt this pain point. Your mission doesn’t have to change the world, but it should energize you and make you and your team feel like you are adding to the world.

Has your team found its North Star? Share your mission, whether it’s one where you change the world, or make a small difference in your own way.