Foundational Materials

“If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.”
– Yogi Berra

Your startup needs an operating system.

An operating system is a set of materials that clearly defines what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it. Everything else you do is based on it.

Your operating system starts with and builds on your foundational materials. The foundational materials define your organization. They include some combination of a vision, mission, strategy, values, and culture.

As you’ll see, not every organization defines each of the foundational elements the same. Few organizations have every one of them. Some organizations combine two of them into one. Some call a vision a mission. Most have one statement about values and culture.

The goal of this exercise isn’t to follow certain rules. The goal isn’t to create a vision that matches the MBA textbook definition. The goal is that you have a foundation to build everything else on. The goal is to help the organization scale and give your team guidance for planning, prioritizing, making decisions, problem solving, hiring, and doing everything else they do. The goal is to inspire people. The goal is that everyone knows what you’re building. The goal is that everyone knows how you do it.

Work with your team on your foundational materials. Write them down. Revisit them as you grow. Make them part of your onboarding process. Show them in action in your all hands meeting. Refer to them when you’re debating an issue or making a decision. Have triggers and processes to ensure you use them. Good foundational materials and good processes will have a major positive impact on the results you get.

Below are definitions and examples of foundational materials by area. You should also look at them by organization and at how each piece fits into the whole. You should look at how Stripe’s strategy of building the economic infrastructure of the internet will achieve its mission to increase the GDP of the internet. You should think about how Slack’s values of empathy, courtesy, thriving, craftsmanship, playfulness, and solidarity relate to its mission to make work simpler, more pleasant, and more productive. You should understand how Linkedin’s strategy to be the professional profile of record will serve its mission of connecting the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful.

Vision

Your vision is what your organization is trying to create in the world.

Your vision should answer these questions: What will the world look like when you’ve achieved your goals? What’s the true north for your organization that will inspire your team and inspire new people to join your team?

Examples:

  • Linkedin: Create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce
  • WeWork: Create a world where people work to make a life, not just a living
  • Airbnb: Belonging can take us anywhere

Mission

Your mission is what you’re trying to achieve. It’s more concrete and practical than the vision, but still inspiring. Both the vision and mission are ways to describe what you’re doing. If you achieve your mission, your vision of the world should be realized. Often the mission and vision overlap. Many companies have only a mission. And it may sound like a vision.

Examples:

  • Linkedin: Connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful
  • Stripe: Our mission is to increase the GDP of the internet.
  • Etsy: Our mission is to Keep Commerce Human.
  • Pinterest: Inspire millions of people to discover and do the things they love.
  • Spotify 2011: Give people access to all the music they want all the time – in a completely legal & accessible way
  • Spotify 2018: Our mission is to unlock the potential of human creativity—by giving a million creative artists the opportunity to live off their art and billions of fans the opportunity to enjoy and be inspired by it.
  • Slack: Making work simpler, more pleasant, and more productive.
  • Google: Our mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
  • Facebook pre-2017: To give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.
  • Facebook 2017-present: Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.
  • Github: GitHub’s mission is to help every developer—regardless of experience level—learn, code, and ship software effectively.
  • TED: Spread ideas.
  • Nike: Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.

Strategy

Your strategy is what you’ll do to achieve your vision and mission. Your strategy explains what problems you solve for your customers.

As you move from vision to mission to strategy, you continue to get more practical and measurable. At the top, the vision is most likely to inspire people. The strategy is the most straightforward version of explaining what you do. The strategy is likely to be useful to people in their day-to-day jobs when prioritizing, making decisions, and solving problems.

As you can see, each level builds on and adds to the previous ones. If you effectively execute on your strategy, you should have achieved your mission, and your vision of the world should be realized.

Examples:

  • Stripe: Stripe is a technology company that builds economic infrastructure for the internet. Businesses of every size—from new startups to public companies—use our software to accept payments and manage their businesses online.
  • Github: At GitHub we build the tools that make collaborating and writing software easier for everyone.
  • Slack: Slack brings all your communication together in one place. It’s real-time messaging, archiving and search for modern teams.
  • Linkedin
    • 1. To be the professional profile of record
    • 2. To be the essential source of professional insights
    • 3. To work everywhere our members work
  • Facebook: Our top priority is to build useful and engaging products that enable people to connect and share with friends and family through mobile devices, personal computers, and other surfaces. We also help people discover and learn about what is going on in the world around them, enable people to share their opinions, ideas, photos and videos, and other activities with audiences ranging from their closest friends to the public at large, and stay connected everywhere by accessing our products.
  • Apple: The Company is committed to bringing the best user experience to its customers through its innovative hardware, software and services. The Company’s business strategy leverages its unique ability to design and develop its own operating systems, hardware, application software and services to provide its customers products and solutions with innovative design, superior ease-of-use and seamless integration.
  • TED: On TED.com, we’re building a clearinghouse of free knowledge from the world’s most inspired thinkers — and a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other, both online and at TED and TEDx events around the world, all year long.

Values and Culture

Your values are the principles that will guide your actions, while working on your mission and strategy and towards creating your vision of the world.

Your culture is about the characteristics you look for in people and the environment you want to create at your organization.

Often values and culture overlap, and many organizations have only a values statement that includes cultural aspects.

Examples:

  • WeWork:
    • Inspired. We do what we love and are connected to something greater than ourselves.
    • Entrepreneurial. We are creators, leaders, and self-starters. We try new things, we challenge convention, and we’re not afraid to fail.
    • Authentic. We are genuine to our brand, mission, and values. We’re not perfect, and we don’t pretend to be. We are always honest and as transparent as we can be.
    • Tenacious. We never settle. We get shit done and we get it done well. Be persistent and knock down walls–literally if you have to. You have our permission.
    • Grateful. We are grateful for each other, our members, and to be part of this movement. We don’t take success for granted. We’re happy to be alive.
    • Together. We are in this together. This is a team effort. We always look out for one another. We have empathy, we know we’re all human, and know we can’t do any of this alone.
  • Pinterest
    • Put Pinners first. People use Pinterest to discover ideas to try in their daily lives. We always start by asking: whose problem are we solving? Is it significant? Are we making Pinners lives better? If products don’t work for people they don’t work for us.
    • Knit. We believe innovation happens when disciplines knit. We insist on an open, curious culture where everyone —from engineering and design to marketing to community—works together. This leads us to building great products that are powerful, beautiful and easy to use.
    • Go. We believe the best way to learn if something will work is to just go do it. Our process is iterative, and we’re constantly learning from the things we try. When in doubt – go.
    • Be authentic. We’re Pinterest inside and out: warm and respectful, yet honest and direct. Everything we do should reflect our values.
  • Etsy:
    • We are a mindful, transparent, and humane business.
    • We plan and build for the long term.
    • We value craftsmanship in all we make.
    • We believe fun should be part of everything we do.
    • We keep it real, always.
  • Slack: Empathy, Courtesy, Thriving, Craftsmanship, Playfulness, Solidarity
  • Google’s Ten things we know to be true
    • Focus on the user and all else will follow.
    • It’s best to do one thing really, really well.
    • Fast is better than slow.
    • Democracy on the web works.
    • You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer.
    • You can make money without doing evil.
    • There’s always more information out there.
    • The need for information crosses all borders.
    • You can be serious without a suit.
    • Great just isn’t good enough.
  • Facebook: Be Bold; Focus on Impact; Move Fast; Be Open; Build Social Value
  • Amazon Leadership Principles: Customer obsession; Ownership; Invent and simplify; Are right, a lot; Learn and be curious; Hire and develop the best; Insist on the highest standards; Think big; Bias for action; Frugality; Earn trust; Dive deep; Have backbone, disagree and commit; Deliver results
  • Spotify: Innovative; Collaborative; Sincere; Passionate; Playful
  • Netflix: Judgment, Communication, Curiosity, Courage, Passion, Selflessness, Innovation, Inclusion, Integrity, Impact
  • Linkedin (one of the few organizations that clearly splits their values and culture)
    • Values: Members first; relationships matter; be open, honest and constructive; demand excellence; take intelligent risks; act like an owner
    • Culture: Transformation, integrity, collaboration, humor, results
  • Coursera:
    • Betterment: a tireless pursuit to drive results
    • Boldness: take risks and act decisively
    • Deep Honesty: invite and offer candid feedback in order to learn, change, and grow
    • Solidarity: recognize that we are part of something bigger than ourselves and are committed to our mission
  • Example
    • We’re in this together. Our team and our customers mean everything to us. We care deeply about each other and them. Those people are the reasons for everything we do. We treat each other and them like we’d want to be treated.
    • We’re honest with ourselves and each other. We say it how it is and we say it clearly. We never manage the message when talking to each other. We don’t hide from the bad news. It motivates us to work harder, just like the good news.
    • We’re a results-oriented team and achievement-driven people. Our teams focus on results. Our people are driven by achievement. We set goals and we charge at them because that’s who we are. We do whatever it takes to get the job done.
    • We maximize action, initiative, and urgency, and minimize friction and ego. We take action, take ownership, and take initiative, all with urgency. We reward that behavior by responding with minimal friction. We balance that with low ego, high security, and open minds. Our people own their work and decisions, but they also crave and demand feedback and conflicting opinions to ensure the best decision making processes, best results, and ongoing learning.
    • We’re always learning as individuals and an organization. We love to talk about our mistakes and failures. We get better and we succeed because we learn.
    • We make decisions based on goals, frameworks, reason, and sometimes our instincts. We listen to each other, to our users, to the data, and to our instincts. We ask what problem we’re solving and what our measure for success is. We never let the loudest voice or the longest talker win. We have diverse views to ensure we hold ourselves to this standard.
    • We’re good people, with agency. We do the right thing. We take control. We speak up. We operate ethically, with integrity and humility. We ensure that each employee has a fair balance with the organization between giving and receiving value and that the employee and the organization know it. No entitlement, lots of perspective. No victims. We get what we earn.

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