April 18, 2019

Why it's important that startups have a mission statement

A mission statement should be simple and flexible enough so that you don't have to change it every few years. Don't be like Facebook — think more BBC.

John Buni

4 min read

The evolution of Facebook’s mission statement has been fascinating to watch. "Thefacebook is an online directory that connects people through social networks at college" was the first and Harvard-only mission statement. In 2008, it began to "help" users connect and share. And in 2009, it only gave people "the power to share and make the world more open".

Most recently, following controversy over the live streaming of the Christchurch murders on the social media platform, Facebook is changing tack again, hoping to re-establish itself as an "encryption-focused messaging company".

Michael Galpert, cofounder of Aviary.com, who has tracked Facebook’s changing mission over time, notes how, during the years of Facebook’s ascendancy, slowly but surely, the social network seemed to try to cede agency (and, some might say, accountability) to the user.

When you play fast and loose with mission statements you become unmoored and lose your way.

A mission statement is important to your business

Clearly, Mark Zuckerberg has been reacting to circumstances and pressures. But mission statements, whether articulated implicitly or explicitly, are important to businesses. They provide a kind of lens through which you can scrutinise decisions, and in time they define the company culture.

One of the main criticisms of Facebook from a purely commercial point of view is that somewhere along its journey, it started to try to be all things to all people. That’s what happens when you play fast and loose with mission statements, taglines and visions: you become unmoored and lose your way.

This isn’t to say that every founder needs to write a 5,000-word dissertation, explaining every thought which led to the creation of the company, or every dream that she or he has ever had. Something simple — "Using tech to empower small businesses and improve customer experience" — does the job just as well.

"Money without borders" is the straightforward mantra of TransferWise, and TED has "Spread ideas". ASOS goes with: "To become the number one fashion destination for 20-somethings globally" — an example of a goal-oriented, rather than purely descriptive, mission statement. And granted, these companies aren’t as complex as Facebook. But complexity is exactly why a mission statement should be simple.

A good mission statement is a more than adequate way to keep yourself, as a founder, on track, and make sure the decisions you make are in the best interests of the company which (as any founder knows) takes on a character of its own over time.

A mission statement should allow for flexibility

A mission statement must also allow for flexibility: if you’re too dogmatic in your vision, you cannot make the changes necessary to adapt to changing circumstances. In a world like ours, agility is a desirable trait.

This might seem contradictory. But you can be both general enough to allow for evolution and narrow enough to keep the ship on course. The BBC’s mission statement — "To enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain" — conveys the quality of its output, the diversity of its products and its broader function as a medium for ‘information’, ‘education’ and ‘entertainment’ without backing itself into a corner or being too vague. The success of this is reflected in its longevity: Lord Reith arrived at ‘inform, educate and entertain’ in the 1930s.

A mission statement should not be tweaked too frequently. Those who change their mind like the weather inspire less of our trust.

A mission statement should not be tweaked too frequently. Those who change their mind like the weather inspire less of our trust. We can’t take seriously what people say if their previous form suggests they won’t hold that opinion for much longer. And that’s not to say that changing your mind is a bad idea in and of itself (in fact it’s a good thing to be able to interact with the world and respond to new information with new opinions), but to change it often, and in each case to make a declaration with self-assuredness and gravity, makes us suspicious.

Judging by the reactions to Zuckerberg’s latest proclamation, this seems to be the effect he is having on the media and the public. When founders sit down to write out their grand vision, they should perhaps the bear the words of Eleanor Roosevelt in mind. "Be flexible," she said, "but stick to your principles."