Riding the Startup Train to the International Startup Festival this summer, I spoke to founders of some very new startups and some more established companies. Almost none of them could give me a concrete picture of what it is their company does. I can’t tell you the number of times I heard, “We offer unique digital solutions.” I gave one entrepreneur three tries before giving up on ever getting a comprehensible answer.
Branson says most company mission statements are full of “trite truisms.” He writes: “A company’s employees don’t really need to be told that ‘the mission of XYZ Widgets is to make the best widgets in the world while providing excellent service.’ As opposed to what? Making the worst widgets and offering the lousiest service? Such statements show that management lacks imagination, and perhaps in some cases, direction.”
If it’s not vagaries and truisms, it’s long-winded, “flowery waffling,” says Branson. Lots of words used to say nothing about what your company really does—maybe because these companies really don’t know what differentiates them from the competition.
If you think this isn’t you, think again. In a comment on a recent Q+A with consultant Jaynie Smith (Is Your Sales Pitch a ClichÃ©?), one reader commented: “Many young companies, propelled by the enthusiastic optimism of the founder, THINK they know what makes them different. However once their product or service is exposed to the realities of the market, they discover that perhaps they don’t have the world’s greatest mousetrap after all. In this scenario, the issue isn’t one of how the message is crafted, it’s that their message was just plain wrong.”
The first step is to find out whether or not you’re guilty of any of these mission statement sins. Start by surrounding yourself with the right advisors. In a recent Google for Entrepreneurs’ “hangout” video (in which Branson also participated), Elon Musk suggested asking your friends because, loath as they are to tell you the truth, they do know it.
If you are struggling, you probably need to get closer to your customers—listen to your market and be prepared to adapt if you’re hearing that you’re on the wrong path. As entrepreneur Derek Szeto said in a recent episide of the PROFIT BusinessCast, “Rather than going out and pitching an [existing] product you think is great, you first go to the customer, talk to them about a concept that you’re exploring.”
Of course, you could also do what Branson suggests and chuck the mission statement altogether—most are just crap, anyways. If you must write one, try to make it something that belongs on a coat of arms, a motto more than a mission statement. “Brevity is key, so try using Twitter’s 140-character template when you’re drafting your inspirational message,” says Branson. “You need to explain your company’s purpose and outline expectations.”
What would Virgin’s motto be if it has to fit at the bottom of a crest? According to Branson, it would read something like “Ipsum sine timore, consector.” Translation? In Branson’s words: “Screw it, let’s do it.”
I don’t see that as being much better than “making the world’s best widgets,” but it does accomplish one thing: it tells me what his company culture is. As a startup, the fact that you can tackle a problem in a creative, agile way can be your edge; what differentiates you from the big corporate version of your company. As venture capitalist and entrepreneur David Kerzner told me on the Startup Train, “It’s very rare to find a major company building out an organic idea, because nobody at the company wants to take that kind of a risk. Only an entrepreneur would put his life on the line to grow a company.”
If that’s your competitive advantage, make damn sure it’s in your mission statement. Or your coat of arms. At the very least, make sure your employees understand, because if they don’t get it, you have no hope of convincing investors or customers.