When you start a company, you’re almost certainly focused on your product. What’s your USP? Who’s your market? How many sales are you aiming for? That’s all essential planning, obviously, but that’s not building a company, that’s product management. When you’re aiming to create a company, you need to put just as much thought and effort into what you want from the actual company as you put into designing and building your product.
What sort of company do you want to be? Do you want a small, highly democratic, slightly anarchic workplace? Or do you prefer a traditional hierarchy? Do you want an environment where you encourage experimentation and individualism, or do you want structure and teamwork? Do you like people who are irreverent, outspoken, and eccentric, or do you want people who are focused on the task at hand and formal. Do you expect your staff to socialize outside working hours? Are you even bothered if they rarely meet face to face? What do you expect your office to look like? Do you imagine rows of cubicles, open plan desks, or comfy sofas and bean bags?
These may not seem like important questions to be asking, but they’re essential. Your company is going to be your life, occupying almost all of your waking hours, and your staff are going to spend far more time with you than your friends or family. You need to make sure that you’re building a working environment where you feel comfortable, and where both you and your staff can thrive. Your company culture will determine whether your early hires are going to be the right fit: in many ways it’s far more important than whether they have the right skills. If they’re not happy, they won’t deliver, and eventually they’ll quit. So start off knowing what kind of workplace you’re trying to offer them, and you can ensure you’ll find the people who can help you create that .
Most startups have a vision involving revenue or market share. That’s fine for investors, but it doesn’t motivate anyone else. You need a vision based on what you’re trying to achieve, and how you’re going to change the world. It’s like an expanded version of the user stories for your product. I know passion is an over-used word, but it’s the right one here - try to encapsulate your passion and explain what it is you’re really about.
This isn't just a boring corporate mission statement. It’s a way to make sure that you and your staff all share the same long-term aims. You can express it in really simple, non-commercial terms, and you don’t even need to refer to your product. For example, your vision could be “We want to make elegant, easy-to-use software.” Or perhaps “We want to make life easier for small businesses.” Or maybe “We want to have fun experimenting with cutting-edge tech and building cool stuff.” Aren’t those more inspiring and honest than most mission statements? They’re not measurable, they’re not specific, but they’ll tell you a lot about where the company’s trying to go.
With a vision like this, you can really be sure that you’re hiring the right people. And when it comes time to pivot, you’ll have a much better sense of whether you’re truly changing what the company’s all about, or just finding a new, better way to achieve the same vision.
Why are your customers going to do business with you? Maybe it’s because you have a great product. Maybe it’s because they like the price. But for many of them, it will be because they like your company. Your brand isn’t just a logo, a corporate color scheme, and a style guide. It’s a personality. It comes across in your product design, your marketing, your customer communication, the way you speak and dress - in other words, everything you say and do. To a large extent, it’s bound up with your company culture and your vision. Look at companies like Tesla and SpaceX, and their mercurial CEO, Elon Musk. They have a reputation that says, “we dare to dream big, and our aim is to do things that people think can’t be done, even if we lose money in the process. We aren’t afraid to make mistakes and learn from them, and we aren’t afraid to spend money to do it right, You may think we’re crazy, and maybe we are, but you have to admit, we get things done.”
So what do you want your customers to say about you? Figure that out, then you can start to become that company. Don’t fall back on boring platitudes like “we’re #1 for customer service” or “we’re reliable”. Instead, imagine what a customer would actually say. “When I order something from these guys, I know it will arrive on time, I know it’s going to work, and I know that if they screw up, they’ll fix it fast, they’ll make it right and they won’t give me any hassle.”
And last, but certainly not least, don’t forget about yourself. What are you, personally, aiming to get out of it? What is the success you’re looking for? Where do you see yourself in five or ten years’ time if all goes well? Maybe you’re at the head of a small but thriving company. Maybe you’ve gone global, you’re a market leader, and you’re still growing, in a world of IPOs, mergers, and multi-million dollar deals. Maybe you’ve sold the company or handed it over to a management team, and you’ve moved on to the next thing. Or maybe you’re enjoying a well-deserved early retirement.
Understanding your own aims, and being up front about them, will help you make the right decisions from the very beginning. Don’t end up accidentally turning the company into something that isn’t what you want. From the outset, build a company that can deliver the most important result of all - happiness.