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How we built our mission statement and core values for our startup

A company’s mission and values are often dismissed as an outcome of a dogmatic culture, usually hidden somewhere on the company website’s about page or plastered on one of the walls in your office where nobody ever looks at. That is why the process of developing the mission and values of your company that people actually remember and directing the entire team to the true north is quite challenging and important.

Here’s the story of how we at SendBird took a major step towards this direction.

A problem: Why do mission and values matter in a startup?

SendBird already had set of long-list of characteristics dubbed “World-class Talent” that comprised of 52 items with a hefty mix of talent principles, company values, and strategic direction.

 

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<What it takes to be a world-class talent>

But this very long list of 52 talent principles were;

  • Only a few that people could actually recall,
  • Not shared as a specific action items to follow,
  • Lacked clear, singular direction of the company
  • Was hard to figure out what we believe about our customers and employees

Eventually, the large printed board of ‘52 Talent Principles’ was rolled-up and tucked away in one of the cabinets, never to see the light of the day again.
We thought this was a problem and decided to do something about it. After a few weeks of back and forth, we’ve synthesized our long-list into a single, crisp mission statement and a set of seven core values.

Hopefully by sharing our experience of clarifying and synthesizing a clear mission statement for a company and defining the core values that support the mission, we can help startups realize the true potential of their team faster, strengthen the day-to-day operations with a stronger focus, and empower the entire team members to make their own decisions with unison.

Why are mission and values more important to a startup than any other form of organization?

It is already a significant problem if your startup lacked people with strong (mental or physical) ownerships, but there are also many problems caused by those people with strong ownerships and domain expertises.

 

tug of war between businessmen

1. Compelling, but irrelevant views start taking up most of the time, or people getting hurt emotionally during discussions due to lack of clear direction

Surprisingly enough, many of the today’s startups suffer from chronically stretched meetings. We become ever more confused when a compelling, yet irrelevant opinions taking up most of the time. Most of indecisiveness is caused by lack of clear direction and values to base our decisions on. Having a clear set of guidelines for decision making is crucial, especially for startups, because startups need to move at a much faster speed than any other forms of organization.

“It becomes even harder when you have bunch of smart people arguing endlessly against each other with perfectly logical rationales, due to lack of alignment or direction.”

2. When company policies raise eyebrows and spurs off futile debates, or even rouse moral hazards among the individuals

Throughout working at multiple organizations, I’ve come to realize that people continuously optimize towards maximizing, or even abusing benefits granted by corporate welfare programs, while organizations continuously modify the programs for better monitoring, preventing, and eliminating these kind of abuses. You can read from the news that people take home the free food offered by Google and Facebook for their families and friends. This is not something new.

While it becomes easier to understand company policies and benefits as they become more concrete, at the same time, it also opens up additional rooms for individuals to take advantage of.

To mitigate such issues more effectively, we need to help employees make decisions at a higher and holistic level based on the company values, and not on the specific interpretation of the company policies.

“Frugality is one of the core part of the internal values of Amazon (Leadership Principle) and it doesn’t simply refer to ‘be thrifty and saving’, but it is to be comprehended as ‘judge and decide your spending being aware that the company is in e-commerce business where it has very thin operating margins.’ Because of this core value, even though the budget for overtime meal is not explicitly fixed, and this eliminate irrational practice of spending all the way up to the budget’s limit. People started to skip dinner entirely or replaced it with a light meal selectively.”

3. Feature creeps that lurk up without a clear set of priorities

Even if your product development cycle starts out lean during its infancy, your product’s user experience be damaged as random features bloats your product over multiple iterations. In reality, it is quite difficult to disregard direct customer requests or strong and reasonable arguments articulated by the team.

Sometimes, your team has to step back and think, who are we building this feature for and what values is this feature creating for that person?

4. When hiring becomes a mess, and the need for recruiting process, performance evaluation becomes evident

When your team reaches above 50, revenue becomes (somewhat) stable, and the company starts to feel like a ‘proper’ organization, people expect ‘systems’ to bring order to chaos:

The time will come that recruitment, employee evaluation and performance management require a more systematic way. It’s a good problem to have for a startup, but it’s still a problem.

What would happen if all of the decisions above is instinctively made by a single person (usually the CEO) or few outspoken people, without a clear set of values protecting its consistency? Eventually, people will start to complain more, bogging down the company to a dead halt.

The guiding principles of mission and values for startups

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This is the case study that actually applied to SendBird’s designing mission and value selected about 50 great companies.

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First, keep both mission and values as concise and simple as possible

Mission should be a clear message to the customer and external stakeholders of "what we do.” You must maintain the mission and values as brief as possible. Most of the examples above do not exceed more than 10 values and they’ve tried to keep it as concise as possible.

Balance your values between customers and employees, but always put your top priority on the customers.

The examples above show their attitudes and beliefs toward the customers and internal organization. Generally, we need to consider both, but you will also notice that most of these companies put their customer values ahead of the rest.

Google (Focus on the user and all else will follow), Amazon (Customer Obsession), Zappos (Deliver WOW Through Service), Hubspot (We obsess over customers, not competitors), McKinsey & Co. (Improve our clients’ performance significantly)

Consider where you play (Industry) and this should be reflected to your values

Google (search engine platform), Amazon and Zappos (e-commerce), McKinsey & Co. (management consulting). They all have a set of unique value statements reflecting the key characteristics of their respective industries.

“Frugality” of Amazon and “Do More With Less” of Zappos reflects the thin layer of operating margin of e-commerce industry.

Create sooner than later, and get your team involved in the designing process

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No matter how good your mission and values are, it’s no better than a stacked Tower of Babel, ready to fall apart, if there is no one to share and propagate of your mission’s great intentions.

Whether it is through polls or discussions, your management need to share to the key members, if not all, of your startup, the intermediate results of mission and values development process to keep everyone informed, involved, and engaged. Getting their buy-in is part of the goal of this process.

As with all major decisions, the final refinement of the mission should be done by the CEO and the management who believe in the mission and the values wholeheartedly.

 

Last but not least, they should be deployed into day-to-day operations and decision making processes

During recruiting process, make sure that the interviewee fits with your team based on the company’s mission and values, and not based solely on a few subjective opinions by people in the higher ranks.

Making business decisions that meets with the mission and the values, and not merely with the short-term interests.

When evaluating an employee, ensuring that the person is not only performing, but also well aligned with the company’s mission and values.

 

By applying the mission and values to the daily operations of your startup, you will be surprised that your startup will be more focused, growing faster, and creating more values for your customers.

As a reference, feel free to take a look at “Our 7 Core Values” at SendBird.

 

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