When startups begin, they are driven to solve a vexing problem. This is an itch that needs scratching or something more serious and perplexing that requires deep commitment and insight to solve. Regardless of its vastness, startups discover a mission that guides them in their behavior and attitude and strategies. The startup mission is what unites the founders around a common goal. It answers, Why are we doing this? Why is this important to people? Why is it important to us to solve this for them? They are driven to solve the problem for others.
They make it their mission to not only solve the problem for themselves, but for others, too. The founders of Warby Parker, the inexpensive yet fashionable eyewear company, experienced a problem that many glasses wearers experience: losing them and not having a suitable replacement. As glasses wearers know, they can cost upwards of $800 for a pair. The founders wondered why this was and what they could do about it. This launched their mission to design and create affordable glasses for people requiring corrective lenses. They believed they could design cool, contemporary glasses at prices nearly anyone could afford. Further, they believed they could give away a pair of glasses for each pair sold, morphing themselves into a B Corp. The glasses giveaways are as much a part of the culture and mission as the inexpensive design. All that they do revolves around this mission, which acts as a behavior and strategy guide. If there are ever any questions regarding whether a certain action should be taken, all they have to do is refer to the Mission to gauge whether the action is in alignment with it.
While many know Warby Parker’s founding story, not many know the competition they were up against. Within the eyewear space, there is a giant, Luxottica, an eyewear manufacturer and retailer conglomerate. They control approximately 80% of the eyewear manufacturer and retailer market, enabling them to keep prices high and eschewing discounts. Think Sunglass Hut — nothing’s ever on sale in there. This is the behemoth the founders of Warby Parker were taking on! This took courage and conviction and chutzpah in their founding beliefs, and foresight into thinking others would want to join them in their mission of inexpensive designer eyewear for this market. The founders thought that people were tired of paying high prices for eyewear (they were) and would love an alternative to what was currently offered to the market (they do). Their Mission and their marketing were further bolstered by their buy one, give one program, making social responsibility a key business driver. People love to know that by buying from a certain brand, they’re also helping someone else in need. Warby Parker, the little startup that could, gained early traction with these marketing benefits and promises to the marketplace. It continues to flourish in the hyper competitive designer eyewear marketplace through disciplined execution and focusing on its mission.
AirBnB began by renting only one room during busy conferences in San Francisco when hotel rooms were priced sky high or were otherwise unavailable. Its founders wondered whether they were onto something with their concept of the virtual bed and breakfast but with hosted free space secured online. Would people embrace the model? The early mission was to give people a reasonable room (or even simply a couch on which to crash) for a reasonable rate and to not gouge them whenever there was a conference in town. Note that this was more in line with people than with corporations as the usual hotel business model was entirely priced with supply and demand and room availability (i.e. the higher the demand, the less the supply and thus the higher the price for a night). In high demand times and lack of hotel room inventory, such as busy conferences, AirBnB discovered there was an untapped market looking for an alternative to traditional, high priced lodging. Additionally, they discovered there was an unused inventory of housing space looking for nightly renters. It made sense to pursue this market as well because AirBnB could solve their problem of free space when they could be renting a few rooms or the entire house for a fee, bringing together buyers and sellers. This gap in the marketplace turned into a mission.
AirBnB’s mission shifted a year or so into their upstart with a focus on the host and the end user’s experience. Brian Chesky, one of AirBnB’s founders, spent over a year being a user of the AirBnB service, staying all over the U.S. and asking hosts what they could do to improve the experience. To really understand the hospitality industry, he performed his own market research, staying in the same beds and same couches his end users would, and was likely one of the top users of his own service at the time. In Warren Buffett parlance, he was eating his own cooking. He was 100% aligned with his mission to make AirBnB as user- and host-friendly as possible. What was working? What wasn’t? How do we improve the end user’s and the host’s experience? The AirBnB service was tweaked and honed accordingly to fit the mission. They are now located in over 190 countries throughout the world, offering a reasonably-priced, enhanced, hosted experience for travelers.
Truly Mission-driven startups and organizations know where they’re headed and why. While they may not always know how they’re going to get there, they maintain focus and drive toward their shared goals. They blaze a path to where they’re going, especially if no path before exists, like in the case of Warby Parker or Tesla or AirBnb. They get the benefit of no historical precedent for their specific Mission. Sure, naysayers will tell them that it cannot be done. But just because it’s never been done before doesn’t mean it cannot be done. An energizing mission gets people moving together toward accomplishment. It gives people something larger than themselves to rally around. It gives them a strategy and behavior guide to ensure their actions are on the right path toward the mission. When everyone understands the mission and knows their why, incredible things happen. They don’t stand around, wondering what to do next. They seek things out to do to support the mission. They are catalyzed into action to bolster it.