Startup Statements of Intent A Formal Means of Defining and Committing to the Purpose of the New Venture
Startup statements of intent have a critical role to play if your new venture has a strong social purpose and the startup seeks to change the world for the better, with benefits for all. There is a moral and ethical leadership void among politicians (Congress has an 80% disapproval rating—March 2018), which is one of the reasons why other organizations in society attempt to fill that void. Leading the field are startups (and some notable big corporates).
This Venture Founders Tool is more guidelines than gadget. This is because it requires a great deal of creative and heartfelt input that only you can provide. It is designed to get culture and outward expressions of the venture right from the get go, Howard Schultz of Starbucks fame, said, when he returned to run the company, having left a few years before that the focus on financials had hurt the company because its shops “no longer have the soul of the past and reflect a chain of stores vs. the warm feeling of a neighborhood store.”
Statements of intent are also regularly required for applications to graduate schools. The undergrad intends to pursue a certain career, and she defines her motivation, the qualities and experience she has so far, and what outcomes for her working life she anticipates. For new ventures, it can resemble a ‘pitch’.
Startup statements of intent are focused on behavior, based on an understanding of possibilities and mindfulness of consequences. Intent implies that the founders have a firm purpose for the venture’s role and the expected outcomes of its actions. If you come from the corporate or non-governmental organization worlds, you will be familiar with mission and vision statements. These tend to be based on aspiration (a synonym of vision), as opposed to a set of behaviors implicated by a startup statement of intent.
This is not a value judgement, but rather an objective observation about the two kinds of statement. One is not better than the other, but they are very different in kind. Startups of today expect to play a fully responsible role in society. They need to be clear with all their stakeholders about how they behave and to what purpose. Their avowed intentions will use words for which they will be accountable, both inside and outside the company. So, in crafting a startup statement of intent, founders must be tough on themselves and their colleagues.
There are many places on the internet where you can find advice or guides on writing statements of mission or vision. The best I have come across is from the consultants Bain & Co. Even better is the Step-by-Step Exercise for Creating a Mission Statement designed by the Nonprofit Hub. It’s not designed for business, but it will be very instructive for people in the for-profit world. However, they don’t get around the issue of such statements being about ‘motherhood and apple pie’, because one organization cannot command all the consequences of their actions, however good its planning may be. Have a look at the Venture Founders Insight called Vision Statement, as a cautionary tale.
The wishful thinking of many corporate vision statements ignore one essential fact. Organizations do not command outcomes of their actions. So, to say, ‘we do this’ or ‘we are that’ may be aspirational, but that is all. There are many outside factors and people that are beyond control of the organization.
Crafting Startup Statements of Intent
Startup Statements of Intent are quite different, since they acknowledge the deep responsibility to be awake to ‘the other’. Being mindful of those beyond our control requires self-awareness such that we can be continuously aware of possible consequences of our actions—as individuals and organizations.
Crafting startup statements of intent cannot be taken lightly, and are unlikely to be valued if left to one individual. Clearly founders must take the lead role, but expect to involve many others in the process. There is no set of rules, but there a dozen key questions that need to be addressed. The answers may require research. The answers should be as precise as possible. Candidness, honesty and humility are required.
The steps that follow may take a while. Do not expect the process to be neat, brief or easy. You may decide not only to involve people within the startup, but also key figures from outside… even some who you suspect may be suspicious of or even potentially hostile to your intentions.
This first step establishes the information that we will need to work on. In a group, answer these 12 questions. Brainstorming may be a useful way of accomplishing this step. Though the answers will not produce the statement, they will provide the basis upon which you can start to write one.
- What do we do for whom?
- What verification do we have for our assumptions?
- Why do we do it and how do we get it done?
- Upon whom do we rely to get it done?
- Who is directly—and indirectly— involved?
- Whom do we impact directly and indirectly?
- Who benefits/suffers from our activity?
- With what consequences for us, them and society?
- What is our part in the system + name the others?
- How do/can we check outcomes?
- Who’s potentially involved over whom we exercise no control?
- What potential outcomes may impact our intent?
Some of the resulting information (may be on sticky notes, in notebooks, on the computer or white board, or even just in people’s heads) may look pretty incoherent, or even be conflicting. There may be differences of opinion. Gaps may show up, but it will be worth taking each answer or cluster of answers and applying an Affinity Diagram to them. This will reveal connections between them and which issues have to be examined together, as well as to help you towards some coherence of thinking about how to structure the statement.
Now you are beginning to see shape to the whole process. But there will appear to be no sense of order or priority. This is when you can use the Force Field Analysis Tool. This exercise will reinforce your realization that vision statements tend to proclaim dreams, whereas you are now grappling with the humbling experience of working in the real world. However great your passion, you know that you are not in control of the universe (you might want to look at again at the Vision Statement Insight to keep your feet on the ground).
If the group involves more than a handful of people, split into small groups. You may do this step virtually, using whatever media are comfortable or practical. The aim of Step Four is to work on the answers to six odd-numbered questions above (1,3,5,7,9 & 11), obviously taking account of the answers to the other questions. The end goal of the step is to arrive at six short statements. The editorial process is for the group to determine.
Step Five—part one
This is the really hard part: how you get to the essence of the purpose in a succinct way. Bear in mind that the startup statement of intent is first of all important as a credo, or mantra for all employees. Outsiders will only believe it if the statement is evident from the actions of staff and the business as a whole. The founders need to take responsibility for this Step. The final draft of the startup statement of intent must be written by them.
Step Five—part two
Once the draft is complete, then the founders should share it with all employees and those advisers close to the new venture, seeking feedback and corrections. A final meeting of those involved should agree the draft before making any publication of it. Once the statement is ‘in print’, then it should (a) shared with each new employee, and (b) be open to improvement.
I am not alone in thinking this way Mary Juetten, CEO of Traklight, writing in Forbes, considers that clearly defining your company culture will lay a strong foundation for success by allowing you to recruit people who fit your business and ensure employees stay on track. “You want your employees to be able to work without looking over their shoulder, but you also want to make sure that they’re doing what you want them to,” she says.