Why Start-ups will continue to “make the world a better place”

I was recently chatting with one of my new team mates, Sudarsan (@artfuldev) at Rocketlane. We were discussing about how start-ups evolve, and eventually the conversation came to :
Why does Atlassian say they “unleash the potential of every team”,
or AirBnB say “we help create a world where you can belong anywhere”?
It’s not like they were born with that being at the core of their idea?

Of course, we HAD TO then reminisce briefly about this episode from Silicon Valley:

 

Sudarsan was curious. Why do companies that start off solving specific problems end up aggrandising their purpose?

To me it seemed natural. I always needed a “grand mission” or a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) to motivate me and make me proud of my work.

This may be straightforward for some, but I realise there are many who look at this and have some questions :
But why do they care to do this?”
“Why backward fit a new mission for the company when it wasn’t this when you started building all this? Who are you fooling?”

“And why do many start-ups do this so early? Before they’ve even gotten to somewhere!”

Well, it actually isn’t about saying we’re here to save the world. It’s mostly about 2 things.

1. Giving them a larger purpose helps team members find motivation and meaning in their work.

Back in 2017, I had the opportunity to work with Girish (Girish Mathrubootham) and Satya (satya padmanabham) on what would be a revised “vision” and “mission” for Freshworks — when we were over 1500 people. It was necessary, as we’d been acing all our “dreams” and “goals” as a company, and didn’t want our teams to rest on our laurels. We wanted everyone to look for our next big challenge, to grow and learn together.

Eventually, Girish came up with “we exist to help businesses wow their customers, and create customers for life”. If your existence is making other businesses more successful in delighting their customers and keeping them for life, that makes you proud! That makes you find that purpose from your work, and can change your attitude towards it — since you now know how you make a difference to your customers’ lives.

2. It helps your growing company align.

For you to grow and succeed, you need everyone on your team rowing in the same direction, and it’s hard to ensure that’s happening when you have over 1000 employees! The mission helps, to a great extent, to ensure you have a frame of reference to what that direction is.

I have a good example to illustrate the second one from personal experience. And why it may help to think about this early, not only after you scale.

When we built our last start-up, we were just 3 good friends working together on an idea. We had known each other for over a decade already, and we had great rapport and understanding.

Yet, when our initial voice messaging app (Phonon) did not have the growth we expected, we discovered something surprising.

While we had great alignment on the initial app and it’s features, we had no alignment on what our next experiments would be to get to PMF. I was looking at the product from the lens of it being a “utility” for communication — and hence wanted to see if we can make a version of our app for businesses. Vignesh looked at it as an engagement product, and wanted to create “rooms” for voice-based banter around recent sporting events, etc. Deepak looked at it as a social tool with friends at the centre of it, and suggested we make an app (called “Ten”) for you to stay in constant touch with just your ten best friends — everyone being one tap away on your screen.

While we initially shipped a good quality product that many of our friends loved, we didn’t have a common notion of what kind of product it was — utility, entertainment, or social.

Need I say more? If three friends for over a decade can have different ideas that could pull us in different directions, imagine what can happen when you have 500 people. You need to define who you are as a business, at a slightly higher plane (than just how your business makes money today), as early in the journey as you can. And you may need to do this again in the future when you’ve evolved to a new stage as a company.

It’s not about looking cool or saving the planet — it’s about helping your team find meaning and motivation to align with, and carry the business forward, together.

Thanks to Sudarsan Balaji and Shajahan Sheriff.