Finding Your Purpose

In Life and Startups

We spend most of our lives on things that give us pleasure but not fulfillment. For years, we invest our time and energy chasing things that make us feel good but may not necessarily be good for us. So, we find ourselves looking at a mid-life crisis wondering what happened.  We confuse pleasure with happiness and fulfillment.

We look to pleasure to give us fulfillment and we look to fulfillment to give us pleasure.

Pleasure and fulfillment do cross paths but not in the same way. Fulfillment is rooted in purpose, values and meaning and usually involves or comes from hardship whose lessons stay with you for a lifetime, ultimately producing a completeness or joy.

No mud, no lotus (Thich Nhat Hanh)

Pleasure is usually short-lived and can leave you feeling emptier than before. Or worse can lead to addiction. Its lessons are fleeting at best. Pleasure is not bad, but if done as a replacement for fulfillment, it can lead a person to ruin.

Short Term vs. Long Term for Your Startup 

For a startup, “pleasure” can be replaced with short term and “fulfillment” is long term. A great startup needs to balance both at the right time. If there is too much short term thinking at the sacrifice of the long term, then it will not last. A classic example of this is a focus on user acquisition when the retention or churn is terrible if done too long. If there is too much long term thinking at the sacrifice for short term thinking, then there is no action and surely the startup will die. These are all the startups that never started.

A successful startup founder favors action, meaning nothing will happen for the founder unless he or she wills it to happen. This is especially true in the early stages of a startup. The founders need to bias towards action. It is common to see a lot of focus on action which tends to be short term focused. As the company grows the balance will begin to shift towards long term.

When Kabam first started building games, when people our mission was: we build games on Facebook for gamers. We had only one game on one platform - Kingdoms of Camelot on Facebook - so our short term focus was revenue. [a] As we grew larger, we added more people, and we started to focus on our vision. Until then we knew we wanted to grow, but we did not know what our ultimate aim was given we were so focused on revenue. This short term focus for so long caused some operational issues within the company. For example, some teams were hitting their revenue targets by being aggressive others felt we were too aggressive because both did not know to what end. We rallied around the vision of leading people in these games on new platforms such as Facebook and mobile. So, our vision was to be the leader in mobile games. This change also impacted a look at our values and cultural shift within our company. [b]

Founders should bias towards action in the rowboat phase, but not at the expense of crafting their mission, vision and even values. Investing in the long term can start right now.

A Framework to Find Purpose for a Startup

For a company, the following framework can help guide the company towards becoming a fulfilling startup: 

Mission and Vision answer what is the purpose
Strategy answers how to get there
Values answer the how we treat one another along the way
Metrics measure our success in achieving the purpose

In this article, I will address how to define a mission and vision in the rowboat phase. [c] It can be daunting to define a mission and a vision in the earliest phases of a startup. Will it be large enough? Will it be inspiring? Does your north star need to be evergreen? Otherwise, you will never get to your destination if you keep changing it. Those are all valid questions. 

A mission describes what you are currently doing and a vision describes the ultimate goal which often times leads to why to your startup’s purpose. [d] The best thing to do at this stage of the company and many stages to come is to start out with what you do.

This is why the YC application helps you answer your mission and your vision by its first question: What does your company do? It is more important to be clear on what you do than to add jargon to sound more inspirational. The reason why is it’s very hard for the listener to engage if they are busy trying to figure out what you mean. YC spends most of its 3 months helping founders perfect their one-liner. The best way to do this is first talk about what you do versus who you are. [e]

Example 1: Our company is an AI fintech company in real estate.
Example 2: We use an AI algorithm to identify underserved renters and make loans to help them afford housing.

You can see that Example 2 is clearer, I can picture the parties involved. Even after reading Example 1 I’m not quite sure what the company does. The reason why YC calls this a one-liner is it is meant to be concise and to the point. It does not have to be just one line, but we call it that to be brief.

You can have a follow up sentence on how or an impressive traction point or even the problem. But more keep it brief. The goal of the second sentence of the one liner is to enable the person to ask a follow-up question.

Example 3: We help renters find affordable housing. We use an AI algorithm to identify underserved renters and make loans to help them afford housing.

Example 4: SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. We do this so we can send people to space. [f]

You can use X for Y examples as it’s a common metaphor not only for the investor but also in communicating new things.This formula is “[billion dollar company] for [different industry]”. Examples: Uber for food (Postmates/DoorDash) or Airbnb for Dogs (DogVacay)

Example 5: Airbnb allows you to book rooms with locals rather than hotels. You can think of Airbnb like the eBay of space. [g]

You can test how good your one liner is by telling someone and asking them to tell you what they think your company does. As you pitch it to an investor, if it helps spark an engaging conversation that is more “tell me more” vs. “I’m confused” - then you have a winner. Of course if they write you a check, then congratulations, you have a winner!

Nailing the mission early by nailing your one-liner is that it is a skill that will stick with you as your company grows. You will learn to speak clearly about what you do and build up from there. This skill of starting with what you do and building the story from there not only applies to your mission and vision, but also your numbers, and total addressable market.

I hope that working on your mission, vision and values now will enable you to invest a little bit into the future of the organization making it a more purposeful and fulfilling startup from the very beginning.

Getting to the point of what you do is your mission. 

P.S. 🙏Have a great Sunday and take a meditation break before the week begins🧘🏻!

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[a] For most startups, their metric that they measure will be revenue, but in cases where the business model is ad based, it will be usage (DAU, WAU, or MAU).
[b] Our values also were iterated to be clearer as more employees and teams joined. I will do another post on how our values evolved over time. The core remained the same.
The rowboat phase refers to the phase that starts with the founding team and extends through the team of early employees up to around 80 people. 
[d] The Difference between Vision and Mission
[e] YC has open applications along how to apply , and practicing your one liner!
SpaceX Mission, Airbnb’s First Pitch Deck