A Mission Of Excellence

Changing the world. You do it every time you walk on a sidewalk kicking dirt (entropy!) and every time you join a startup in San Francisco. Many of the Valley’s top companies have had such broad cri de coeurs. Google’s mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Facebook’s is to “make the world more open and connected.”

Their success means everyone has been talking about improving the human condition, cheapening an already cheap phrase. “Clinkle is a movement to push the human race forward,” the pile of rubble’s CEO and special case study of executive prowess Lucas Duplan once deadpanned in an interview.

Changing the world used to be all anyone needed to believe in order to join a startup. Well, two decades of bullshit has run its course, and we demand specifics. Details, details, details!

Everyone chats about mission-driven startups, and it is no wonder why. Silicon Valley has reached something of an endgame in its labor markets. Talent is “impossible to find” according to nearly everyone, which is ironic when a founder is sitting in SoMa surrounded by incredibly talented people, and hundreds of thousands more are available remotely.

The new thinking (not to be confused with the old new thinking) is that winning over these crowds is impossible without some sort of mission-driven leverage. Sell the mission! At a drone startup, you are not just another Ruby backend engineer, but rather a sculptor transforming the human experience with flight.

Now that changing the world has been completely ruined, companies have moved on to more nuanced motivations. Just take a look at the food department of your local startup store. Soylent is about simplifying food so that humans can get “maximum nutrition with minimum effort.” Likewise, Vessyl is “empowering consumers to make healthier choices in real time.”

Mission, mission, mission! Even the startup hub in San Francisco is called the Mission. It’s like all of a sudden every founder in the Valley is starting a non-profit. (Actually, now that I think about it…)

It’s not just that hiring is easier with a better mission, but even better, you can pay less too. This is always where this conversation goes, with founders and VCs alike. Suffering has to be part of the deal, since that is the only way to see whether someone is committed to the company.

Of course, that feeds into our attrition problem. Even if a founder happens to snag one of those unicorn engineers or marketers walking along King Street, they never know how long that person will last. Loyalty is one of those values that has been thrown out in the name of market efficiency. I had a friend who recently joined a company who was already interviewing at other places just two weeks after starting his new job. “You never know when you are going to get fired,” he said to me, emphasizing the need for backup options.

That’s where the mission-oriented bit comes in. Don’t be loyal to the company, but be loyal to the mission. The business literature emphasizes this repeatedly, discussing how millennials will stay around longer for a mission, even if they are unhappy with their paycheck. Employers will always optimize for their employees when it means a smaller wage bill.

So we have something of a conundrum. Missions are clearly important, since survey after survey seems to suggest that workers – particularly younger workers – do take such things into account while conducting a job search. However, missions have become more hackneyed as every founder tries to differentiate their startups from the tens of thousands of others in the market.

Authenticity here is the best approach, which means being able to deliver on the promises of your mission. While Google and Facebook both had expansive missions, they also happened to be in two of the most important areas ever seen in Silicon Valley, search and social networking. Few startups are located in such spaces. Instead, startups should simply make their missions an extension of their products and services, avoiding the vapid phrases used by their competitors.

This can come in a number of different flavors. One obvious mission-oriented approach is simply social entrepreneurship. A great example of this is from our piece yesterday on New Story, a non-profit in YC’s current batch that is developing a crowdfunding platform to build housing for homeless people. Given recent research that shows that providing housing is one of the most effective ways to end chronic homelessness, this startup has an incredible pitch to talented folks.

You don’t have to be a non-profit though to attract that sort of real passion. Take Even, for instance, which is trying to make it easier for low-income workers to manage their finances by smoothing out fluctuations in their weekly paychecks. Sure, this is essentially a fintech risk management startup, but its mission is authentic and one that we can easily understand (and have you seen their competitors).

However, the simplest missions are often the strongest. GoPro’s mission is to “make the world’s most versatile cameras.” The company has defined what its product does, and then makes the point that it is the best in its class. Tesla also has a similar mission: “Tesla Motors designs and manufactures the most advanced electric vehicles and electric powertrains in the world.”

We might call these superlative missions, and they are among the toughest to execute. There is no emotional resonance to stand upon here. The authenticity of the mission comes exclusively from the founders of the startup, and really, the entire team building a product. Either that team is great and executing at their very best, or they are not. While these missions emphasize products, they are really about people.

We are all changing the world every single day, with every single line of code that we type. That doesn’t mean every line is going to save a life or build a home, but that doesn’t have to be the bar for meaningfulness. Simply writing great code for a great product should be sufficient. In our search for more meaningful language, let’s not avoid that excellence often explains itself.