Startups | 11 min read

Why does your company exist?

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Why does your company exist other than to make money? Many people can’t succinctly answer that question, and that is a problem for product building.

Putting the work in to clearly stating your mission is often overlooked by startups, and often diluted into something in-actionable in large organisations. But having a clear, easy to explain, actionable mission is critical to help product teams make good decisions and move fast.

A clear company mission helps you decide what to build and not build. Whether a great idea is great for you, or great for some other company. Without a clear mission to evaluate ideas against, companies end up with feature bloat and a lack of cohesion within and across their products.

Here is a quick recent talk I gave on this topic at an Intercom event.

For more, check out Des’ post on the same topic.


If you prefer reading to watching, you can find a full transcript below. 

I just want to talk about one really simple thing. It’s got nothing to do with engineering specifically. I’m not going to talk about product development specifically. But it’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in the last few years. Like many people here at Intercom who worked at some of the bigger web companies, I worked at Facebook before I worked at Google. A lot of people here are from Amazon and Apple and so on.

Over the course of working on many different projects in those companies, I learned this lesson, and I want to share it because it’s a thing that a lot of people avoid and kind of think is bullshit, basically. I actually think it’s critical to success. You know, we’re fortunate to have the growth that Ben talked about, for example. I put a lot of it down to the fact that we care about this thing, and that thing is having a mission.

So this is a real question. If you think about who you work for and talk to your CEO or even people around you, the question is: “Why does your company exists other than to make money?” You’d be amazed at how many people cannot answer that question.

The last role I had at Facebook, I was working with a lot of external companies, a lot of some of the biggest companies in the world, global brands. You would talk to the chief marketing officer and ask them why they existed other than to make money, and they literally could not answer you. That’s a problem, in my opinion.

So there are different missions. Different people write these things different ways. This is Facebook’s mission, which I think is a really great one: “To give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” About half my time at Facebook, I spent working as a product manager. This mission is actually really meaningful and really empowering because everyone has good ideas all the time. I don’t think ideas or quantity of ideas are a problem for any of us in this room, but the problem is that you don’t know what ideas to build or not to build. Actually having a mission makes that incredibly focused.

So all the teams in Facebook are coming up with all these different ideas, and you could literally look at the mission and say, “Well, does this idea make it easier to share things with people?” If it does, that’s a great thing for Facebook to build. But if it doesn’t, it’s a great idea, but some other company should build it.

So here’s another example. I joined Facebook from the Google Plus team. And you might ask yourself what was the mission of Google Plus? This is more or less real. This is not a mission. Right? The problem with this is that if you come up with great ideas, and Google Plus is an incredibly talented team, if you come up with many, many ideas, and this is your mission, you will build all the ideas, all of them. I’m sure some of you guys use Google Plus. It’s pretty complicated. It’s very complex. There’s a lot going on, and it’s hard to use. I think it’s because the mission enabled and empowered all those great engineers and product people to build whatever they thought was a good idea.

This is another example. I spent a year working on a project at Google. The project was called Mobile Social. This was 2008, the iPhone had just come out, that was pretty exciting times. What basically happened was 10 engineers were kind of grouped together and said, “You guys, mobile is a hot thing. It’s taking off. This iPhone thing is a big deal. Social is a big deal. Facebook is growing. This thing called Twitter is coming out. It’s growing. Your team’s job, your mission, is to figure out mobile and social.”

That seems like a very reasonable question and a very reasonable thing for a bunch of people to figure out, but it’s not a mission. So when you’re thinking about all the ideas, you have no way of evaluating them.

This is another example. This is Twitter’s mission, which I think is also a pretty good mission: “To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.” I think it’s kind of hard to read. Here we go. If you’re sitting around in a product team, and you’re coming up with a bunch of ideas and saying, “Are these ideas good for us, good for our company?” You can evaluate them. Right? Do they make the sharing of information more instant, faster? That’s obviously a thing that Twitter cares about.

This idea of instantly is not in Facebook’s mission. Right? So it’s obviously not as important to Facebook. Facebook might not care about those things as much as Twitter do. One good example of this is Twitter is a great platform for breaking news, breaking information. That’s not something that Facebook is necessarily as good at. Right? If you look at their missions, it actually probably explains a lot of reasons why.

This is Microsoft’s mission, “To enable people and businesses throughout the world to realize their full potential.” That’s not the worst mission I’ve ever seen, but it’s not actionable. Right? It’s nice. It’s meaningful, I think, but it’s not actionable. I can’t look at a bunch of features in a list, as a product person and say, “Are these features good for our company? Or should someone else build them?”

So this is Intercom’s mission, “To make Internet business personal.” We care a lot about it. We talk a lot about it. Everyone in the company knows about it. I wanted to give you some… a little bit of depth, a tiny bit of depth, into where that came from, what it means, because I think it’s really, really critical that anyone who builds software, builds products, actually knows what their mission is and can make decisions based on that mission. That’s a very actionable, meaningful statement. So this is our mission.

Of course, if your mission is to make Internet business personal, that must mean that Internet business today is impersonal. This is one of my favorite examples. I write my name in capital letters, in case anyone didn’t know that. That’s not even what this is about. So if you look at the address this comes from, right? So I go to the phone. There’s a message for me. God help me if I have a question about my bill. Right? What’s going to happen is I’m going to reply, and I’m going to get a bounce robotic email. That’s impersonal. That is not a good experience. If I walk into the Vodafone store, I don’t get that experience. Right? People in the Vodafone store, I hope, do not tell me, “Sorry. No reply.” [laughter] Yeah, you would be surprised.

Here’s another example from Quip, which I feel a bit embarrassed about because Quip is actually awesome, but it’s the only one I could find in a rush earlier today. So this is typically what happens when you want to talk to a company. So a company wants to talk to you, it sends out these no-reply emails a large part of the time. When you want to talk to them, the company says, “Well, can you fill out this form? Because it makes it easier for us.”

If you’re a customer of a company, and that’s a company who values their customers, this is not the experience that you want to deliver them. It doesn’t work. Then you hit “Send” on this thing after 20 minutes of filling it out, and who knows where it goes. It goes to some big, black, dark, hole. Right? Maybe you get a reply that says, “Thanks. Your ticket number is 555666,” and you’re like, “I hope a person is around.” Who knows?

Here’s another example. Sometimes you get these forms. Sometimes you hit the Contact Us button, or you hit the Live Chat button. Right? Awesome. These guys have live chat. I want to talk to them in real-time like real people, like in real life, except, “Sorry. Our operators are not available at the moment.” So they don’t have people working there. They have operators. That’s a start. Also, it’s not live chat. It’s not real.

The point is that these are all impersonal things. These are things that are technology-driven. Right? These are things that are optimizing for business operations and technology and not optimizing for real customer experiences. So we felt that this is a problem. The four founders of Intercom – Eoghan, Des, Ciaran and David – felt this was a clear problem that needed to be addressed. So this is where this mission came from.

A lot of the inspiration for this is actually to look at real life. I’ve found that one of the most striking things when I joined Facebook was that a lot of the conversation at that company is not about technology. It’s actually about social science and psychology. You know, Bill mentioned earlier being able to look outside your industry. I think that’s really, really important.

If you’re trying to build a meaningful company and solve a meaningful problem and something that makes people’s lives better and something that people care about, you need to look at real life. It’s the best proxy, it turns out, for online life. If you think about the businesses that are successful and your favorite businesses in the world, they’re things like this, this great cafe near our old office. It’s a place where you get personal service. You go back and you go back, and they start to remember you, and they start to personalize the things they offer you. It’s very easy to think about this at a local level, like your local pub, local cafe, and so on. It scales really well, at times.

The Apple store is also a pretty personal and great experience because they care about that. They care about delivering that. So when you go into Apple and start talking to the people there, first of all, they know about their product and their business and their mission. The first thing they do is ask you things like, “What do you own? Do you have an iPhone 4? iPhone 5?” They start to personalize and tailor the experiences that you get and the advice that they give you.

So that’s our mission, to make Internet business personal. That’s where it came from. This isn’t… I hope this isn’t… a pitch. I hope it doesn’t come off that way. I’m trying to give you guys insight into where that came from. There are other great examples of missions in the world, Facebook’s, Twitter’s, and so on. Many, many companies don’t do this. Many companies come up with wishy-washy statements that mean nothing.

Coke’s mission statement is something like, “To refresh the world.” Good luck to their product team with that. So I think this is a really important thing. It’s something that is often overlooked. If you think about our product, what we build and, more importantly, what we decide not to build, it is actually always leading up to this mission. It’s what drives all of our decision making, and this permeates itself all the way through the product team, all the way through the engineering team. We work hard to have people know about it.

So that’s it. I would challenge you guys, in the company that you work in and with the product you’re trying to build, to really answer the question: Why do you exist, other than to make money? Thanks a lot. [Applause]