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You’ve heard time and time again that vision matters. But ‘vision’ is a loaded word. Everyone thinks they know what it means, but everyone’s definition varies slightly.
In fact, I rarely use the word but instead ask the question: ‘What do you hope the future will hold for your company and customers?’ What’s so remarkable about this question is that it asks an entrepreneur to take a perspective on what the world will look like several years down the road. It also drives every decision thereafter.
Most startups have a hard time defining a vision because they’ve seen visions from larger companies that seem so abstract. For example, here is a vision statement from a Fortune 500 company that I’ll leave unnamed, “Powered by Innovation, Guided by Integrity, We Help Our Customers Achieve Their Most Challenging Goals.” Generic visions like this don’t inspire or drive action and inevitably get tucked away in an employee’s desk.
Successful visions bring a unique perspective and are delivered with enough clarity and conviction to ensure they stick.
Without clarity of vision, your company is on a journey with the destination unknown. I experienced the effect of unclear visions when I worked for Yahoo! in early 2000.
Yahoo’s vision had something to do with providing users with delightful web experiences. It’s pathetic I can’t remember the details and I bet you’d find very few who could in those days. (In fact, I did a web search and couldn’t find anything specific on the subject.) As a product leader at the time, this lack of clarity allowed me to operate in a silo that didn’t fully consider the company’s overall vision. It also opened up the door for everyone to act reactively to every new competitive threat.
Conversely, almost every Yahoo! employee at the time knew Google’s vision, “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” You can make an argument that the current market cap of Yahoo! (~$20B) vs. Google (~$140B) tells a lot about the impact of this vision clarity.
But, now that I’ve told you how important vision is, I’m going to seemingly contradict myself. I’ve never started a company from a blank piece of paper with what I’ve defined as a vision.
Instead, every startup that I’ve worked on began with a ‘perspective’ that over time grew into an opportunity, which ultimately translated into a vision.
A perspective faces the realities of a market and defines an audience, problem and customer experience that opens up an opportunity in the market. When approached in an iterative fashion, where perspectives and opportunities are revisited, entrepreneur’s visions can morph to cast a wider net to inspire bigger and greater things. This is what I call the vision wedge approach.
Let me provide an example…
In early 2009 I started working with Robert Acker, the CEO of a new startup called Aha Mobile. Robert came with a perspective that was developed after years of working on consumer solutions for autos (like Dash and XM satellite radio).
His belief was that drivers had few (if any) tools that were designed for use at 65mph other than the basic car radio. Everyone was focusing on designing for the desktop (where you have a large display and keyboard) or a two-inch interface for mobile phones – both of which assume you have the user’s full attention (not a good thing when you are driving).
While some early attempts at voice recognition let you do some things hands-free, they often require extensive cognitive processing as users try to walk through menus in their minds and answer questions like “did you mean A, B, or C?” This takes their minds, if not their eyes, off of the road.
Thus, there was an opportunity to solve the problem of helping drivers safely receive important information about the world around them that no one else appeared to be focused on. Aha began by focusing on this initial opportunity, with a vision of making drivers “smarter.”
However, the company later realized that there was a potential bigger vision of becoming part of millions of drivers’ daily commutes or errands by improving their driving experiences. That’s a vision that’s big enough to build a company on – and big enough to attract enough investment to make it happen.
Both the opportunities and the related higher-level vision help drive daily decisions at a company. Continuously checking and tweaking the opportunities helps make sure the company is focused on solving a problem that customers care about.
Periodically checking the vision makes sure that capitalizing on the opportunities will lead it to a place the company and its investors still want to be.
Image by pablokorona via Flickr.