Repeat founders tend to put deliberate effort into defining their second companies' mission and vision much earlier than they did the first time around. I noticed this trend a few years ago while struggling with mission and vision work at Distilled. Not only do repeat founders typically work to make sure that everyone on the team is able to repeat a crisp mission from very early on, but they are often deliberate in defining the core values while the team is still very small. I sometimes think that you can spot the mistakes they made in their first company by seeing the over-corrections they crystallise into the core values of their second. I’ll leave the articulation of our mistakes as an exercise for the interested reader of our values.
First time founders (myself and Duncan included) make a wide range of mistakes, in all kinds of different directions. No doubt it’s common to seek not to make any of those mistakes again in future enterprises, but I suspect that leaving it too long to articulate a mission is one of the more common first-time founder mistakes, and hence working on it early is a distinguishing feature of repeat founders.
Anyway, in the midst of the craziness of 2020, one of the most important things I wanted to do as SearchPilot set off on its journey as an independent company, was to define and document its mission and purpose, and capture the core values that will guide us as we grow.
You can read more below, but the key insight, and the direction of our absolute focus, is captured in our mission statement:
One of the most important things we can do is know ourselves. We know that the kind of testing we do is most effective on large websites, and if we design our organisation and product around the singular focus of supporting that kind of customer, this will only become more true over time. So if you’re responsible for the organic search performance of a large website, you should definitely get a demo.
If you want to skip ahead, here’s what I’m going to cover:
- How we got here
- SearchPilot’s purpose
- The benefits we’re already getting from the mission
- If you remember just one thing
How we got here
I don’t suppose 2020 really went how anyone expected it to go, but ours was an unusual year even since before the pandemic reached the UK and US.
In January 2020, we spun SearchPilot out as an independent company in the process of selling Distilled to Brainlabs (see the announcement of the merger and our about page for more). Distilled was the company that I founded in 2005 with Duncan, that we bootstrapped for 15 years, and that had grown to three offices on two continents by the time of the acquisition.
Over the last few years of Distilled’s life, we had been building the platform we called Distilled ODN (Optimization Delivery Network), that would become SearchPilot. At first it was an R&D project answering the question of whether we could build such a thing, then it was a dedicated team answering the question of whether we should bring it to market. At the time of the spin-out, it had grown to be a business unit with its own customers and P&L.
That’s how we found ourselves, in February, with an entirely new company to grow. It was owned by the previous shareholders of Distilled - the majority by Duncan and me, but also by some of the key individuals who had grown Distilled over the years, many of whom are still critical to the future success of SearchPilot - with a new minority shareholder in the form of Distilled’s acquirer who’d provided the capital for us to stand alone from Distilled. So we were newly independent and getting used to the idea of being a software company, and I knew that it had to be a top priority to make sure the team shared a crisp and clear understanding of what SearchPilot was setting out to achieve.
Most founders I speak to find it easy to get tied in knots over the exact difference between mission and vision, and get tangled up in the combination of those two and related words like “purpose”. I know I have.
To save confusion for myself, and for the team, I went down the route of defining the terms, after a lot of research into what everyone else means by them:
- The mission is the definition of SearchPilot’s business. It tells us what we do and who we do it for
- The vision is the wider societal impact SearchPilot will have
- The purpose is just shorthand for the combination of the mission and vision
These are the definitions we captured alongside our own mission and vision, and that we will repeat every time we repeat the mission and vision themselves, until they become second nature.
In the case of both the mission and the vision, I found it relatively easy to capture the essence - in ways that ended up not changing between first and final draft. What took the time was the refining and wordsmithing needed to make them short enough to be memorable, but detailed and specific enough to avoid being generic.
In the case of the mission, the important things we wanted to capture were the focus on large websites (where testing is most effective, and where our team and organisation is best-placed to shine), and the two core reasons that we started down this path - things we had realised during a decade+ of consulting - namely the need to solve the joint challenges of getting SEO done at scale, and proving its value. Here’s what we came up with:
I want to focus on repeating the whole mission regularly, while expecting us all to remember the bold part.
The vision came from a more personal place:
While this is a direction that is shared by the team, and that was developed alongside them, the idea that this would be our biggest impact on the wider world came from a combination of looking back and looking forwards: I’ve talked before about how proud I am of the impacts we have had on people’s careers:
Making Distilled a great place to work was a part of our values, but through all the introspection that came as we decided to sell the core consulting and conferences parts of Distilled, one of the things that Duncan and I returned to often was the meaning and purpose we got from the lasting impact it had had on the team’s careers and lives. So, looking to the future, it felt natural and purposeful to focus our efforts to make an impact in this area.
I’ve talked elsewhere about the focus we are applying to diversity at SearchPilot - and why we are doing this so much earlier than we did at Distilled. Its elevation into the vision encapsulates how much stronger a team I believe we can build if we can harness a wider range of talents.
The benefits we’re already getting from the mission
One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn, and that I’m still not quite sure I’ve fully internalised, is the power of focus. I’m personally drawn to novelty and thinking about new things, and I’m sure the lawyers who had to pick apart the Distilled business spread across three offices in 8 timezones, in multiple lines of business and different business models would have something to say on the subject. On the other hand, spending 15 years building Distilled painstakingly up from door-to-door website sales has made me believe that if you do anything for that long, you’ll build something interesting!
Buried in this lesson is the realisation that the organisation needs more focus than we do as individuals, not less. I’m determined to do this better this time around. We now have a well-defined mission, and have already started repeating it in ways that are designed to become endlessly repetitive - e.g. by including those three slides at the beginning of every all-hands meeting.
Focus, focus, focus
It’s tempting to think, because there’s nothing surprising about a typical mission statement, that the act of writing it down has achieved relatively little. This is a mistake even if everyone is perfectly aligned already - the real power comes from the focus and repetition, which are only possible if it’s documented - but it’s also perpetually surprising how much daylight there can be between the assumptions of different team members even when they appear aligned. It’s why the key is to have something a) written down, b) simple enough to remember, and c) repeated and talked about often enough to explain all the details and subtleties to everyone on the team.
Even in our small team, we’re already finding it useful to drive decisions. This quarter we have:
- Focused engineering priorities on delivering features that differentiate us to the enterprise
- Shipped a range of website content specifically designed either to clarify who our target market is, to reach them more effectively, or to describe the key capabilities that are most important to the largest websites we work with
- Structured the professional services team to focus on how we can deliver differentiated support for the hardest problems and scale to support a growing number of customers
For the team, the idea of capturing the purpose and values in this form is that we have a structured hierarchy of concepts that fit neatly together, and that we will be able to learn through repetition to the point that everyone in the company can repeat at least the top level easily:
- Our mission is to prove the value of SEO for the world’s biggest websites
- Our wider impact on society will come as we create great jobs
- Our core values are based on believing:
- Work is a large part of our lives so we need to enjoy the journey
- We all want to be great at what we do and to be surrounded by a strong team
- We value ownership and getting results for our customers
If you remember just one thing
SearchPilot is going to prove the value of SEO for the world’s biggest websites by empowering them to make agile changes and test their impact.
I hope that clarity makes it easier for everyone around the community to know what SearchPilot is, what it’s for, and to have us front of mind when an opportunity comes up that we’d be well-placed to deliver. If you know someone who we should be speaking to, please put them in touch, and if that’s you, you can get a demo here.