04 Culture, Vision, And Mission

Build a successful company around your product

Ideas are worth very little without a culture to guide the selection of talent and a big, bold vision to attract and unify the team. Human capital is what separates great from good companies – which is why establishing a strong culture to attract and retain the right people while unifying them behind an inspiring vision and mission is essential to any significant venture.

This presentation offers insight into approaches entrepreneurs should consider when developing their venture’s mission and vision – while ensuring they can execute on both – critical areas of focus when striving to build an enduring company.

Further, the content drills into how to establish a culture that will inspire your team to support your vision and mission. Culture development, in particular, is a complex topic and is one that should be taken seriously, as it plays a critical role in any venture’s success.

Also included is a case example from Salsify, featuring insight from co-founders Jason Purcell, Jeremy Redburn, and Rob Gonzalez. Each share details on their experiences related to culture, vision and mission creation in a real-world, fast-growing startup.

Video Workshop: Culture, Vision and Mission




On the go? Listen to the workshop below or subscribe on your favorite podcasting app: 

Case Study: Symantec

Contributed by Michael Skok


As discussed in the workshop on Culture, Mission and Vision, culture and vision are essential elements of your startup. I experienced this many times in my career. One pointed example was when I was at Symantec in the early days and we made a large acquisition. I was lucky enough to have hired a great first sales guy, Steve Abbott, who came to the iLab to share that story with us.

As Steve shares, it wasn’t the technology integration that was the challenge; it was culture.

One startup secret here is simple but powerful and applies to many situations in a startup:

That is to say, use your culture, mission, and vision to get people on the same page and energized around the same goals, and to drive out any politics, so that the resulting team can apply all their energy to important external goals like winning in the market. In another part of this story, we were indeed challenged with operationalizing our culture post-acquisition. We overcame this internal issue by declaring an external challenge – a competitor who we subsequently drove out of the business. By declaring war on them, we came together as a unified team and learned to win together. It also became really clear who was a fit for the team going forward.

The other startup secret applies more specifically to acquisitions:

As is often the case with technology startups, the value is in the people who can carry the product and IP forward. So take time to treat this like hiring. That is to say, check to see if they will really fit and ensure they are truly motivated to sign on, ideally agreeing on critical things like their role in advance of even making the acquisition.

Case Study: Cylent

Contributed by Mike Duffy


When Michael approached me about participating in his Harvard iLab Startup Secrets event focused on Vision, Mission, and Culture, I was intrigued because, in my experience, early-stage companies often overlook this topic even though it can be critically important to achieving long-term success.

In many startups, the early phase of development is entirely focused on getting the product offering and value proposition right. Everyone works really hard to build the new offering, get customer acceptance and begin to generate revenue. Founders focus their hiring on the skills that are needed to accomplish these goals. And if they work really hard, and are lucky (luck’s important) they might just make it through this early phase with a team that performs well. In these situations, the company’s culture becomes loosely defined by the founder’s personalities.

Coming out of this phase, with an excited board and team, and still with an undefined culture, the company steps on the gas again and hires for the next phase of growth. This is when it can get tricky for companies that have a loosely defined vision, mission, and culture. New managers and employees now join the company with their own ideas related to company culture, based on previous experiences in other companies. The founders often still attempt to lead the way they did in the beginning phase when they controlled everything easily. And conflict and confusion begin to rule.

That’s just not fun for anyone!

I believe that the best time to define Vision, Mission and Culture is RIGHT AT THE BEGINNING. The founders are best positioned to accomplish this and it always helps to solicit input from other key stakeholders such as early employees and customers. But investing the time to define clearly the Vision and Mission for your company and the culture that you aspire to develop will sew the seeds for success down the road. It also provides every stakeholder an essential component that great leaders provide: “Vision.” Once these things are developed and clearly articulated, they need to be driven into everything the company does. We should hire, evaluate and reward team members based on how they exemplify our company’s culture. The culture should define who we are and how we treat our customers, other team members, partners and everyone in our ecosystem. These principles, defined properly and emulated by enthusiastic leaders, can be so motivating for the entire team. Now, as we hit each phase of growth or pivot, we do so together. Work is fun and rewarding.

And the company wins!

Back a long time ago, I actually developed my own approach to integrating Vision, Mission, and Culture into my approach to a leadership system. I had learned the hard way and wanted to help my teams to execute better and have more fun and this system really helped us. Before I wrote this article, I’d only shared it with my teams.

Note: Also check out a clip from this workshop where Mike explains the opportunity for Cylent in the security space.

Case Study: Promoboxx

A note from Michael Skok:

In our company formation series, we cover the importance of culture and establishing core values. The challenge with the topic is bringing it to life in a practical scenario. So, I’m pleased to introduce Promoboxx, and their Founder and CEO Ben Carcio, who established their culture and values as a core part of their business.

Here, for example, is the clear way Promoboxx originally set out their values as a team of just 5 people. Importantly you’ll see Ben is clear that these values are still consistent today. This is a central tenant of culture – CONSISTENCY. In fact, it’s one of the few things that should stay consistent at the core of your business while you may evolve things like your business model.

Promoboxx makes it incredibly easy for manufacturing brands to support their retailers with online marketing materials, helping retailers not only become better marketers but also better business people as well. I asked Ben how he developed the company’s culture and ingrained values in a way could build a strong team and deliver on their promise to their customers. As you’ll hear below it has set them up for great things ahead. In his words, here’s Ben’s view on what it takes to create a great corporate culture in a startup.

Contributed by Ben Carcio

Promoboxx: the Company and the Culture

When Promoboxx closed our initial seed round, we were worried our culture could suffer. It was just the starting five of us and we were about to triple in size, so it felt like the right time to list the things that were most important to us. The result was the 10 Values of Promoboxx. Looking back nearly 2 years later, we still use them every day.

Here are some tips for creating and communicating your company vision and building a list of values that can endure:

Collaborate Around Creation

As CEO, I started with some ideas in a Google doc and asked the team for their input. We built the list up to 30 ideas, and then consolidated and combined similar concepts down to a list of around 15 and voted. The result was a list of 10 values that we all could believe in.

Share with Customers

Your vision and culture should extend to everyone, including your customers. If you’re unwilling to share your values with your customers they’re probably the wrong values, or you have the wrong customers. Simply by adding them to your website you’re proclaiming to the world that you have strong values and that they’re important enough to declare to everyone.

Don’t Take Them Too Seriously

Formalized company values run the risk of seeming “lame” to your team — keep some of them fun. If you asked anyone at Promoboxx about our values they’d likely start with Celebrate Accomplishment. Anytime we have a big win or employee promotion we “Celebrate Accomplishment” with a happy hour or cake. So, even when we’re having fun we’re adhering to our values.

Post Them Around the Office

We hired a local design firm to create posters for each core value to display around the office. They provide constant reminders of the values we believe in, and it also answers that other crucial start-up question: how to decorate the office.

Make Them Your Shorthand

The true test of how your values are impacting your team is by observing how much they are used in everyday communication. We see our values used as hashtags (#BelieveInRetailers), within our emails and in our team chatrooms. One teammate could say, “Hey, thanks for the help on that project” and the other could respond with a core value “No problem, Support Each Other.” If they’re working, you’ll see and hear it.

One Value to Rule Them All

Although we have 10 values, there’s one unbreakable “core” value above all others — it’s Believe in Retailers. We list this one first and it guides our business in almost every crucial decision we make. Without Believe in Retailers the rest of the list doesn’t matter. Don’t be afraid to choose one core value out of the list.

In closing, the most important thing to remember is to stick to your values. There have been times when our values were challenged. Specifically, a huge national brand wanted to create a program that wasn’t good for retailers; Essentially they wanted to make money on the marketing services we were providing their retailers. From a bottom-line perspective, it projected to be real revenue to Promoboxx, but we’d be contributing the problem we were trying to fix. So we said no, and exited a signed contract that I had already communicated to the Board. The team response was phenomenal. They fully supported the decision and for many, it was a moment when truly connected with the vision and values.

Thanks to Ben and the team for sharing this illuminating case. It’s a great example for us to learn from and we all hope to hear of your continuing success!

As always, there are no right or wrong ways to establish your culture. Let’s draw out a few startup secrets to help you get started:

  • Find your own way to develop your culture that is truly authentic to you, and not borrowed – or worse still – imitated.
  • Ensure the process results in values you can really live by day-to-day.
  • Assess yourself by how you walk the walk. (Consider how you enact the culture with things like behavioral rewards and test with employee check-ins, or, as you get bigger, company surveys, to validate this)
  • Check that your cultural ethos ultimately passes through to your customers in a way that resonates and delivers value to them. (Consider customer councils, NPS, and other tools to measure this)

All these things will help your culture to reinforce your execution, your brand, and ultimately your value. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. For further reading on developing some of the foundational elements of your business such as culture, vision, mission, and how it can help you with hiring, check out our other videos.

Case Study: Salsify

Contributed by Michael Skok

The most frequently asked question I get from entrepreneurs centers around the best way to raise money or start a company. As many of you may know, I am on a mission to not only demystify this process but also to openly and transparently streamline the path entrepreneurs take to realize their potential. Hence the creation of the Startup Secrets series. This article is a case example of how to do it right from day one.

It Always Starts with People

The most critical decision a VC makes is who to back. Our best results come from backing entrepreneurs who are uniquely qualified to solve a problem.

If the problem addressed is significant, ambitious, and is some combination of the 4 U’s: Urgent, Unavoidable, Unworkable, and Underserved, it can be inspiring.

On a personal level, it becomes just plain irresistible when a dedicated team forms to solve these types of problems with a sound culture and a clear vision and mission to build a big company.

Enter Jason Purcell, Jeremy Redburn, and Rob Gonzalez – a founding team who are not only seasoned entrepreneurs but who have been remarkably thoughtful in the way they approached the whole startup process, forging a distinct culture and tackling an explicit problem with a vision into a vast market.

The VC perspective

As VCs, we have no job without great entrepreneurs and market disruption, so I track both. I came to follow this team through their success at Endeca, and I have watched both the e-commerce and content space for over a decade through my industry focus and work on things like the future of cloud computing survey. I also, of course, have related investments such as Demandware and Acquia in these areas. So you could say I knew I’d want to invest in this team in this space before they even pitched, and that would not be an overstatement.

Here’s the cool part: they were smart enough to figure out for themselves what they needed and whom they wanted as investors for their own reasons. I encourage entrepreneurs not to think about this as raising money, but finding a fit and building a partnership with all their stakeholders, particularly in the early days of a company.

When I first sat down with this team in the fall last year, it was just the three founders. Even so, they immediately talked about the e-commerce market, issues they’d seen with it and their vision. They got me intrigued, and we agreed to start talking about how the vision would evolve, and in each meeting, they proved their ability to iterate rapidly with customers at the focus of their thinking. The voice of the customer and their vision about the market was clearly in their DNA.

In the early part of this year, they impressed me as they were preparing to make their first few hires. They attended one of the Startup Secrets classes and invited me to do a private workshop on one of my favorite topics — Culture. The fact that they saw it for themselves as a priority this early was just plain impressive. Jason led the charge about finding the consistency to hire the right people. In our session, he and the team discussed the essential values they were looking for, such as smart people whom they could empower, who would be good listeners and learners to bring them on and enable them to run fast.

During that session, the founders began to infuse their vision and mission into their corporate culture to get everyone on the same page and energized around the same goals. Companies that do this early can apply all their energy to important external goals like winning in the market.

Subsequently, as the founders have hired their first team members, their idea of empowering individuals has become operationalized and ingrained in their culture.

They have hired extremely bright people and given them the freedom and flexibility to figure out new ways to do things, to work independently, to create, to fail — all while giving them support but not dictating what they do.

One recent example is with an intern, now a full-time employee, who was a journalism major with no marketing background. They gave her the responsibility of owning collateral creation to help the sales process. She was free to experiment, interview designers, and interview customers in the field. Needless to say, she flourished with the assignment and has since been hired full time.

Timing Funding

As I mentioned earlier, I started to work with these entrepreneurs over a year ago during their process of defining the market challenges they were trying to solve. After testing the idea repeatedly and considering many different angles, they realized the problem was real and began to hire against that problem while bootstrapping the company. At that point, many companies would have jumped right to getting funded. They knew I understood their market space and the problem they were solving, and that I thought of them as a cohesive and thriving team. At that point, that’s more than enough for me to fill any other gaps in the early stage. We don’t expect early-stage entrepreneurs to have all the answers before we fund them! However, to their credit, the founders did not want only to take money.

Salsify decided to do both. While the team certainly had tons of potential having refined their idea and problem set; they wanted to get a better sense of what the market validation for their potential solutions was. To do that, they bootstrapped the development of their Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and then started to get feedback from initial customers including cosmetic manufacturers, a consumer electronics retailer, industrial parts manufacturers, a medical device distributor, and others both in the U.S. and Europe. This helped them to hone the value proposition that they ultimately synthesized as, “It’s like GitHub for product content management.”

The Salsify Value Proposition

  • For (target customers) — Manufacturers, Distributors, and Retailers who sell products through online channels (their websites, retail and distribution partners, marketplaces such as Amazon.com, etc.).
  • Who are dissatisfied with (the current alternative) – Who lack a flexible solution to store all product content in one place, so it’s easy for teams to collaborate in real-time, and for marketing teams to create a customized feed for each downstream retail channel.
  • Our product is a (new product) — Cloud-based Product Content Management Platform.
  • That provides (key problem-solving capability) — a global network for companies to create, manage, and exchange all product content – including images, attributes, product relationships, etc. – with each other.
  • Unlike (the product alternative) — existing enterprise Product Information Management (PIM) systems that do not allow marketing teams to exchange data with their partners easily, or product data syndicators which only provide a one-size-fits-all version of products to retailers.

Along the way, we also tackled one of the other core areas that follows MVP, the Minimum Viable Segment (MVS). 

I invited one of my old friends, Geoffrey Moore (author of “Crossing the Chasm”), to join us for lunch. Geoffrey was quick to point out the criteria needed to find visionary early adopters, and we discussed what segments we might find them in.

This kind of work helped the team focus their early go-to-market thinking and validation. It caused them to throw OUT a few initial inbound inquiries, again showing the team’s discipline in not pursuing just anyone that sought them.

Only then did the team turn to fundraise and decide who they wanted as a funding partner. It was less about the money and more about finding a partner who would add distinct value to the team they’ve built. We’re pleased they decided to work with us and also subsequently chose another great investor in Matrix Partners, with whom we’re also excited to work. We jointly believe they’ve certainly taken the right initial steps to set them up for success in the future.

So after several months of working with the three founders from the earliest days of their idea, we are pleased to announce the official launch of Salsify and $8 million in Series A. Coming soon to an e-commerce site near you!

Case Study: Demandware’s Rebranding


In this case study, we discuss a rebranding example for a mature company with Demandware, a business that is now past its IPO. They were looking to rebrand to extend their leadership and position the company for continued growth. Even though this is a case of a larger, later-stage growth company, it’s also instructive for startups to help them think about how their brand might evolve. In Demandware’s case, the brand had not changed much over several years and during this time, the initial branding had successfully held up.*

In the video above, Demandware’s SVP of Marketing, Jamus Driscoll, shares the process of rebranding the company after its IPO. Jamus discusses the challenge of moving from a technology and features approach — an approach that many startups begin with — to a more mature brand promise, aligned with and delivering rewards to customers. 

Jamus also shares Demandware’s approach to positioning the company for leadership in a manner consistent with the unique business model of the company: shared success. Finally, Jamus shares the four pillars of the brand promise they finally reached and shows examples of the final rebranding work that the company rolled out into the marketplace in February.

*Funnily enough, it was due to great work by the founders and with Adam Berrey, featured in this case example, covering the basics of branding for startups. Proof that done right, a startup’s brand can last for years!

3 Reasons Why Twitter’s Struggle With Vision Is a Learning Moment

Contributed by Michael Skok

The Importance of Vision

It’s never a good sign when a company’s shares rise on news that the CEO might be ousted. Yet that’s just what happened today with Twitter. It’s easy to comment from the sidelines. But sit in on just about any organization meeting to review its strategic Vision and you will see it’s not as easy as one might think. It doesn’t matter if you are a small startup just trying to articulate where you are heading, or a large public company looking to transform itself or get to the next level of growth — Vision is essential.

Here’s the challenge: On the one hand entrepreneurs and leaders are expected to be very crisp about what problem they are solving and execute on the value they deliver “here and now”. On the other hand investors, potential employees, and other stakeholders want to hear the vision of how that can lead to building a substantial company they can bet on for the future.

Think about it from a potential investor or employee’s viewpoint. Why would they invest their dollars, or more importantly their life, in something that either doesn’t deliver value now or doesn’t have a real future? And the balance is vital, too, as too much of one or the other can leave either a sense of nearsightedness or of not being grounded in reality.

Twitter, among others, is struggling with this very problem right now and has seen hundreds of millions of dollars of value and some key executives disappear in the process.

Clearly, vision AND execution are vital to building an enduring company. How does one balance them in the formulation of your business and succeed in the process? And is there any kind of roadmap to success?

I will divide my answers to these questions into a couple of posts. For today, let’ s start with why vision is so important.

Here are just 3 examples of why vision is so important:

1. Market leadership

Market leaders are usually disproportionately highly valued versus number 2 or 3 in a category, and usually capture an unfair share of the market. Think Uber vs Hailo, Google vs Yahoo, or Cisco vs 3Com…or pick your favorite.

Comparisons are rarely apples to apples (And no one seems to compare to AAPL themselves these days!). But joking aside, where would you place Facebook vs Twitter, vs the myriad of other social networking tools and services? It’s hard to argue with a nearly 10x market cap difference between Facebook and Twitter at $215bn and $23bn respectively today.

However you look at it you’ll find Winners take ~60% of the value, Challengers hope to vie for ~30%, and Wannabees fight it out for the rest. And unfortunately, with fast follower entrepreneurs and lemming money, there are many losers who get zero. And this is not about getting “first-mover advantage”, That advantage can easily and indeed often does slip away if the execution doesn’t back it up or vision is too far ahead of the market. So market leaders need to do just that – “lead” the market, but not by too much!

Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt

Think about that. It means by definition, that one has to have a vision beyond where the market is today in order to lead it, but be sure it’s well enough grounded in reality. How will you provide that? That’s why Vision isn’t just a one-line tweet.

Sometimes it pays to look back to see what had to change to get where we are now, before projecting forward. Vectors are good for Vision but pay close attention to market timing.

Faced with this challenge as a CEO, one of my favorite mantras was, “listen, lead and validate.” That is to say, few customers are visionaries, but if you seek out and listen to enough of them and to market needs you can gain the critical insights to take a visionary, but informed stance. This will enable you to develop long-range radar around customer thinking and lead a market. But to be sure it’s not hallucinatory, remember the difference between hallucination and vision is just two letters. P.O. (Purchase Order) – the ability to ultimately get sales from products derived from your vision is often the only validation that really counts. That brings us to customers.

2. Customer stewardship.

Visionary and early adopter customers want to find new leaders. They specifically want to gain a competitive advantage from them. And while you can only make money from your current deliverables, your vision and roadmap will help customers see your potential for leadership. And customers often need to buy into the future even when writing a P.O. for the present. Likely the more they pay the more they want to know about your vision for the future.

Visionary customers also know that large legacy vendors cannot be as responsive to their needs as nimble startups. So the pace of your roadmap will excite them. Even if it’s in small increments, just be sure to consistently deliver rather than over-promise so your roadmap gains credibility. Again, that’s the balance of vision vs execution.

(I’ve seen great entrepreneurs like the team at Salsify, get dollars from customers before they even have a product, based on their compelling vision. It helped me make diligence calls before I invested and more importantly because they delivered on their vision they’re building even greater trust with customers and winning even bigger deals now. Customer revenue is the best funding.)

One obvious way to bridge vision and execution between market and customer leadership is to form a Customer Advisory Board. No matter how informal at first, these are invaluable in my experience and can help not only get the customer viewpoint and input but also get their buy-in to your vision and roadmap.

A couple of tips. Do NOT compensate in any way for advisory board membership. Some customers can feel compromised or worse still even prevented from the conflict of purchasing from you if they have a compensated arrangement. And there’s no need, most love the participation – especially visionary early adopters. Yet you also want to include a balance of the early, major, and later adopters, etc. so you’ve got a real representation of your market.

Of course, immerse them in your product and company roadmap around your Vision. But then really actively listen while you ask real and hard questions like:

  • what has to change for you to adopt this vision?
  • what don’t we understand about your job and how we work with you?
  • why would this vision actually make a material, measurable difference to your company and why do you care?

(In my framework for building killer Value Propositions we touch on a lot of this in the evaluation of the gain/pain ratio that can be found here)

There are many, many questions like these I have built up over the years but only one measure for success: Customers think it’s their vision in the end!

3. Overnight successes take many years.

This is a marathon, not a sprint.

The average period from investment to the exit of venture-backed companies during the last decade was nearly 8 years. Even ignoring exit, it usually takes several years to build a sustainable business or an independent public company like Twitter. Given that long lead time, investors need to hear your vision of how the market will evolve and what will leadership look like. And as you can hear from Twitter’s struggles, it doesn’t stop when you go public. Vision and execution are always important.

My simple advice with an eye to the long term sustainable execution that it takes to build an enduring company is to turn this into a RELAY. That is, break down your execution into stages. And of course, hire and develop a great team that can run the relay and wins the race in stages.

NOTE: This article originally appeared in VentureBeat and LinkedIn