At a surface level, startups can be successful for any number of reasons such as incredible revenue growth, patentable intellectual property, or a pre-revenue viral product that gets millions of users. It’s almost impossible, though, to succeed if you don’t have clear alignment on your vision and the metrics that you track on a daily basis.
Why is alignment important? Startups are inherently fast paced. You’re a company with limited resources trying to reach the next level—whether it’s product-market fit or scaling customer acquisition—as quickly as possible. And in order to move fast, you need to trust your team to make decisions and take action. Alignment creates that trust and builds a system for team members to work together towards a shared goal; without it, your team could get derailed by constant debate and even resentment.
How, then can you create alignment?
Write one sentence about why your company exists. The most successful businesses set a clear vision that, unlike strategies and tactics, doesn’t change much over the years. At Magoosh, we aim to "create a world in which everyone has fun, convenient, and effective ways to learn." When Dick Costolo took over as CEO of Twitter in 2011, he defined their vision as "instantly connect people everywhere to what's most important to them." Your vision should represent the goal of your company at it’s core and will help remind your team what your company has set out to accomplish.
Now that you’ve set your vision, you need to create a framework for how your team will make decisions. Lack of alignment on decision-making often causes early teams to lose focus. Should you aim for perfection or speed? Should you be transparent or secretive? Clearly defined core values can help your team choose between two good options and enable your team to move quickly without internal friction. Apple was successful because everyone understood the importance, among other things, of perfection and secrecy. Facebook chose the path of "move fast and break things." Defining values can be a daunting task but it starts with understanding who you are as a company and what’s important to you.
- Survey your team, customers, and partners to find out how they think of your company.
- Identify what’s worked well for your company and what hasn’t.
- It’s okay to borrow! Research other companies’s values.
This is your stretch goal, usually on a 1-3 year time horizon. A BHAG helps you not only define what you are going after, but also what you are going to avoid. Moz, a marketing analytics software company, has a BHAG of reaching 1 million subscribers on their platform. This means that the company will focus on growing their customer base but will not seek out marketing consulting clients even if those clients would help generate substantial extra revenue. A well-defined BHAG can serve as a guiding light as individuals in your company are prioritizing their work and making decisions. The key is to stay focused and always ask yourself if the current task will help contribute to the BHAG.
A BHAG is a great guiding light, but you need to get more specific to know you’re making progress. Work with each team/department to set goals that contribute to your BHAG. For example, Moz could set a goal for their marketing team to get 5 million monthly visitors to their blog.
The best vision in the world means nothing if the data you track is at odds with the strategy you set. Jennifer Russell and Bryan Franklin from California Leadership are experts in getting companies to perform; they’ve worked with executives from LinkedIn, Google, Cisco and plenty of other billion-dollar brands. They advise businesses to ensure alignment beyond just your vision-strategy mix. Focus on your organizational capabilities, your deployment of resources, your customer demand and ensuring your product meets customers’ expectations. At the end, though, you need to make sure that the metrics you track and the targets you pursue on a daily basis will help you hit your BHAG and thus fulfill your greater vision.
One thing that’s consistent across all of these steps is that nothing will get done without total buy-in from your team. While we know businesses that do well with a small leadership team mandating a path, in our experience the highest-performing companies are those which include their entire team throughout the alignment process. If your team has a say about the path you choose, they’ll feel ownership over the work that gets done on a daily basis.
—Bhavin Parikh is the founder and CEO of Magoosh, which provides a convenient and fun way for students to prepare for standardized tests. Co-author Aaron Schwartz is the founder and CEO of Modify Industries, which designs interchangeable custom watches known as Modify Watches.
They are also members of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program.