Jan 27, 2024

The Needless Bullshit of Having a 'Mission'

“At Asana, our mission is to help humanity thrive by enabling the world’s teams to work together effortlessly.” (Link)

“Juul Labs is on a mission to transition the world’s billion adult smokers away from combustible cigarettes” (Link)

“Lyft’s mission is to reconnect people through transportation and bring communities together.” (Link)

I don’t know why startups have the urge to write statements like this, to connect themselves to a noble goal. Asana is a project management tool. It is helping humanity, somehow? At best, Lyft is a better taxi service, but no, that’d be too uninspiring. We should thank the company’s leadership that they stopped short of saying that they are reducing income inequality.

The whole concept is pretty stupid, rooted in a silly assumption; that a grand, noble mission is essential to motivate employees. Personally, I haven’t seen it happen. In fact, I’d say most of the employees easily sense the BS behind them and care less about the company. Do Instagram’s dark patterns go well with Meta’s mission to “bring the world closer together”? I hope not and don’t think employees who worked on them say otherwise.

What actually drives employees is the inner workings of a company: the degree of autonomy employees have, the quality of products being shipped, and having impressive people as seniors and leaders, who have good product vision. In short, it’s the work itself, not how it’s tied in humanitarian goals.

A great example is Valve, one of the most impressive video game companies in the world. It’s impressive for multiple reasons: the number of genre-defining titles they have shipped, the breadth of their work (VR, Steam, Hardware), and how it has maintained its flat structure over the years. When they were working on Half-Life 2, this is what Gabe Newell had to say:

Why spend four years of your life building something that isn’t innovative and is basically pointless? If Half-Life 2 isn’t viewed as the best PC game of all time, it’s going to completely bum out most of the guys on this team.

Newell gave his team no deadline and a “virtually unlimited” budget, promising to fund the project himself if necessary. This is the kind of thing that drives employees to do their best: “to create the best FPS world has ever seen”, not wrapping a crappy product in some altruistic goal.

I must clarify that my complaint isn’t against having mission statements because some of them do make sense and describe the company’s culture and the products they ship.

Honest Tea: To create and promote great-tasting, healthy, organic beverages.

Patagonia: Build the best product, Cause no unnecessary harm, Use business to protect nature, Not bound by convention.

IKEA: To offer a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them

However, I would appreciate if startups just cut the crap about socially concerned goals. Asana’s mission could be about building the best set of productivity tools. Lyft’s could be about creating an accessible and affordable taxi service. What matters isn’t the grandiosity of the mission but being honest and doing justice to what the startup does.

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