This week I did an impromptu guest speaking gig at Margaret Wallace's class on Virtual Worlds.
Somehow we got to talking about the larger vision of Petz, a product she worked on earlier in her career. Petz was a glorified screen saver where you were able to keep a little dog or cat on your desktop and feed/pet/play with him. Margaret seemed very proud to have worked on the project. Why? Vision.
I remember Ben telling stories about how they would get letters from people who were able to get their parents to use the computer by installing Petz and making it more friendly. Petz had a mission to sell their product and make it fun to use. But they had a vision to create a positive emotional relationship with your computer.
At Ambient we had the near-term mission to build beautiful products that bring Internet information to everyday objects, and people generally loved the Orb. But it was our larger vision of reducing information anxiety through ambient information displays that got the press talking and kept us driving through thick and thin.
A couple examples of the power of purpose:
1. As the head of the Yale endowment David Swensen manages a $20b fund and averaged a 16.3% compound growth over the last 20 years, averaged! Can you think of any large company with $20b in assets that is growing at 16.3%? Yet he made just $1.3m last year. He could have easily made 10 times or possibly 100 times that money if he went into the commercial sector. Why doesn't he?
“When I see colleagues of mine leave universities to do essentially the same thing they were doing but to get paid more, I am disappointed because there is a sense of mission,” in endowment work.
This is not some altruistic Doctors without Borders. Princeton is a for-profit institution, and this person is spending his time managing money. But the larger vision of education is a real positive, and keeps him motivated.
2. Last weekend the former coach of the Carolina Tar Heels had the UNC locker room dedicated to him. Coach Guthridge spent 30 years as the assistant coach to one of the most storied programs in
college basketball. He recruited many of the biggest names in basketball, including Michael Jordan. He could have had any head coaching job he wanted, and was offered practically all of them before people got the hint that he wasn't going anywhere.
Why did he stay? He was building a culture at UNC that was more satisfying than the money and fame of a head coaching position (which he did eventually attain... at UNC).
If you are a CEO trying to solve retention problems with stricter non-competes and higher salaries, you are missing the boat entirely.
3. Don't think visions statements work? It's amazing to me that when I talk to everyone from Matt Cutts developing a product to Ethan Beard chatting about which companies Google should acquire, they often invoke Google's vision to "organize the worlds information."
Some people may have scratched their heads at such disparate acquisitions as Picasa, Keyhole and last week's acquistion of in-game ad firm Adscape. Is there a method to the madness? Is Google going to get into the MMO business? How do you organize thousands of employees with less than 1/100th of the business processes that Microsoft or Yahoo have in place? Just look at the vision statement.
I think most companies I come across completely lack a vision, and they suffer for it. It takes guts to tell a VC, let alone your employees, that you want to "help the world feel happy" or "create more knowledge to combat the worlds problems." It takes the courage of your convictions to be two guys and say you want to, "organize the worlds information" while "not being evil." But if you really want to give your company a meaning instead of being a job, you have to give it a sense of purpose.