1By Cheryl Heller

We’re reprinting the following post because it probes the heart of the question faced by any entrepreneur setting out to design a new business venture: how do you determine what is paramount in the enterprise, and how do you make it understandable to investors? This article appeared on the website of the Unreasonable Institute on May 12, 2014. The author, Cheryl Heller, designs change and growth for business leaders and social entrepreneurs. She is Founding Chair of MFA Design for Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. 

One common misconception among entrepreneurs is the belief (because they’re told repeatedly) that they need to capture their business idea – however radical – in the structured and declarative statements called mission, vision and values. I know this, because I used to tell clients the same thing.

Some years ago, I went to Cairo to lead a three-day workshop for Egyptian entrepreneurs, and included the glossary below as a way to shed light on the confusion around the many forms these elements can take. I share these definitions in the same spirit with which people admit to a time in their lives when they didn’t recycle.

  • Mission: Why you exist, your organization’s purpose in life.
  • Vision: Where you want to take the company, what you want to accomplish, how you want to impact the marketplace.
  • Goals/Objectives: The specific, detailed accomplishments that are necessary in order to make your vision a reality.
  • Value Proposition: The core benefit that you offer clients, partners, etc. Can change with each customer segment.
  • Positioning: The underlying platform for marketing and communications. It distinguishes a company from the competition by articulating unique strengths and values.
  • Strategy: The creation of a unique and valuable position, involving a different set of activities.
  • Character: The personality of your company. Defines the experience that a customer or employee will have with it.
  • Elevator Pitch: Fast answer to the question: “Who are you?”
  • Tagline: Evocative, creative, emotional shorthand for your mission or elevator pitch…depends on communications need and context. Frequently change every few years.

Make sense? I hope not.

First of all, there are just too many pieces – crowded footprints from thousands of marketing consultants making themselves important by inventing new paths to follow.

Second, these are the prescriptions that served the old industrial age model and made it the mechanical monster it is today. Strict rules about what and how to speak shave off all the rough edges that make ideas interesting and audible to us. It’s as if all the worn structures and tired jargon can’t get traction in our brains, and move through them without penetrating. The words for genuinely new ideas don’t exist anymore in corporate speak, if they ever did. It’s like trying to express yourself deeply in a language you don’t know.

By following a formula, we become formulaic, and that simply won’t work for an entrepreneur. New ideas need new words to express them – and if fresh, powerful words are not found they will not be heard, they will not become infectious, and they will never become reality.

What you need and should not leave home without is a promise – a clear, simple statement that explains what you will do, how it’s different, why it matters and to whom.

My definition of a promise is: The commitment that a business makes to each of the people who interact with it. It’s a promise that defines what is unique about the company, and what people will get for their money and their time, whether they are a customer, partner, investor or employee.

A promise is active. It’s what you commit to do and be. Once you make the promise, the behavior needed to make it true becomes obvious and actionable. It may be hard to trust this notion before you do it, but when you have it, all the decisions you need to make flow from it, in the most organic way.

One of the most famous examples is from the Ritz Carlton hotels: “Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.”

This is a lesson in brevity. In seven words, it sets a standard that is known and can be measured. It says what they do, for whom, and how it’s different. It tells employees how they need to treat guests and it tells guests what they can expect in quality and service. And it doesn’t bother to say they’re in the hospitality business because that’s not what makes them unique.

Doing this well is neither easy nor simple. Most of the time it requires the help of someone who can see you and what you want to do objectively. It’s easy for people to know what they’re good at, and what they are burning to accomplish, but extremely difficult for them to tell how they’re different from everybody else. And even harder to self-edit all the details that feel so important to include but in reality are just the stakes of whatever game you’re in.

However you get to it, if you find your own voice, and language that is meaningful to you, you will have a set of words that, like a poem, makes your heart beat faster, and gives your idea life for all to see. C.S. Lewis said, “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: Whereas if you simply try to tell the truth, you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” In my experience, entrepreneurs intuitively know this. They’re excited by the challenge of finding the words that will not only capture their passion, but also set it free.

It will. It’s true. I promise.

If you find your own voice and language, you will have a set of words that makes your heart beat faster, and gives your idea life.

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