On a Mission


One of the interesting things I have seen, especially in the last 10 years, is that many of the big winners in technology have been what I call “mission-driven” versus “mercenary-driven” companies.

There are a lot of companies that cut corners. There are a lot of companies that have a mercenary outlook, and will dump their idealistic goal to make a business work in the short-term. We steer clear of those. We are looking for the companies who are going to be the big winners because they are going to cause a fundamental change in the world, as opposed to making a short-term grab for revenue or a short-term grab for an acquisition.

These are the founders who come in to the firm and say, “Look, I don’t care whether I make money or not, that’s not my goal. I want to change the world in the following way. I have this mission…” As Steve Jobs used to say, “I want to make a ding in the universe. I want to make beautiful products that people love.” Or Mark Zuckerberg: “I want to make the world more open and connected.” Or Larry Page and Sergey Brin: “I want to index the world’s information.”

How they will make money is typically not part of the conversation. These companies, and Google is a great example, usually have no business model. There is this vague notion of generating revenue. So you always wonder with your investor hat on, “Am I funding a social mission or am I funding a company? What’s going on here? Will they make compromises so fatal in the direction of pure ideology that they won’t actually ever build a business?”

But the pattern at the moment is the stronger the ideology or mission of the company, the more successful the company. I think a lot of that has to do with recruiting. A lot of the best people in the field don’t want to just work for money.

Let’s say you are founder of a company, and you are competing with 1,000 other founders to hire the smartest people coming out of the best universities. If you go in with a pitch that says, “You are going to make $120,000 a year, come work for us,” that is not as effective as, “You are going to change the world, and oh, by the way, you are going to make $120,000 a year.” So mission-driven companies seem to have a gigantic leg-up in recruiting, and that ripples through to morale and ultimately to retention.

Conversely, the purely mercenary startups we see, they generally don’t go well. They aren’t able to get good people, and don’t end up having a message that can punch through the noise. They don’t tend to go anywhere.

The Machiavellian view on this is if you are the founder you actually want to pretend you have a huge ideological mission, even if you don’t. And I guess you would rather do that, than not have one, but clearly it helps enormously to have a real mission.