When you start a business, you are doing far more than just creating a company. Sure, it’ll look and run like a company, but there’s a lot more going on than someone on the outside might perceive.
When someone buys from you, they’re endorsing your values. Maybe you value cost savings, or a minimalist lifestyle, or an adventurous spirit. Maybe you’re about social responsibility or sustainability. Either way, people don’t just buy your product; they invest in a shared affinity with your brand.
In order to build a customer base, make sales, and secure your place in the market, you need to define your startup’s core values—right from day one.
If you don’t explicitly state what you stand for, and work to make these values resonate in all that you do, then your customers will do it for you. That means that you’ll be constantly working to change your reputation, rather than building one from the start.
By figuring out your core values from the start, you can build a business that reflects who you want to be, and where you want to go. And you can also make major decisions easier, because you will always have your core values to guide you.
Let’s take a look at how you can define your values, and as a result, make your startup shine from the very beginning.
Your Culture is Not the Same as Your Core Values: Here’s the Difference
Before we talk about how to define your core values, you need to understand that they’re not the same as your corporate culture.
There’s a lot of talk these days about company culture, and that’s great. The type of culture you develop will ultimately play a big role in how well your company does. But your culture is not the same as your core values.
Culture is a flexible set of norms, an agreed upon framework for how things are done.
This is broad, I know, but that’s the point. Culture applies to countries, families, companies or any group, really. But pay close attention to the word “flexible.” Culture changes. The bigger the group, the longer it takes for these changes to occur. But it does change. As new people enter the mix, they bring with them their own interpretations and perspectives, and this influences how other members of the group think and feel. Slowly, some of these new perspectives become more accepted.
Core values, however, don’t change. Or at least they shouldn’t. If culture change takes a long time, core value change should take even longer.
Let me take a shot at defining core values:
Core values are the foundations of culture. They represent the fundamental beliefs around which culture develops.
So, if you do a good enough job at determining and living your core values, your culture should always reflect this.
Let’s take this down from the abstract with an example. To show how core values are more permanent than culture, we’re going to look at a company that’s been around for a long time.
Walt Disney first started drawing cartoons and making movies because he wanted to entertain people. He wanted to make people laugh, smile, and enjoy themselves when they watched his movies.
If you look at Walt Disney today—a company that has grown into one of the largest in the world—this remains their mission. Take a look at how they define themselves today:
Not really much different than how it started. But if we were to look at the culture of the Walt Disney Corporation now as compared to when it began, wow. Talk about changes. A company that has been frequently accused of reinforcing racial and gender stereotypes now actively works to break down these barriers.
They’ve stayed this successful because they’ve never drifted from their core values, but also because their culture was able to adapt to changing circumstances and recognize when customers wanted the same thing in a different form. People still want to be entertained, but just not in the same was as they did in 1950.
So as an entrepreneur, you need to figure out what it is that is unchanging about your company. Discovering this in the beginning will help you clarify what it is you need to be focusing on.
If anything takes you away from your business’s core values, you know it’s not worth your time.
How to Define Core Values
There are so many moving parts to your business; it can seem like a daunting task to try and distill it all into a few words or ideas that will define you. But you can do it, and you should. Ask yourself these questions and you should be able to filter out the noise and come up with your core values.
What’s Your Vision for the World?
As an entrepreneur, you are first and foremost a leader. And one of the things that defines a leader is his or her vision. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned a world where people live in racial harmony; Gandhi saw a world with a free, unified, and peaceful India; my mother saw our family as a cohesive unit that loved and supported each other no matter what life threw at us.
Once you’ve crystallized your vision, you can use this clarity to determine concrete core values that will help you build an organization that will stand a chance at making this vision a reality.
If you haven’t thought about this yet, you may not be 100% ready to be an entrepreneur. You should not be starting and running a business just because you think it will make you rich and give you the free time to travel the world. Instead, you should be doing it because you believe your vision and your passion will add something to this world and to the lives of others.
Leaders and their visions come in all shapes and sizes, but the thing they all have in common is an ability to communicate a vision and use it to inspire people to take action.
But another thing you need to remember about leaders and their visions is that they largely remain inside their heads. We mentioned earlier how change is slow. The world that good leaders envision is usually one they’ll never live to see.
Yet even though they may never experience the changes they hope to bring about, they act in a way that embodies this idea for the future.
Being able to effectively communicate your vision to members of your audience means you need to be completely sure what it is. So, how do you do that?
Start by asking yourself a few questions, such as:
- Who am I trying to help? How am I going to do it?
- How will people’s lives be different because of my company’s product or service?
- What needs to happen for my product or service to reach people?
Put yourself in the shoes of successful companies. How would you have answered these questions? Consider doing this with a couple of different companies that have made it big. Differentiate what they do from what they envision for the world. Try it with Uber, Airbnb, WeWork, or any other successful startup with a story that inspires you.
What makes WeWork exciting?
My favorite of this group is WeWork. It’s currently considered to be one of the most valuable startups in the world. So what exactly do they do? Well, they create workspaces that are centered on collaboration and innovation. But their vision is much broader than that. Check it out:
They don’t have full control over this vision becoming a reality, but it doesn’t matter. It gives them that structure for moving forward and staying true to themselves so they can work to bring about the change they want to see.
Do the Same for Your Own Company
Once you’ve answered these questions for a few already existing companies, spend some time doing it for yours. If you can imagine a world that your startup is actively shaping, then you’re that much closer to making it a reality.
After pinning down your vision, it will make it much easier for you to determine your core values.
For example, if you envision a world where it’s easier for people to freely express themselves, then freedom of expression will likely be one of your core values. Or if you see a world where people can safely store personal information on the web, then privacy and security will likely be a defining characteristic of your company.
Your vision for the world doesn’t need to be as grand or unifying as those of Dr. King and Gandhi, but it does need to be there. It will help you be clearer about what you are trying to do, and this will put you in a better position for success.
What Problems Do You Solve?
A good business solves a problem. Usually it’s a problem from your life that you share with others and to which no other solution exists. If this isn’t the case, then success will be much harder for you to achieve.
If you haven’t already, make sure you know exactly what problem you are solving before moving too far forward with the business. But once you do this, you’ll need to work to incorporate your purpose into your core values.
Your core values need to reflect the problem you are trying to solve for your customers.
But how exactly do you find this match between who you are and what your customers need?
There are a couple of different exercises you can do, such as a pain/gain exercise, or an empathy map, both of which are explained nicely in a post by Iterate Marketing. But the one I find most successful is a customer journey map.
This is an activity where you create a fictitious ideal customer and try to learn as much as possible about them and how they live. It’s important to be as specific as you can when creating this persona. Give them a name, and describe briefly who they are and what they do and don’t like.
Then, begin to map out their day, including even their smallest actions. What time do they get up? How do they get to work? When do they have lunch? What do they do after work?
Place these events as moments on a timeline, putting those that are positive or happy experiences near the top, and those that are negative or unhappy experiences at the bottom, making sure to come up with reasons why each experience is positive or negative.
Here’s an example of a customer journey map produced by Emily Schleier Designs:
Learn how to sympathize with customers and their problems.
As you work through this person’s life, you’ll begin to realize more about them. What do they value? How do they spend their time? What do they consider a waste of time?
You’ll quickly realize your company cannot possibly satisfy all of this person’s needs. And the solution you offer alone will not solve all of their problems. But your product or service will solve one, and that’s important.
By taking the time to learn your customers’ pain points, and by identifying where you fit into their quest to relieve this pain, you can position yourself as a company sensitive to the problems your target audience faces every day, helping to reinforce the connection between person and brand.
When we take a closer look at the customer journey map above, we see one of Andre’s biggest problems is time. He’s always in a rush, and he gets frustrated or angry at things that take longer than they should. So while your product or service might not be able give him more hours in a day, the way you function, and the way you interact with Andre, both need to be sensitive to the idea that he doesn’t have a lot of time to spare. When sorting out your core values, “efficiency” might be one of them. Or if you wanted to be more abstract, you could list “valuing people’s time.”
The actual terminology you use isn’t necessarily important, as long as it reflects this desire to empathize with Andre’s need to make the most out of every minute of the day.
Gaining a detailed understanding of your customers, and how you solve their problems, is essential for coming up with core values that will resonate and help you build a company that works for people.
Do activities like this for all of your different audiences, and where possible, confirm your assumptions with surveys or other forms of market research (admittedly, this can be very expensive, but the insight you’ll receive is priceless). As you learn more about your different customers and their lives, you’ll begin to see some parallels. This will help you figure out what type of company you need to be so that people will be more willing to engage with your brand.
You can use the various pain points your different customers experience to formulate core values that embody what you want to be as a brand (your vision), but that also identify and connect with the individuals you are targeting (the problems you solve for them).
Putting Your Core Values Into Action
Okay, so now that you’ve spent some time hammering out your core values, how exactly do you put them into action?
One of the first things you can do is to physically write them down. Spend some time coming up with a mission statement for the company and outline exactly what your core values are. If you have a website, put this information on the site and let it sit there. Go back to it a few times and adjust it until it reflects exactly what you want to express.
One great example is Patagonia, the outdoor apparel company. Their mission statement reads:
Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.
This simple statement is loaded with company values. And if you go through Patagonia’s site, taking some time to see the work they do for the environment and other social causes, you’ll see how powerful these values have been in shaping this brand.
This is not something that happens overnight. Building a company like this is the product of starting with a clear vision, and of using core values as the building blocks for growing a company from nothing into something that will stand the test of time.
Another great example is Starbucks (who else?). When you get onto their site, you realize right away that it’s no longer about just the coffee. Here’s a look at how they’ve defined their values:
You could say these are ambitious goals. But you certainly could not say Starbucks is without purpose and vision. This type of detail helps outline very clearly to all stakeholders what it is the company is trying to accomplish. Time will tell if they are able to turn these ideas into reality, but by outlining them so specifically, they’ve gotten off to a rather good start.
You’ll also want to tailor all your marketing, branding, and other communications to reflect these values. These traits are what make you special and different, so they need to shine through, one way or another, at every touchpoint.
Go through any policies you already have written and make sure they also reflect these values, and begin working on prototypes for ideal employees so that you can be prepared to conduct interviews to find people who support your vision and values.
But perhaps the most important thing you can do is to simply live these values everyday. The very act of defining them and understanding them should help to clarify your path moving forward. Before doing anything with your company, ask yourself if it reflects these values. If it doesn’t, then there’s a good chance it’s something you don’t need to do. If it is, then proceed knowing you’re staying true to your identity.
Your Startup’s Core Values Give You Focus
Every entrepreneur is brimming with passion. They’ve got an idea and a vision that inspires them to wake up every morning and push through the difficult times so that their dream can become a reality. However, if you’re like most of the entrepreneurs I know, there’s a chance you have a hard time channeling this passion and energy to help you move forward with the speed and decisiveness you wish you could.
Taking time to outline your core values will help you create this focus. It’ll help you look away from what’s not important and concentrate on what is. Your business can go many places, but it won’t go far if you don’t even know what defines it.
Have you defined your own company’s core values? What are they? Do you have any questions on how to do it? Let me know in the comments below.