Lessons Learned Scaling A Mission-Driven Startup

Note: This post is based on a presentation I gave at Web Summit 2021 and was later compiled in an article published in Forbes on Aug 22, 2022.

At the age of 14, when I started my first business, the notion that it was a business didn’t compute. Sure, there were ads to sell to pay for server costs and hire programmers, but the label of “business” sounded like a betrayal of our mission-driven values. At age 30 and working on my third startup, being mission-driven and for-profit no longer seems paradoxical.

Over the years, I’ve learned three crucial lessons in scaling a mission-driven business:

1. Don’t make it about the short term.

Many people—even some investors—think that mission-driven means nonprofit. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. The most profitable companies are mission-driven, but their purpose goes beyond Wall Street’s short-term quarterly expectations.

Mission-driven means having a well-defined purpose that extends past your employees, customers and investors to positively impact society as a whole. In Jeff Bezos’ first letter to shareholders in 1997, he described how Amazon’s mission of becoming Earth’s most customer-centric company would require making investment decisions that fly in the face of short-term profitability considerations or Wall Street reactions.

At Quit Genius, we frequently talk about putting our members at the center of everything we do. Early in the pandemic, new evidence came to light about smokers’ increased susceptibility to Covid-19. Employer adoption accelerated, and we committed to activating all new members within 48 hours and offered our tobacco and vaping cessation at no cost for two months. The short-term financial consequences were offset by the longer-term signal to employers and the general market that we put our members and our values first.

Being mission-driven also helps recruit incredible talent—people who share your company values and want to be a part of your journey. Companies who pay lip service to the concept of being mission-driven are missing the point. Every startup says it wants to make the world a better place. But, as New York Times best-selling author and speaker Simon Sinek observed, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” A real mission describes a timeless social good that you can achieve.

2. It’s easier to do a hard thing than an easy thing.

When Quit Genius participated in the Y Combinator Winter 2018 batch, one of the key takeaways was that it’s easier to do a hard thing than an easy thing.

The counterintuitive insight is that there’s no such thing as an easy startup—founders and early team members need to work incredibly hard and make a lot of sacrifices to ensure that their companies make it. When you start with a harder problem, two things happen. The first is that you face far less competition, and, as Peter Thiel is famous for saying, “Competition is for losers.”

The second is that you attract highly ambitious and talented people who derive personal satisfaction from solving extremely complex problems. To be sure, your first employees join you for the adventure, anarchy and founder-level equity of an early-stage startup. But if you’re a talented software engineer, would you prefer to be the 20th employee of a photo-sharing app startup or one trying to land humans on Mars?

There is an important balance between a wildly ambitious yet possible goal. At my company, we set ourselves the goal to solve the addiction epidemic and help 100 million people conquer their substance addiction. It’s a mission that I feel massively exceeds anything that any other company has achieved in our space, but it’s measurable and, we believe, achievable. It also ensures that we design for scale from day one and make the required investments in our technology and infrastructure.

3. Make your mission stick.

It’s one thing to define a mission, but how do you nurture it and get all stakeholders to truly embrace it? The key is in avoiding distractions and making your mission tangible.

Distractions come in all forms and jeopardize your chances of achieving an already challenging mission. Employees may want you to take a public stance on an important political or social issue. Reporters may ask your opinion on an entirely unrelated subject and in doing so attribute that back to the company. It’s important to recognize that your startup does not and should not be a reflection of your personal values and belief system for the simple reason that it divides people and distracts from your mission.

No one company can solve all of the world’s problems. What makes startups such formidable forces of nature is their ability to unite a diverse group of people and help them narrow their focus and concentrate their resources to achieve a specific mission.

Making your mission tangible involves integrating mission-driven rituals into all of your critical business processes in a way that allows all employees to feel close to the mission and unlock their “je ne sais quoi”—a special passion that will enhance their performance and increase urgency.

For example, at Quit Genius, we start every board of directors and all-hands meeting with member stories collected by our Care Team. Our performance review process, which informs decisions on promotions and compensation, includes a key component quantifying an employee’s contribution to our mission. Our bi-weekly Values Award goes to the team member who best embodies our values and has had the biggest impact on our mission over that time period. Our hiring process includes questions specifically devised to separate missionaries from mercenaries.

A final word of caution: Achieving a mission-driven culture isn’t a permanent status. As an organization grows, its culture evolves for better or for worse. A good rule of thumb is that every doubling of headcount radically changes the organization, and it’s up to leadership, especially the founders, to carefully monitor whether or not they are veering off course.