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Opinion | Why mission statements are vital for startups and social movements

Persistence, not brute force, will help you bamboozle a competitor or an adversary

Whether you’re leading a startup or a social movement, like the ongoing Hong Kong protests, you need to win over a critical mass. Photo: Reuters
Whether you’re leading a startup or a social movement, like the ongoing Hong Kong protests, you need to win over a critical mass. Photo: Reuters

During a recent work trip to Hong Kong, which is witnessing mass pro-democracy protests, sparked by a controversial bill that would allow people in the city to be extradited to mainland China, I realized how much startups and socio-political movements have in common.

Most social and political movements are loosely connected groups that are united by a shared purpose. This shared purpose is what startup founders call mission statements—the founding pillars of their venture.

Belief in the mission statement inspires collective action and unites different teams to work towards a common cause. For startups, that common cause is market leadership, and for social movements, structural change. Like startups, movements and protests struggle to meet their goals

Few years ago, political activist Srđa Popović, along with best-selling author Greg Satell, decided to study movements across the world and find out what distinguishes movements that fizzle out from the ones that bring about meaningful change.

Building on their analysis and my recent experience of the protests in Hong Kong, here are some guiding principles for leaders of social movements and startup founders chasing ambitious goals and looking to change the status quo.

Playing the long game

First, define your goal. Just opposing something or competing with someone isn’t enough. Unless the end goal is understood by your teammates and partners, you will forever be on a wild goose chase. Almost all successful social movements have one thing in common: there is no ambiguity about the expected outcome. The startup analogy is that most successful companies have clear goals, aspirations and mission statements. Even when they pivot to a different business model, it is mostly in pursuit of solving the same problem. There is no substitute for clarity of purpose.

Second, redefine your partnership strategy and shift the spectrum of your allies. Whether you are leading a startup or a social movement, you are unlikely to bamboozle your competitor or adversary with brute force. If the competition is worthy, you will need to win over each customer and partner. Once you win over a critical mass, word will spread and the odds of victory will tilt in your favour. In some cases, you might have to partner with a previous adversary. This might feel uncomfortable but if it takes you closer to your end goal, it is definitely worth exploring. As US Congressman William Clay says, there are no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.

Third, seek the right institutional support at the right time. As most successful product founders say, traction is necessary but insufficient to succeed. It is an indicator that your customers and stakeholders resonate with your value proposition but mistaking it for unequivocal support is a sure-shot way to fail. For both startups and social movements, institutional support can be a force multiplier. The challenge lies in deciding the timing and nature of the support you are seeking.

Startups that raise institutional money too soon run the risk of losing their identity, and social movements that join hands with institutions sometimes end up alienating their strongest allies. That’s why it is critical that leaders take regular inputs from the broader ecosystem. It obviously doesn’t mean that they crowdsource the final decision, but seeking inputs makes the broader community feel included. It makes them believe that they are stakeholders, not bystanders. While institutional support lends legitimacy, it is the energy of the community that drives startups and social movements forward.

Fourth, attraction trumps power, force and anger. This is particularly important for voters, customers and protestors who are undecided and fall in the middle of our spectrum of allies. You can only bring them to your side with relatable examples and meaningful stories. As Nobel laureate Richard Thaler says, nudge is stronger than prescription.

Fifth, reach the goal and push further. You need a plan to survive victory. Remember what happened after Arab Spring? After a round of protests, Muslim Brotherhood won elections and came to power in Egypt, though victory was short-lived and its candidate was overthrown following further protests and a military coup just about a year later.

Both startups and social movements need to build follow-up plans after achieving milestones. A fresh round of funding doesn’t mean you have arrived. It only means you need to recalibrate your goals and figure out a way to achieve them. That’s the time to strengthen relationships with those who got you there.

Whether you are leading the protests in Hong Kong, hoping for success, or building a successful overseas startup, you need to play the long game. There aren’t any quick fixes.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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