(Note: this is an excerpt from The Plan-As-You-Go Business Plan, by Tim Berry.)

People seem to like getting into the mission statement, but I’m not sure it’s always such a good idea. There’s also the possibility of doing your mantra instead, and then some people talk about a vision statement, and of course there are also business objectives.

The underlying idea is sound. Let’s think about who we are, what we want, what we want to do for customers, employees, and so forth. Let’s use these words to define ourselves.

Before I go on, let’s distinguish between these different items:

  • A mission statement should define what the business wants to do for at least three sets of people: customers, employees, and owners. It should not be just meaningless hype words.
  • A mantra is a single phrase that defines a business. Guy Kawasaki, author of Art of the Start, recommends mantra instead of mission.
  • A vision statement projects forward into time three or five years and presents a picture, like a dream, of how things should be. Usually a vision statement works best as a story about the future, with your business as the key element in the story. Where is it, what is it doing, how big is it, what’s special about it. This works for some businesses, but not all.
  • Business objectives should be hard-baked, concrete, specific, and, above all, measurable. Objectives are like sales growth rates, employee headcount, customers in the database, percentages of gross margin or profitability, units sold, and so on.

Your mission statement is both opportunity and threat at the same time. It’s an opportunity to define your business at the most basic level. It should tell your company story and ideals in less than 30 seconds: who your company is, what you do, what you stand for, and why you do it. It’s a threat because it can be a complete waste of time.

A mission statement is a complete waste of time when it’s just meaningless phrases, hype that nobody can remember and doesn’t matter even if they do.

Most mission statements are essentially full of interchangeable, nice-sounding phrases like “excellence” and “leadership” that make all of them sound exactly the same. If you have a mission statement in your company, test it by asking yourself, honestly, whether your competitors could use exactly the same statement. Does it distinguish you from all other businesses? If you gave an employee or customer a blind screening test, asking her to read your your mission statement and four others without identifying which is which, would she be able to tell which mission statement was yours?

Consider instead the new trend, the idea of the Mantra. Guy Kawasaki writes an eloquent argument for the mantra instead of the mission in his book The Art of the Start (see sidebar, mission vs. mantra). At the very least, think about it.

Before you do the mission statement, make sure you’re going to use it. Will it actually set the underlying goals of the company? Will you refer to it as you develop and implement strategy? Will your team members know it and believe it and use it in practice?

Then, start to ask yourself the most important questions. Do you want to make a profit, or is it enough to just make a living? What markets are you serving, and what benefits do you offer them? Do you solve a problem for your customers? What kind of internal work environment do you want for your employees? All of these issues may be addressed in a mission statement.

Basic guidelines in writing a mission statement

Your mission statement is about you, your company, and your ideals. Read other companies’ mission statements, but write a statement that is about you and not some other company. Make sure you actually believe in what you’re writing; your customers and your employees will soon spot a lie. I suggest three key components:

  1. What are you doing for your customers? Let’s hope this is something that sets you apart, makes you different, and that your customers will recognize.
  2. What are you doing for your employees? Fair compensation, good tools, professional development, encouragement, or whatever. If you’re serious about it, put it in the mission statement. If it’s in the mission statement, get serious about it.
  3. What does the company do for its owners? Don’t apologize for needing profits to stay in business, or for generating return on investment for those who invested. Say it as part of your mission statement.

Don’t “box” yourself in. Your mission statement should be able to withstand the changes that come up over time in your product or service offerings, or customer base. A cardboard box company isn’t in the business of making cardboard boxes; it’s in the business of providing protection for items that need to be stored or shipped. The broader understanding helps them see the big picture.

Keep it short. The best mission statements tend to be three to four sentences long.

Ask for input. Run your mission statement draft by your employees. Is it clear and easily understood, or does it sound like something from the Dilbert Mission Statement Generator?

Aim for substance, not superlatives. Avoid saying how great you are, what great quality and what great service you provide.

Tim BerryTim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Bplans.com. Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.