How to Create and Communicate Strategy to Your Startup
When our company grew from 30 to 60 people, I reached out to 10 CEOs of startups that grew their companies to around 500 people. I had one question: “What broke in your company as you doubled and tripled in size?” Everyone had one answer: communication. “Make sure you have 3–5 yearly goals that are communicated constantly to the entire organization,” many of them said.
We followed their advice and did just that as we grew BenchSci to over 100 people. We started 2020 with a company-wide presentation. We shared with everyone our 5 yearly goals. We even added them to our weekly company newsletter to make sure everyone remembered exactly what we were trying to accomplish.
But while the advice around communication was helpful, it was incomplete. What we learned in 2020 is that it’s not enough to communicate your yearly goals on an ongoing basis. You must also help everyone understand how the projects and tasks they work on align with those goals, and how those goals align with your mission as a company. Some of our team members did not understand why we were working on certain projects, and I don’t blame them.
As a result, for 2021 we revamped our yearly planning process and built a plan that helps everyone in the company understand why their work is so vital to us making a massive impact. Our team derives a lot of meaning from their work, and by communicating a direct line of impact from their tasks to our mission, we believe that everyone who works here can live a more meaningful life and unleash their potential — and ours.
Here is what we did…
We started with our mission
At BenchSci, our mission is to exponentially increase the speed and quality of life-saving research by empowering scientists with the world’s most advanced biomedical AI to run more successful experiments. This mission has a 20–30 year time horizon. It is something that will not change. It is not quantifiable on purpose. Our mission guides our focus and is the reason we created the company. Our mission is why we work so hard.
We then created our BHAG and 5-year vision
Big Hairy Audacious Goal, or BHAG, is a concept from the famous book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by James Collins and Jerry Porras. A BHAG is a 5–10 year goal that guides the strategy of a company. Great BHAGs are quantifiable, simple, and inspiring. At BenchSci, our BHAG is to “bring novel medicine to patients 50% faster by 2025.” This is a goal that we measure ourselves against and is one that we’ll be extremely proud to achieve.
To bring the BHAG to life and make it more tangible, we then created a one-page write-up describing our vision for the company in 2025. This vision is a very detailed description of where our company will be in 5 years. It begins with “It’s October 2025” and proceeds to describe our product line, culture, revenue, number of employees, and more. When anyone in the company asks where we’re going, we can point them to our vision.
Next, we defined our strategy
To realize our vision, we needed to prioritize our activities and resources. To do this, we developed a strategy that will keep us focused on the biggest points of leverage as we navigate from the present to the future. For example, we prioritized certain market segments and market opportunities over others.
It’s critical that strategies be logical and intuitive to the entire company. We’re fortunate to work with very smart people who we encourage to call bullshit when they see it. If you look at the best companies in the world, their strategies are often simple even if their execution is complex. For example, Amazon’s early strategy was to create a large catalog and offer low prices. And Elon Musk summarized Tesla’s master plan in a few sentences: “Build sports car; use that money to build an affordable car; use that money to build an even more affordable car; while doing above, also provide zero-emission electric power generation options.”
Your strategy shouldn’t be rocket science, even if your product relies on it.
Then, yearly goals
After we clarified our long-term mission, what we’re trying to achieve in the next 5 years (BHAG and 2025 vision), and our approach to accomplish it (strategy), we moved to focus on 2021. We laid out 3 simple yet audacious goals for the year. These are the three most important things we must achieve to successfully realize our vision. To help our team remember the goals, we created a short and catchy phrase.
We then divided our company into 3 streams: Platform (R&D, science, product, and engineering), Go-to-Market (marketing, sales, customer success, and delivery), and Operations (finance, business operations, people operations, and chief of staff). Each stream contains 3–4 different departments. The department heads of each stream came together and created 5 yearly goals for each one of their streams.
With goals in hand, we established our 2021 OKRs. We’re big fans of OKRs at BenchSci. Until this year, we planned them quarterly. This year, we decided to lay them out for the entire year. This is very powerful as it enables our team to think longer-term and be more thoughtful about how all the pieces of the puzzle come together. We continue to review and reassess our OKRs on a quarterly basis but can now make better long-term decisions as we have visibility through the entire year.
Each one of our OKRs maps to a yearly goal in a stream. This is how our employees can understand how projects they work on will help us achieve our BHAG of bringing novel medicine to patients 50% faster by 2025.
We found that this process works great for a company size of 60–150 people. We’re now growing to 150 people, and I believe it will work well beyond 300. We hope that it continues to ensure strong alignment across our company and provide our team with the context they need to be successful.