A question I’m often asked by founders is this:

“Do I need to have a clear vision for my company from day one?”

Typically this question comes from people with fairly successful businesses, but who are aware that so far they’ve been operating them reactively, just making stuff up as they go along without any great overarching strategy.

Many assume that this is bad practice, and looking at the great brands out there it’s not hard to see why. After all, the one thing they all have in common is a crystal clear idea of their role in the world. We picture their founders waking up one day with this laser focused vision which they went out and executed – and we are only too aware that such a narrative doesn’t apply to us.

However what I have seen (outside of some very rare exceptions) is that this improvisational “wilderness period” is essential to create this kind of highly focused and effective business.

The reason for this is that the complexity and chaos of reality makes it almost impossible to predict how an idea, a product, a service, is going to interact with the real world. No matter how great they seem on paper, those best laid plans at the founding moment tend not to survive the first year, as you begin to see that the path it takes through the market is not what you anticipated.

The smart thing to do is simply to observe the behaviour of your brand “in the wild” for a period of time, identify what it is that’s making it successful, and then focus everything on that value.

Consider for instance that Facebook began as a “hot or not” website for rating the relative attractiveness of Zuckerberg’s classmates at Harvard. Contrary to popular conception Zuck wasn’t a visionary or prophet – but he was really good at observing his creation, listening to it, and extracting what people found compelling so he could double down on it.

A similar story can be seen with the evolution of Airbnb. Initially, like so many companies, they operated a product-first approach. Here’s an interesting product, hopefully it works. They had ideas about why it might work of course – curiously they once envisaged it as a business networking service – however to discover the true answer to this question they had to be patient. Ultimately they realised that what people really valued in the product was the ability to “feel like a local” when they were abroad, rather than a tourist, and from this the focus of “Belong Anywhere” was born, and with it a slew of further innovations.

So you see that even the greats allow their business to define itself, rather than trying to dictate its purpose from the get go.

This graph illustrates this approach.

First the product is launched. At this point you probably have a pretty good idea of why it might work (otherwise why bother?), but you are yet to observe its behaviour out in the market.

Next comes the “chaos period”. This could last anything from one or two years all the way up to decades. Indeed many companies never leave this state. During this time the business is operated on a reactive basis, trying a lot of random things to see what sticks. Growth, particularly if the company is young, continues, or at worst things start to level out and stall a bit.

Then, whenever the moment is right an you have the capacity to lift your head from the reeds and survey the big picture, you analyse what’s happened in the chaos period. What exactly has been working here? What market need are we fulfilling? What is the point of this business? If you do this well, expect to find that a lot of your prior assumptions have been untrue, and that a lot of your energy and resources have been improperly applied. But that’s OK, because emerging from that is the “pure sauce” of what makes your business work, and you wouldn’t have figured it out without those missteps.

Finally then, you have the “double-down period”, where you take that point of focus, the true role of the company, and you align everything you do with it. You make it the central feature of your marketing and your sales, you adapt your product to deliver it even more, and you make whatever innovations are necessary to make it super obvious. Assuming your analysis was correct, this process should act as rocket fuel, and you need never look back.

So in conclusion a bit of floundering about is OK – in fact it can be far better than being highly strategic, if your strategy is pure conjecture without any observation to back it up. The important thing is that you use that floundering as a process to create your eventual strategy, rather that doing what most businesses do which is to make it the status quo.

And if it’s become your status quo? Well, it’s never too late.

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