All three of the companies I helped to start (reddit, Breadpig, and hipmunk) have “cute” mascots. I didn’t do this because someone recommended I do so; it’s just something I did because I gave a damn how my website looked. In fact, Paul Graham long loathed the reddit alien because he thought people wouldn’t take us seriously. And indeed, a cute mascot is not a requirement for success.
What is a requirement for success is that you, as a founder, give a damn about everything — even something as seemingly insignificant as a mascot. Remember, no one else will care about your website (your mom excluded) unless you do. That means that it’s up to you to think long and hard about the kind of brand you’re trying to create. The amount of “damns” your founders give will set the standard the rest of your company is going to follow, and that affects everything from product design to customer service to the copy on the website to, yes, whether or not you have a cute mascot. And so it’s really, really important to get this right and to get it right from the start.
Here’s the truth: launching a startup is probably one of the more irrational decisions you could make. It’s a decision I encourage you all to make, if that’s your dream, but be ready to answer the big question: Why? Why are you doing this? Be ready to explain not just to your parents why you’re quitting your nice, sensible job to move back into their basement, but to every one of your customers. There is a huge difference between the companies that really understand why they’re doing what they’re doing and the ones that don’t: They don’t think about what they do, they think about why they do it and it shows in everything they do.
Simon Sinek illustrates this last point in this TEDx talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action. Watch it. Please. You’ll see how understanding the why, and making sure that flows through everything your company does, will make all the difference in the world.
With reddit, we answered that question by saying we wanted to be the best engine for community creation online. If you want to find out what’s new and interesting on the World Wide Web, the something that matters to you, you’ll find it there. With Breadpig, we simply wanted to make the world suck less by selling geeky things. And with hipmunk, we want you to love travel search as much as you love traveling, and that simple belief informs everything that we do.
It’s vital to think about this from the start, because it’s going to be not only what drives the founders, but every single employee thereafter. The first year of your company will have a profound impact on your company’s future and its culture. Get it right from the start.
What’s your answer to “Why?” Tell me on Twitter @alexisohanian hashtag #MSPL.