How our vision helped us find ourselves

August 1st, 2017

tl;dr: We started Localist, selfishly, as a way for us to personally become more connected to our community. As we grew as a company, we felt like we couldn’t be a “real” company without creating a vision around becoming a billion-dollar empire. We eventually realized that a dollar-based vision is empty, so we went back to our roots, making the vision not about us connecting to our community, but about enabling others to connect to theirs.

Our vision is a more connected community. The way we do that, our mission, is to make every event discoverable.

Here’s the story of how it came to be.

Being selfish

We started Localist because we wanted to know important people in Baltimore.

I’m working at the Baltimore Sun, living just north of the city. It’s my first time living by myself, and I haven’t yet dared to explore Baltimore on my own. My high school friend Nate is visiting from Spain. On a Friday evening, we decide to see what Baltimore is all about.

It’s early in the evening when I park the car on the cobblestone streets of Fells Point. We walk around Thames Street, the main drag. It’s beautiful. The old street lamps, the cobbles, the sound of the water, and the faint smell of fresh croissants baking at a nearby bakery. I had no idea this was here. I need to live here.

After a few bar stops, we happen upon a group of people clinking glasses in front of a mediterranean tapas restaurant. We get to talking and eventually learn they’re celebrating the restaurant’s grand opening. They invite us in as their guests.

We felt like strangers in a new city, which made it hard to learn about and appreciate all the amazing things happening around us without already knowing someone.

Localist, in its first incarnation as a destination site, was built to solve that. It was designed as an event directory with a social layer. If everyone in the city used it, we’d be able to tap into the “pulse” of the region. Our vision was that we, as individuals, would become incredibly connected in Baltimore. We built it for ourselves, but knew that others would find value in it, too.

A year progressed and we realized that the destination site model simply wasn’t viable. It relied on ad revenue from bars and restaurants, which were perpetually cash-poor, or reluctant to invest in unproven promotional campaigns.

At the same time, we were hearing from tourism boards and media companies telling us that they would love to license our platform to create a branded online calendar for their organization. We’d historically told them we weren’t interested, but their voices were becoming louder.

The choices became: stick to the original plan and die in a month, or pivot to something we hadn’t thought of and hope for the best. So we pivoted, turning Localist into a SaaS product that organizations license to manage their event content.

Growth for growth's sake

This pivot turned our company into something we never planned. Instead of having a direct connection to events, using the platform as our own way to accumulate social capital in a region, we were now dressing up to go pitch to committees, submitting proposals, and focusing on the person organizing the event, rather than the person attending it.

Knowing we’d need help at least initially, we sought funding. We heard the same thing from virtually every investor we talked to: “show us some traction, and we’ll be very interested.”

All of these seemed to diverge from our original vision and mission. Instead of taking a stand, we assumed they must be wrong. So we sat down and thought “what’s something aspirational we can shoot for in consideration of this new business model?”

That’s when the vision became “we will be the Salesforce of event software companies” and the mission, “make the best calendar software in the world.” It was very internally focused, and ultimately was “chasing dollar signs,” but at the time felt aspirational because it was focused on growth. Even if it didn’t resonate with us, we thought, it would inspire people to join the company, because we’re shooting for the moon.

We persisted with that vision and mission for five years.

Remembering why we do this

It wasn’t until 2015, when we were considering moving to DC, that the vision and mission were revisited. The move required a lot of soul searching. Why move to DC? Why are we doing this at all? Why do we care? Why run a company with a vision and mission I don’t really believe in?

That’s when the original vision and mission started to resurface. But I still didn’t communicate it. I had a lot of fear around sharing it. I thought it was too intangible. It wasn’t focused on growth, it was focused on warm, fuzzy feelings. I felt like people couldn’t get behind something that wasn’t concrete.

It wasn’t until the middle of 2016 that I threw in the towel. If we couldn’t be proud of our real vision and mission, there was no point in continuing. We went back to our roots.

Our vision officially became: “every event discoverable.” Our job isn’t done until every event can be discovered by its audience. This respected our relationship with our customer while recognizing the reason we’re doing this at all. Our mission: “lower the barriers that prevent events from being discovered.” This freed us up to consider other ways events can be discovered, besides an online calendar.

Almost overnight, questions that had been hanging in the air with no intuitive direction became abundantly clear. Which feature should we work on next? Instead of the answer being “the one that opens up the biggest growth opportunity,” it was “the one that lowers a barrier to event discovery.” “ Should this org be our customer?” transitioned from “how much will they pay us?” to “only if they care about making their events discoverable.”

Our vision and mission were once again a clear line in the sand that we could judge all our efforts on. It’s what we stood for.

Where do we go from here?

It’s the middle of 2017 now and the world is completely different. There is a deep division in this country, and I’ve been confronting how it came to be, and what our role could be in addressing it.

A face-to-face connection is much deeper than following someone on Twitter. Events are face-to-face connections at scale. It’s something no social network can replicate. I took a new look at our vision of “every event, discoverable.” When that happens, what’s the result? A more connected community. That is our real vision. Not the means to the end (events being discovered), but the end. How do we accomplish that vision? What’s our mission? To make every event discoverable.

This affirmation doesn’t change what we’ve been doing. It strengthens those efforts. It can withstand criticism, questions, and concerns. It can dictate what we stand for, shape strategy, and help every member of the team identify where they “fit” in our organization.

If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that the vision and mission need to constantly be communicated, but not because they’re constantly changing. The opposite. The vision and mission can remain constant, even if everything fundamental about the business changes.