What is a vision statement?
Why you need one and why you're having trouble crafting one for your small business
by Brittany Taylor
published november 9, 2016
updated May 30, 2018
¶ I see you, boss. I see you side-eyeing me, wondering why the frick you need to spend precious minutes considering a vision statement when you already have a mission statement that’s got you pulling 12-hour workdays.
I hear you, boss. I do. Here’s what I want to tell you about that very good side-eye argument:
A mission statement is what guides your day-to-day. It’s what builds out your to-do list and keeps you busy.
But a vision statement is what guides your overall strategy. It’s what makes every single one of those 12-hour workdays worth it, because you’re working toward something.
That vision is what you’re working toward, boss. It’s your future. And your future is worth 10 minutes of planning today, I guarantee it.
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What is a vision statement?
A vision statement outlines the broad scope of what a business wants to accomplish in the future. It is a sentence or two that captures that snapshot of the future world, and frames it in a way that emphasizes the impact your work will have upon it.
Remember the newsreels from the 1950s, with their flying car prototypes and space-age outfits? They’re funny to watch now, in all their retro glory, but those were big, moonshot visions of the future. And really, They’re no different from today’s 3-dimensional renderings of theme parks or planned communities. There’s a certain gloss to them, a certain tint.
The way the past has sepia, the future has a slightly blue-green glaze that’s inherently modern and idealized.
That’s vision, friends. It’s forward-thinking, innovative and out of reach, idealized but not impossible.
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Where vision statements trip people up
I aspire to be a visionary. My dream, as a socially anxious person, is to eavesdrop on a conversation at a party and here someone I admire say, “Oh, Brittany Taylor? She’s such a visionary.” Doesn’t that sound fantastic? I’d probably break my jaw grinning.
Aspirations are great. They’re what push us to be better than what we are right now. The thing about my aspiration is that I am not a natural visionary. I am whimsical and imaginative and creative, but I have trouble with big-picture thinking. And that’s what vision is: It’s thinking about the big picture.
My incredibly unscientific theory is that people are split into two groups:
I understand how tricky vision statements can be because I'm a small-picture thinker
The world needs people like me and my compatriots, though, just as much as it needs the big-picture folks. We’re the ones with focus. We put blinders on and home in on segments of the work, and we polish and adapt those segments until they are new and different and (in my dreams) visionary.
Visionary is where I end. It's not where I start. And, if you're like me, that's OK.
Still, the way our brains are wired means we tend to have trouble switching from small-picture thinking (where mission statements tend to come from) to big-picture thinking (the realm of vision statements).
Mission statements are hard to put together, don’t get me wrong, but for us, their difficulty stems from the need to create a brief positioning statement with highly targeted language. Choosing just the right words is not easy, not for you and not for me (and I do this for a living, y’all).
Vision statements, though, are a whole ‘nother thing. They’re a mix of projection—where you think you’ll be—and aspiration—where you want to be.
The trouble with that, for you and me, is that we’re focused on how to be where we are right now. We can deal with projection—the “I’ll be making $100,000 a year and have a team of five to manage” bit of it—but the aspiration part is very much not easy for us to wrap our brains around.
Afraid of thinking too far ahead? Take a peek at how to conquer your fears so you can move forward with confidence.
How to start thinking about your vision statement
Have you ever seen Keeping the Faith? It’s a movie about a priest, a rabbi, and their best female friend, and if this isn’t ringing a bell, you need to find it somewhere directly after you finish this blog post.
Anyway. One scene in the movie show the Rabbi mentoring a young boy preparing for his bar mitzvah. The kid is bombing it, and he’s ready to throw in the Tallit (Ha! Funny.). That’s when the rabbi steps in with a new mantra: “I love that I suck.”
Embrace the suckiness that is you and vision statements, boss, ‘cause this is happening whether you’re good at is at first or not.
Step 1. Source some inspiration
The problem I had with vision statements when I first started my business was that I didn’t know what was possible. I had no baseline for where my future could go. As far as I was aware, I was going to be running a service-based business forever. There simply were no other possibilities—or not lucrative ones, anyway.
That changed when I discovered Facebook Groups for online bosses. The success stories opened my eyes to one new thing that I could do: teach other people.
I joined more groups. I met more people. I sat back and learned, and started seeing how different people were structuring different types of businesses, and earning a living doing it.
If you’re not naturally innovative, surround yourself with other people’s innovations. Subscribe to newsletters from thought leaders and magazines like Fast Company that report on the new big things. Look for a bunch of different ideas from a bunch of different, diverse people.
Step 2. Practice thinking like a visionary
The best way I know of not sucking at something is to practice.
I didn’t leap from my mother’s womb to a keyboard. I didn’t swallow a thesaurus or absorb grammar rules by osmosis. I wrote a lot (and I wrote a lot of really bad, bad stuff before I started writing good stuff). And you know what? I know I’m not as good a writer as I’ll be next year or 10 years from now.
With practice comes skill. That’s a fact, yo, and it’s no less true when it comes to training your brain. If you want to think differently, you need to practice thinking differently.
Take one of those visionary ideas you sourced in Step 1, set a time for 5 minutes, and consider all the ways that idea applies to your own work. How could you be the Uber of what you do? How could you create the Facebook of your industry? If you ran a start-up with investors, how would you tackle a problem relevant to your audience?
The more you think in terms of these parameters, the more natural this sort of thinking will come to you. Add this exercise to your morning routine for a few weeks, and I think you’ll notice a difference.
Step 3. Create a wish list
When you become an adult with a wallet of credit cards, something about the holidays changes. There’s something about being able to buy just about whatever you want that makes a gift wish list less fun to create. You fall back on to things you need: wooly socks, a new cream sweater, a matching scarf-and-hat set.
I know that last paragraph comes from a place of privilege.
I’m a lucky woman who grew up in fortunate circumstances; I never knew true need. But like any kid, I keenly felt all my desires.
For this step, I want you to abandon the adult who asks for boring things for Christmas and tap into that childlike glee of yearning for every toy you see on TV. Just close your eyes and call to mind those Nickelodeon commercials for toys that oozed green slime and bizarre clock radio contraptions.
Eyes still closed? OK, here’s my quandary for you: If you could shake Tinkerbell all over your industry or your clientele or your work processes or anything about your business, what would you change with a pinch of fairy dust?
Now that you’ve gotten used to thinking in new, expansive, innovative ways, that’s the question I want you to ask yourself. Focus on improvements, on positives that you would like to be a part of. Which one means that most to you? Which one speaks to you? Which one would you be most proud to have effected?
Pick one. Then, consider different paths you and your business could take from where you are now to whatever world that vision of the future exists in. How would you make that thing happen? What would the future look like? How would it be better? What role would you play in it?
For now, let this be your vision. Let this be how your business shapes your industry—which is, after all, what a vision statement is all about.
Exactly how to write a mission statement for your small business.
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My name is Brittany, but my friends and clients call me "Britt." Online small business owners hire me to create content strategies and write their blog posts, email newsletters, and social media updates. I work with bosses around the world from the marshes of Charleston, S.C.