Creating your founding documents

How to draft and initialize foundational plans for your business

Photo d'avatar de Claire Hughes Johnson
Claire Hughes Johnson

Claire Hughes Johnson is a corporate officer of and advisor to Stripe, as well as its former COO. Previously, she was a VP at Google, leading teams such as AdWords Online Sales, Self-Driving Cars, and Google Offers.

  1. Introduction
  2. Mission
  3. Long-term goals
  4. Principles
    1. How we work
    2. Who we are
  5. Team charters
  6. Founding documents are your foundation

This guide is an excerpt from Claire Hughes Johnson’s forthcoming book, Scaling People: Tactics for Management and Company Building, a playbook for building operating structures and navigating management scenarios that arise in high-growth businesses.

Founding documents detail the plans for the entire enterprise, including the company’s long-term goals and principles and your company philosophy: why and how you exist and operate. You should create your founding documents relatively early on, once you’ve established some traction. They become an even more important touchstone when a company grows beyond about 40 or 50 people. Once you’ve communicated your company’s reason for being in your founding documents, you can turn your attention to building and implementing your initial company-wide operating systems.

Having strong founding documents that share why you exist and what you seek to achieve ensures that the operating systems you put in place share a common purpose, flow from your objectives, and are guided by a clear company ethos from top to bottom, from leadership to individuals. These systems can be replicated up and down the company as it scales, and they ensure that even in times of chaos, your company’s purpose and culture are beacons to guide you through. Being clear about your values also means expectations are known to all, which fosters mutual understanding and makes it easier to give feedback when someone isn’t meeting expectations.

Founding documents should include a mission, long-­term goals, principles (often called values), and team charters.

Mission

A mission states why you exist. Even if you try to avoid pinning it down, it will usually make itself known.

Patrick [Collison]’s answer to my question about Stripe’s mission was not actually that it didn’t have one, but that he and John, his brother and cofounder, had not formalized one that seemed to stick. But in some of the very early content on Stripe’s first About page, Patrick wrote that the company wanted “to increase the GDP of the internet.” Once those words were published, both employees and job candidates kept referring to that phrase as the mission. It had organically presented itself to people as the most compelling purpose for the company.

I remember one late-night phone call with Patrick in which we were going over his remarks for our annual all-company gathering. We both acknowledged that it was time to accept the mission that had been handed to us—so Stripe’s mission became to increase the GDP of the internet.

Missions are descriptive and aspirational. They’re descriptive in that they should be uniquely specific—another organization should not be able to have the same mission. They’re aspirational in that it’s unlikely a mission will ever be fully achieved. Bill Gates once said, “Early on, Paul Allen and I set the goal of a computer on every desk and in every home. It was a bold idea, and a lot of people thought we were out of our minds to imagine it was possible.” This is exactly the type of aspiration that could be broken down into smaller, achievable milestones that a company would need to reach in order to realize that result. The same is true for Google’s mission: “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Every part of the stack—the team, the division, and the company—should have a mission. A team’s mission should ladder up to the division’s mission, and the division’s mission should ladder up to the company’s mission.

Here are a few examples of divisional missions that serve Stripe’s company mission:

  • Design: Define, create, and deliver all user-facing aspects of the Stripe brand and product by creating well-functioning, beautiful products and experiences that users love and are eager to recommend to others.
  • Operations: Equip our users to build their businesses, and build the operations to support Stripe’s future scale. If we do this well, we will accelerate the growth of the GDP of the internet.

And here are a few team missions within the divisional missions:

  • Logistics (within operations): Build and scale operational processes that help Stripe grow our logistics and fulfillment operations, working closely with third-party partners in the US and across the globe.
  • Foundation (within engineering): Provide usable infrastructure for Stripe to explore innovative new products while concurrently extending secure, reliable, and cost-effective mature business lines.
  • Demand (within marketing): Grow and accelerate customer acquisition and lifetime value, generating well-qualified self-service and sales leads and engaging leads with useful content through the full life cycle of their relationship with us.

Individuals can also have missions, although those missions are likely to shift quite a bit as their roles and responsibilities evolve. What’s key for individuals is that they know how their work contributes to the team, then to the division, and finally to the company.

To use Microsoft as an example, one could imagine how the mission might flow from the top down (note that this is my own representation, not necessarily what Microsoft laid out internally):

  • Company mission: A computer on every desk in every home.
  • Division mission: Build the operating system for computers.
  • Team mission: Develop the graphical user interface (GUI) for the operator using the OS.

Long-term goals

The other thing I asked for when I started at Stripe was a list of the company’s long-term goals: the bigger-picture ambitions we hoped to achieve or improve over a period of years. They weren’t written down at the time, so we tackled them shortly after I joined in 2014, coming up with a simple two-page document. At the time, I thought of this document as part of a high-level three- to five-year plan. But if you read our goals today, eight years later, they’re still the same. A selection:

  • Grow internet-enabled commerce.
  • Accelerate globalization.
  • Advance the state of the art in building developer tools and infrastructure.

In a way, this small set of goals has become ingrained and bolstered the company mission. I don’t think they’re going to change, even in another three to five years. They provide valuable context for employees about our aspirations and reason for existence. Of course, we also have company, division, and team goals that we set both quarterly and annually. Those shorter-term goals ladder up to the long-term goals, so having that long-term ambition is a necessary precursor to setting them.

Principles

The next elements you need to codify at the highest level are your company values, which form the basis of your culture. A mission explains why your company exists. Your long-term goals outline what your company hopes to achieve. Your values, or principles, establish the culture that enables you to work toward those goals. At Stripe, we call our values “principles” because we like the connotation of a shared system of beliefs and behaviors. Whatever you call them, they should be woven through all of your company’s actions, both individual and collective.

The most important thing about principles is that they feel authentic to the identity the company is developing organically. Like your company brand, they should be relevant, believable, enduring, and deliverable. They need to be a little bit aspirational, of course, but I find that too many companies make their principles so idealistic that they don’t resonate with employees because they have no connection to how the company actually operates. For example, if one of your values is “We care about customers” but the only understanding you have of your customers is how many you have, rather than their experience of your product, the disconnect will be obvious to everyone.

MIT professor Edgar Schein described culture as having three levels: artifacts, espoused beliefs and values, and basic underlying assumptions. His well-known lily pond and iceberg images of understanding culture emphasize how artifacts are visible examples of a culture, but the true culture lies beneath the surface. Principles can be tricky to articulate because you’re trying to write down something that’s based both on espoused beliefs, which are sometimes visible, and unconscious assumptions, which are invisible and difficult to divine. As you draft your principles, try writing down notable moments in the company’s history. These might be major decisions, critical product choices, or organizational rallying moments. What was true in those moments? What belief system prevailed? Tapping into those examples is a good place to start your draft.

Don’t be afraid to seek input from across your organization. At Stripe, early drafts of the principles were written by employees. They were a fascinating combination of espoused beliefs and underlying assumptions already embedded in the culture. Patrick reviewed the early work, then drafted his own version, which we then circulated within the company for comment before sharing our first official set of operating principles. We revisit and update these principles every year or two to make sure they remain authentic and relevant, but what’s most important is ensuring that they are truly expressed in how we hire, reward, lead, and conduct ourselves across the company.

Here are a few of Stripe’s operating principles, as of December 2021:

How we work

Users first
We have a weighty obligation to the businesses built on Stripe and the everyday people they serve. Because we’re so critical to our users’ success, we must keep their needs front and center in all we do.

Move with urgency and focus
A bias for action speeds our learning and delights our users. Focus on what matters most, make fast initial progress, and iterate toward the best outcome.

Who we are

Curious
We lead with a genuine interest in people, ideas, and the unknown. We work hard to understand other points of view and prefer investigating to being right.

Macro-optimistic
Stripes reject cynicism, knowing that all problems can be solved with the right understanding and that progress is only inevitable through focused effort. We are believers in the long term.

Exothermic
Stripes generate an energy and warmth that is infectious across teams and throughout the company. We are genuinely excited about our work and about creating an exceptionally welcoming environment for all Stripes.

Team charters

I recommend that teams create an additional founding document: a team charter. Team missions will follow and support the company mission and values, and they’re generally one or two sentences long. A team charter is a longer document, maybe a page long, that should create clarity about the team’s purpose. It should articulate to team members and others within the company why the team exists and what their long-term goals are.

When you grow very quickly, or when your division is large, it can be surprisingly hard to figure out who is responsible for what work, and to what end. When things get complicated, a good manager will sometimes seek to simplify the work by laying out the jobs to be done. The team charter is a summary of those jobs and what others can expect from the team, both immediately and over the long term. Open, transparent information about what each team does and is responsible for allows for a smoother path forward as teams work toward their own mission and, by extension, the company’s mission.

A team mission and charter should sit somewhere discoverable, ideally on your shared intranet. Together, the mission and charter should provide a clear description of what each team does (for example, “produce data insights that help provide better outcomes for users”), explain why the work matters to the company, and share key metrics and major risks and dependencies. Bonus points for linking out to a dashboard of team metrics and goals, as well as providing a guide on the best way to contact and work with that team on the team charter page. That way, when new employees start, they can figure out whom to contact, and how, if their work requires cross-team support.

Template: Team charter

Mission

Example:
Provide best-in-class security to all of our users and their accounts on the dashboard. This encompasses both authentication and authorization, including dashboard roles and permissioning.

Vision

Example:
We aim to build strong trust internally and externally in our ability to provide best-in-class security for all of our users, from enterprises to small users, while avoiding overhead for our users and support team. Account takeovers will no longer be an active problem (neither as a terrible user experience nor as a financial loss). While we won’t ever be able to get them to zero, we and our customers should have full faith that when they occur (e.g., through an internal bad actor on the customer side), we did everything within creative reasonability to prevent them. We will also deliver “table-stakes” security features such that we fly through user security–related discussions with new enterprise customers.

Customers

Example:

  • We’re responsible for the account security of every user and account, ensuring that their accounts and the sensitive data therein remain theirs alone.
  • We protect the interests of all merchant accounts by enabling them to control who in their business can access what, and by protecting them from rogue actions.

Metrics

Example:

  • Number of accounts that have experienced a takeover in a given month
    • Measuring: User experience, risk of unhappy customer leak, support burden
    • Target value: [X]
  • Account takeover losses
    • Measuring: Direct financial loss and loss of margin due to account security issues
    • Target value: [X]
  • Percentage of all dashboard users who have adopted two-factor authentication
    • Measuring: Protection of entire user base from account takeovers
    • Target value: [X]

Strategic importance

Example:
Aside from the financial benefits of reducing losses, having better account security will improve the user experience and build user trust. Strong foundations here will help prevent attacks, bad user experiences, and losses, since we will become a target if we are not world-class. A strong track record will also increase the appeal of our products to enterprise users, open up new sales conversations, and accelerate existing ones.

Major risks

Example:

  • Team gets pulled into lower-priority work by audit or compliance activities
  • Major security breach
  • Major new attack vectors
  • Death by a thousand cuts of one-off enterprise requests
  • Tech debt

Provided interfaces

Example:

  • Login code
  • 2FA infrastructure
  • Session infrastructure
  • Login/email challenge
  • Dashboard auditing models
  • Account recovery/password reset flow

Dependent interfaces

Example:

  • User registration UI
  • Verificator (interface for SMS 2FA)
  • User email system and team

Founding documents are your foundation

Founding documents are part of a larger planning and accountability framework within which the company exists. They are, appropriately, the foundation upon which your operating system and cadence are built—and they’re just one element in the broader swath of processes, frameworks, and management approaches that can help high-growth companies scale effectively.

Scaling People: Tactics for Management and Company Building, by Claire Hughes Johnson, aims to demystify these practices. It’s designed to provide founders, leaders, and managers with the tools to build resilient company structures and empathetic, common-sense approaches to a range of management scenarios.

The book will be released in March 2023—you can preorder it now. In the meantime, subscribe to the Stripe Press newsletter to receive updates on Scaling People and news on upcoming Stripe Press books and projects.

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