Developing Your Startup DNA

Building your Startup DNA is one of the first steps to transitioning an idea into something more.

It gives an idea a purpose and identity of its own, which is important for communicating the idea, attracting the necessary people and creating initial momentum.

What ' Startup DNA' means:

Basically, it's concepts that are core to why your business exists, what you're creating and what makes you different. It's the 'art' behind a business, the stuff that you can't necessarily see or touch like you can a product, but it's just as important for defining and driving the existence of a company.

We were first introduced to the term from our friends at The Happy Startup School.


There are good reasons why having a strong 'Startup DNA' helps, it's not just 'woo' stuff. Here are a few reasons by it's valuable to spend some time working it out:

  • It enables you to communicate what you're doing in a compelling way before you have anything physical to show (e.g. a product). People buy into compelling visions. They'll engage with you and your idea in a way that allows you to validate the specifics to help your idea evolve.
  • It drives action, for you and the others who you want to get behind your cause. This has a lot to do with human physiology. Humans have a part of the brain called the Limbic System, which responds to emotional stimuli and drives humans to take action (e.g. flight or flight). If you're trying to sell anything to anyone (an idea, a product, a job opportunity, and investment opportunity), having a strong emotional stimuli will help to encourage the people you're targeting to take favourable action. People also need certainty of direction, which satisfies the more logical part of your brain and provides direction for the emotional energy.
  • It's the foundation for building your company's brand and culture. It gives you an idea of who you are, what you stand for, which are important influencers of both brand and culture.

The key startup DNA variables:

The factors that we consider as part of Startup DNA:

  • Vision or Purpose - provides emotional hook
  • Mission - creates certainty of direction
  • Values - set of rules to guide decision making
  • Story - a compelling way of communicating what you do.
  • Philosophy - your view of the world and what makes you unique.

“Values matter. A lot. In a hypercompetitive world where technology eats at every advantage you have over time it is good to have unique and distinct values that you live as a company. That’s a form of differentiation that is not easily copied. It matters and is at the core of building great companies. ”

— Fred Wilson, VC
In the next section we're going to describe each of these variable and provide some question for you to answer to help define them for your company.

Your Vision and Mission

We describe the vision as they 'why' behind what you're doing, and the mission as the 'what'. You can also choose to define an overall purpose for your company.

If it helps, think of your vision as the outcome that you're trying to create (e.g. a world where....) and your mission as the 'thing' that's going to get you there (e.g. a web platform to connect...).

Below are some questions to help you think about what your vision and mission might be. We recommend taking out a piece of paper and writing your answers down.

Vision (the why):

1. When it comes to your idea or business, what do you feel passionate about, or driven by?

2. What change do you want to see in the world, or in your industry?

3. What experience have you had that makes you want to start this business?

My company Vision is:  [add in the first version of your Vision here, it doesn't have to be perfect yet]

Mission (the what and when):

4. What are you going to create through your business?

5. When are you going to do it by?

My company Mission is: [write down the first version of your Mission here]

1.2  Values

Values are a set of beliefs that guide decision making. They are important for self governance as you are starting out, and for leadership and governance of your team as it starts to grow.

1. What are the principles that you would like to guide your decision making now and going forward (your company values)?

2. Why are each of these principles important to you/your company?

They will likely change as you grow and learn more about the decisions you do and don't want to make. This seems to be normal.

1.3 Your Story

Story is the best way to communicate what you’re trying to do. When you describe your idea or company thought a story, people become a lot more engaged.

The best way to tell a story is how we've alway done it; a beginning, middle and end, with a key character at the heart of the journey (think Disney). In this case the character might be you, or someone else you know who's problems triggered the idea.

What is your story, or the story behind your idea (using the structure suggested above)?

1.4 Your Unique Philosophy:

This is your unique view of the world in relation to your product or service, and the uniqueness you offer your customers.

  1. What is the current status quo when it comes to the industry or area you're building a business in? (e.g. fee structure, customer experience)
  2. What do you do that is different from everyone else?
  3. What is different about the experience you provide?
  4. How do you look and/or sound different from everyone else?
  5. How can you make this more apparent?

Final Tips


When you are explaining your idea to people, use elements of your Startup DNA to see what sticks. I find that sharing the story behind the idea tends to work really well, along with the short term vision or mission (sometimes the big vision or mission can be a little bit much for people to comprehend in the early days).

See how people respond and use their feedback (e.g. questions, or information relay) to critique the way you pitch your idea.

Culture, Brand and Strategy

Your startup DNA provides the base concepts that will help to develop your culture, brand and strategy as your idea develops.

We'll be posting more on culture, brand and strategy  in the future, so make sure you're signed up to our community to be kept in the loop.

Hopefully this process has helped you to get some of the thoughts that are racing around in your head down into something that you can consider with more direction. If this is an area that you'd like additional support in, I highly recommend checking out our 'Ideas You Can Execute' Program, which focuses on this stage of idea development.