Everyone familiar with startups has heard of ‘financial runway’: how long a startup has before it runs out of money. But there’s another runway metaphor I’ve started to think about: how long a startup has before it needs to find another goal to chase. I call this the ‘mission runway’.

Startups start resource-poor, but one thing they do have at the start is a big goal to work towards. A big goal sounds scary, but it’s actually a huge advantage. A big goal means the company has to grow, and with growth comes money, promotions, the feeling of working on something meaningful - all which attract the best people. So having a big but believable mission is really important.

But after some amount of time, the mission might feel vaguely accomplished. It’s not clear what’s next. And so the company needs to revise its mission - to “raise another round of funding” and lengthen the mission runway.

The trick is to lengthen the mission by the right amount. It’s not as simple as jumping to a huge problem, like “solving world hunger”. That’s too abstract. The mission has to feel specific and unique enough to inspire next steps, but large enough to not feel incremental.

Stripe is a company that has been fun to follow over time. “Simplifying payments” was ostensibly the starting mission in 2012. But in 2023, it’s become “Grow the GDP of the Internet” - compelling but concrete.

It is hard to do this, and many late stage startups get stuck - they start with a problem that’s big enough to take them to a certain size, but it’s not clear what to do after. Dropbox is the largest example I can think of: file syncing was an IPO-worthy problem, but it’s been tough pick what’s next. “Designing a more enlightened way of working”, their current mission, hasn’t led to new products that stick.

A really good expanded mission will also make entering new markets and shipping new products obvious. I learned this at Vanta: “Automating compliance” kept us busy at first, but after SOC 2 was mostly smoothened out in 2021, we grew our sights towards “helping all businesses prove security”, then “becoming the trust layer on the internet”.

If financial runway is the amount of time a startup has to not existentially depend on capital, mission runway is the amount of time a startup has before it’s ‘just another boring business’. Just like startups increase their financial runway by periodically making their bank accounts big again, they also need to increase their mission runway by periodically making their mission big again.