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 way to be ambitious. 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 threaded this well over time. “Simplifying payments” was their mission in 2012 and that was big enough to build their first business around. But in 2023, it’s expanded to “Grow the GDP of the Internet” - something compelling but still concrete enough to work backwards from.

But many late stage startups have trouble doing that. They find a problem that’s big enough to take them to a certain funding round and size, but it doesn’t provide guidance after that. Dropbox is the largest example I can think of: file syncing took them to IPO, but it’s been tough to know what to do next. “Designing a more enlightened way of working”, their current mission, has been too abstract to guide new products that stick.

A really good mission runway makes entering new markets and shipping new products obvious. I learned this at Vanta. “Automating compliance” kept us busy at first, but we got SOC 2 mostly automated in 2021. So as we grew, our mission grew with it: first “automating compliance”, then “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 to not existentially depend on ambition. 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.