I've had a half dozen inquiries over the past month about "Should our startup have a Mission Statement?" "What about our vision statement, what should go into it?" "What do you think about a philosophy statement for a startup?"
I think that Google has stimulated these queries (each query has mentioned Google). Google's philosophy statement is now formally documented and declared, after the infamous "Do no evil" was included in its IPO prospectus. Countless people are attempting to emulate, copy and otherwise be like Google. (A study of when and how and who created it would make a fascinating PhD. thesis.)
That is neither good or bad, but I think it misses an important strategic competitive point: One of your most important tasks, during the first months of the Chaos Phase of your startup, is to get your company positioned where you want it in the mind of your ideal customer. If you mess that up, all the mission and vision statements are worthless.
In other words, try thinking about first positioning the company, creating its marketing communications messaging documents and then consider doing your mission statement, philosophy statement and other related, more esoteric documents.
Company culture is a powerful part of your competitive advantage. It is organic, growing and modifying as more people are hired after the first ten or so are on board. The values of those early people, particularly the founder and CEO (not necessarily the same person) and first dozen or so employees, will become the philosophy of the company. It is no longer "my company."
To dictate a philosophy statement (e.g. by one or two of the founders) typically results in a brass plaque in the lobby that few read except sales people waiting for their appointments to arrive. To create a statement via consensus reflects foundational values out of which a culture grows and attracts other people with similar values. That recruiting, self-filtering magnet adds to your competitive advantage. A weird or dysfunctional statement will do otherwise.
The mission statement has been studied for half a century or more by serious MBAs. Ask one for what it means and how it is used. Then decide if you want one for your company. Contrast it with your positioning statement. You can test the power of a mission statement with a simple test: right now, try to repeat mission statements (or vision or philosophy statements) for three or more real companies, public or private. Few people get past one. Like company slogans, they seem to diminish quickly in value and meaning and power after they are (so painfully) created. A few make fine use of such documents, but they are rare in my experience.
What does stick is positioning. It is directly linked to customers, those wonderful people who send you large checks that you use to pay people and grow your business. Done well, your competition will hate you. Your positioning out-maneuvers them. They feel inferior. Your customers agree.
BOTTOM LINE: After you get your marketing competitive positioning done well, you can consider the usefulness of other statements about the company, including mission and vision and philosophy statements. The follow-on documents can be helpful if they reflect the business and culture of the company and if they reinforce the positioning of your business. Then you have created additional elements to add to build your unfair competitive advantage. You will know when you get there: your competition will be crying.