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Mission, visions, and values - for a solo freelancer?

Earlier this week I attended a ZingTrain webinar, Mission, Vision, and Values. They ran through their definition of each term, how Zingerman's developed their company mission and values, and how they use visioning.

It got me reflecting on my own consultancy business. It sometimes feels like calling it a "business" is stretching the term. It's just me, writing documentation and doing other (usually word-related) tasks for companies. I haven't even set up as a company, I'm just registered as a sole trader. My taxes are simple enough that I'm still doing them myself.

And missions, value statements and so on, all feel like things that big and/or established companies have. Visions and visioning (as taught by ZingTrain) are a little different - they can be used for personal as well as professional development and planning (I'm not going to explore visioning in this post. You can read more here: visioning).

Nonetheless, I tried to keep Starfall Projects in mind as I listened to the webinar, noting down ideas as it went on. A draft mission and some key values emerged. I encourage other freelancers to go through this process. It doesn't have to be lengthy - in fact, I feel more confident in my mission statement because it arose so organically during the 60 minute webinar.

Mission

This is the mission that emerged:

Write the words that help clients' users achieve their goals. Underpin the words with expertise in tooling and accessibility. Support clients' teams to own the words.

The process

The first two sentences, and the concept of the last, all emerged during the webinar. The slogan on the homepage of this site - "It's all about the words" - predates this by some months. Clearly the seeds of this mission statement were already present.

It immediately clarified some direction and prioritisation choices I've been facing recently:

  • The work I am best at, and most enjoy, is focused around words: documentation, blog articles, UI copy, and so on. I've recently had a tempting offer to pick up product management work, but it didn't feel quite right - this helped clarify why.
  • I prefer to focus on end-user documentation.
  • I enjoy wrangling docs tooling, and have good expertise here. Whenever possible, I will take on projects that let me use this skill.
  • I have always cared about accessibility. This meshes with my values, but is an area I need more training in. I will invest in this training. Whenever possible, I will work with clients who prioritise accessibility.
  • Supporting others to be more confident contributing to documentation feels like meaningful work to me. Although I've been lucky enough to work for some clients fairly long term, sooner or later projects and contracts naturally end. I've always followed good practices: documenting what I do, writing guides for how to use the tooling I set up, what style guide to use, and so on. But I feel I could bring even more value here. I have some experience in training (I created the training plan for new starters at my first tech job, after finding my own onboarding rather painful), but I have no experience training people to write documentation. Whenever possible, I would like to offer this as a service, effectively providing the full lifecycle of a project: tooling choice and setup, docs site creation, initial documentation writing, and then properly training people to take over from me. To offer this confidently, I need to develop training materials, or learn to teach existing courses (for instance, I might learn to lead Google's Technical Writing Courses for developers).

Vision

I don't have a vision (yet). This is the aspect I find most challenging, perhaps because it requires a sometimes-scary leap, a daring to dream. It certainly requires more time and thought.

Values

The values I came up with:

  • Make a difference to that one.
  • Clarity over poetry.
  • Accuracy over appearances.
  • Usability over fashion.
  • Health and wellbeing matter.
  • Life is too short for unhappy work.

The process

I started by noting a few personal work values, including a reminder to prioritise my health, and the importance of enjoying my work.

Then I moved to ambition, which I summarised as:

Make a difference to that one.

This comes from a story, or modern fable, that I like:

Making a difference

A friend was walking down a deserted Mexican beach at sunset. As he walked along, he began to see another man in the distance. As he grew nearer, he noticed that the local native kept leaning down, picking something up and throwing it out into the water. Time and again he kept hurling things out into the ocean. As my friend approached even closer, he noticed that the man was picking up starfish that had washed up on the beach, and, one at a time, he was throwing them back into the water. My friend was puzzled.

He approached the man and said. "Good evening, friend. I was wondering what you are doing."
"I'm throwing these starfish back into the ocean. You see, it's low tide right now and all of these starfish have been washed up onto the shore. If I don't throw them back into the sea, they'll die up here from lack of oxygen."

"I understand," my friend replied, "but there must be thousands of starfish on this beach. You can't possibly get to all of them. There are simply too many. And don't you realize this is probably happening on hundreds of beaches all up and down this coast. Can't you see that you can't possibly make a difference?"

The local native smiled, bent down and picked up yet another starfish, and as he threw it back into the sea, he replied, "Made a difference to that one!"

Make a difference, in small but meaningful (and ethical) ways. Crucially, this feels achievable.

Finally, I looked at my technical values, the principles that guide the type of words I produce:

  • Clarity over poetry: plain language, communicating as simply as possible.
  • Accuracy over appearances: documentation must be accurate, even if this means describing the occasional bug, or sub-optimal workflow.
  • Usability over fashion: the priority is making the documentation user-friendly and accessible. The latest design style trends are not always helpful here.

Benefits

Writing the mission statement clarified my focus and my current strengths, and told me what my next steps should be.

Working on my values didn't give immediate, practical direction in the way the mission did. But it has helped me lay to rest some nagging doubts and dissatisfactions. The first value that came to mind was "make a difference to that one": an ethical drive to do achievable good where I can, and a career drive to do valuable but not necessarily grand work. If you care about the world, you can feel you ought to be out there saving it every day. And especially in tech, it's easy to feel you're failing if you're not founding your own startup or generating immense amounts of passive income. Thinking about my values has helped reassure me that it's ok to "just" be a good documentation consultant, who advocates for accessibility and inclusivity.

The webinar and other resources are available on ZingTrain's site: Mission, Vision, and Values. Set aside an hour, and give it a watch. See what mission and value ideas pop into your head as you go.