Rise of the Manifesto – The Discourse #40

When should startups publish manifestos, how does it help, and how to do it well

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the word manifesto? Possibly the Communist Manifesto by Karl Max and Friedrich Engels, or election manifestos peddled by politicians to canvass votes.

But I'm writing this to comment on the trend of manifestos within startup culture.

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So what exactly is a manifesto?

There are three key characteristics of a manifesto:

  • how the world works today (context)

  • statement of principles and beliefs (unique point of view)

  • what can you do (call to action)

A manifesto is persuasive writing in its best form. It rallies the reader to get behind a cause and take action.

However, not all companies should write manifestos. Here's when you should:

When to create one?

Strong POV and unique worldview

A manifesto works well when the product goes against existing norms. You have a contrarian take on how the world works. When they zig, you zag. It doesn't work the same for a product that is undifferentiated. In these instances, the manifesto will come across as disingenuous.

It also makes sense to write a manifesto if you’re opinionated and willing to take a stand. When you do take a stand, there will be people with you and against you.

Example: Hey - Email by Basecamp

Hey has a unique take on personal email. It's paid vs free —  $99 for a year, while Gmail is free but ad-supported. Emails sent to Hey accounts are opt-in vs opt-out —  the recipient has to screen what they allow in their inbox. By default, notifications are off — in stark contrast to traditional email.

During a recent Clubhouse room, Jason Fried, the founder of Basecamp and Hey, discussed his process when writing about a new product. He mentioned that he wants people to nod several times while reading. 

That level of resonance is exactly the purpose of a manifesto. It asks the question — is this you? If yes, come join us. If not, you can stay away.

Another example is Gitlab's remote manifesto.

Before you have a product

Perhaps you've defined the problem you want to solve, but you don't have anything to show for it yet. You want to send a bat signal to future customers and bring them along on the journey. That’s when a manifesto is useful.

This isn’t a necessary condition, though. You can still create or retain a manifesto once you’ve launched the product.

Example: Asana

Manifesto websites are not new. Here’s Asana's website back in 2010 courtesy waybackmachine.

How does it help?

Resonate, don't sell

Copy on websites can sometimes appear to be too — for the lack of a better word — salesy. A manifesto takes a different approach. It explains the problem, their worldview, and a set of ideals to solve the problem in the best way.

You want customers to resonate with the worldview of your product or service. Here’s where public manifestos shine.

Example: Compound Writing

Compound Writing, an invite-only online community of writers (that I am now a part of). It's on-brand for a writing community to have a written manifesto. That in itself will attract the right set of community members. And it succeeded with me.

I started reading the manifesto and I immediately started nodding in resonance. 

For me, writing was a lonely endeavor, and I knew I needed support through the processes of ideation, feedback, and editing.

I asked Stew Fortier, the founder of Compound Writing, about the impact of manifestos and he echoed my sentiment: “A typical conversation with a new member goes something like this — I checked out your site and a lot of what you all seem to do resonates with me.”

Articulate your motivations

Apart from the obvious benefit of resonating with customers, the process of writing down a manifesto in itself is helpful. By reading the Asana manifesto in 2010, you are able to understand the true motivations behind why Asana exists:

In managing and contributing to projects in the past (at Facebook, Google, etc.), we felt frustrated by how much time we spent trying to stay on the same page with everyone. 

We've tried email, wikis, whiteboards, Microsoft Project, Google Docs, you name it, and while these are great for lots of things, we found everything suffered from one or both of:

  • They're too cumbersome for personal private task management.

  • Existing solutions either impose too much structure

According to Stew, writing a manifesto helps to:   

Clarify, then proclaim, the non-obvious beliefs about the world that motivated you to start a project.

Builds community

Instead of just acquiring customers, you build a community. Because you know that others share the same vision. 

Since one of the goals is to get like-minded people rallied around a cause, it is easier to build a community that interacts with each other, gives the company feedback, and as a result, increases the overall value of the company. 

How can you create your own?

The essence of the manifesto will come from a true understanding of what the company stands for. Stew talked about his process of creating the manifesto:

“Over the course of a few months, my co-founder and I talked about the problems we cared about and what we felt uniquely motivated to help solve through Compound.”

With this in mind, let’s walk through the steps of creating a manifesto for a fictional no-code tool: 

1. What I know to be true...

What is the way the world works today? 

e.g. Building products through code requires specialized skills, education, and training. These things are not easily accessible.

2. I believe...

What are a set of beliefs that you hold strongly and are willing to defend? 

e.g. I believe that building products is a form of self-expression.

I believe that building products solves problems and moves humanity forward.

3. I want to live in a world where... 

What's your view of the future? How do you want to bridge the disconnect between today’s reality and your principles? 

e.g. I want to live in a world where every person — technical or non-technical — can build products.

4. Join our cause...

Give a strong call to action for the reader who resonates with your manifesto.

e.g. Join our community of no-code builders and get started building products! 

Live the ideals

Similar to election manifestos, you will be held accountable by customers and community members. Writing and publishing a manifesto is just one part. You have to make sure what you offer lives up to its ideals.

Other examples of Manifestos:

Thanks to Halle Kaplan-Allen, Mindy Zhang, David Burt, Steven Ovadia, Ergest Xheblati from Compound Writing for providing feedback on early drafts of this piece.

📘 Read of the week: The Best Apps Today are Games in Disguise - Jon Lai (10 min)

That's it for today, thanks for reading!

Does your startup have a manifesto? Would you consider creating/suggesting one? Comment below and I'll reply to you. Give feedback and vote on the next topic here.

Talk to you soon!


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