Generally if you ask any employee of a company about their company vision you can almost always expect some kind of polished statement about Synergy, Quality , Customer focus , Product Excellence and such elegant sounding terms meant to accentuate the core product/ service offering of such companies.
A decent orientation program at any of these companies will also include a mention of what the company stands for , why the company exists in the first place , and through out its long & short history what have been the guiding principles that have helped nurture the company's brand identity.
Why the vision statement seems to not make sense to an average employee of the. Company, an outsider , or even an entrepreneur in the same market as the said company is largely because a vision is a more organic concept , like a mantra that companies want their employees to embody , internalize and exude to the bet of their abilities .
For a startup of course the challenge in the beginning are not so much about employee retention or creating some highly idealistic mantra , so one can understand where you are coming from when you surmise startups don't need an elaborate vision and it's somethings that can be added later on, when the said startup has garnered the attention of a particular market, and is able to stand on its own legs.
In this digital era , startup companies are radically changing the way organizations come to exist and thrive, partly due to the emergence of a startup ecosystem, easing of norms by central goverments, accessibility to the latest technologies , and of course the elephant in the room - THE INTERNET.
The importance of a traditional vision for companies is decreasing since the role of the said company in todays startup world is about disrupting long standing practices in all areas of industry, garnering quick attention and delivering to a highly techno-savvy customer, who wants instant results and excellent service 24/7.
In such scenarios, the tendency for entrepreneurs is to identify a particular area or domain they feel most comfortable with , concieve of a mobile / web based solution that can give them an entry into the market , show measurable results and sign on a few investors. No VISION required here, except for the standard question -
What is your growth/revenue plan for the next 5 to 10 years ?
If the answer is not in the order of multi-million dollars or exponential customer growth, then you are consigned to the ash heap of startup also-rans, i.e the 80% or so companies that you mentioned who tried, ran for a bit, and eventually ran out of cash.
And that is why for that remaining 80% of startups, the entrepreneur's who created these baby companies, MUST invest time in understanding what kind of a company they are building, why they exist in the first place and how they can create a niche for themselves over the next five years, even if their revenues never reach the million dollar mark in their time at the helm of the startup.
A Vision document is binding on the company, from its founders, to its board of directors , to its senior management down to its employees.
The right way is to articulate a small catchphrase or paragraph that first encapsulates the core reason for the company to exist in the first place and then as the years go on, expand on that catch phrase, mantra or paragraph to translate that vision into something even a layperson or ordinary employee can understand.
Words like Synergy, Quality do not mean much to an average employee of the company, who is just looking to end the day on a high and go home to a nice meal and happy family. So its important that at the level of the company employee, the vision is implicit at the level of processes they are a part of (performance appraisal, 360 degree feedback, Corporate Social Responsibility, Town Halls, etc) and not some abstract statement they cannot live up to in the hustle and bustle of everyday life.