Telling your story — one of the best tasks you’ll have while building your company. How hard this would be, heavily depends on skill. But knowing how important this is is totally up to you.
I previously wrote a post titled “When you have customers you don’t need a good story”. Ironically enough this was my second most read post and I’m now kind of going against it. But reality is always more complicated than you think and I learned a lot from the reactions to that post. The vast majority of startups will still need a solid, engaging, story to move forward and stories go a long way in our industry. So, until you do have enough customers to not need a story, you should definitely work on yours.
Why your story matters
The human mind is far better at processing narratives than it is processing numbers and lists. Prof. Yuval Noah Harari wrote about it, many many others as well, but my favorite researcher on this matter is the great Daniel Kahneman (specifically mentions this concept in this lecture).
In layman’s terms, people want to hear something they can relate to. It’s hard to think of a business’s potential when all you have is numbers. It’s way easier when you can picture something growing, an industry transitioning, a need rising. There are countless examples but the simplest one is just thinking of children learning. It is easy for a todler to think of the sun being tired and going to sleep in the clouds, and hard to learn that there is one sun, one moon and many stars.
Your story has to be believable, but that’s not the same as factual or even reliable. It does mean you can’t lie, and it does mean you have to anchor your story in reality. But once you’ve established your anchors, you are welcome to spread your wings. People love to dream, and they love dreamers. Not always as an employee but as a founder — sure. A good analogy would be flying a kite. It can be colorful and fly high, but it must be tied in a very solid bond to someone standing on the ground because you’d lose it otherwise. That’s your story: let it fly and don't be afraid to make it shine, but remember not to pull the string any more than it can bear.
If you are a first-time founder, your story should relate to that. You can be enthusiastic, you can learn fast and work hard, you can hire experienced people. What you can’t do is compete on professional targets with more experienced people than you. If your company must do app marketing, and you never did app marketing, you can’t base your story on “I will do app marketing”. You can hire app marketers, or you can build a community in other ways.
Now, how do you compile a very good story?
That’s hard. Setting aside all talent-related advantages, one still needs to get its story straight. I think this is a good baseline because a story needs to be straight. The line shouldn’t loop, shouldn’t break. Twists and turns are great, but the listener basically wants to get from here to there and the road shouldn’t be too hard.
I strongly advise watching this short Youtube clip. This is not some bullshit artist or a “storytelling mentor”. This is a guy who built a $4B business (Patreon) who tells his story. In this case, the story is his version of the future — why phenomena X is getting stronger and how this will cause more Y, and therefore good for his business. Being a forecast or a version of the future, it is by definition neither true nor false, but it is anchored in reality and it takes you through a very clear path which just makes sense. The anchor is old news about changes that already happened (internet driving creativity, startup infrastructure becoming a commodity) and the rest is flare and glare. Notice that at no point in the story you get the urge to argue or object. The story doesn’t criticize you, it doesn’t have huge logical hopes, it doesn't make arguable claims about the past. Aside from amazing production, what makes this story good is its very clear and simple logic. It takes a major shift we all agree on, adds a few current moves that are easily verifiable, and makes a claim on how this manifests in a specific industry.
I hear 5 to 10 startup stories each week. Some are good, some are bad. Many common mistakes keep coming back. The most common one is founders who do not understand their own storyline.
A young founder with great technical skills, not excelling at talking or presenting, building a story on him selling to huge global banks. This is a hole in the ground that makes your listeners drop. You can build a good product, get great developers, you can design your system, be fast and agile. But you can’t sell to huge global banking organizations and you shouldn't try it on your own and at the beginning.
An experienced founder raised a lot of money and built a great company that landed on its face due to circumstances that fall into the category of “price of doing business”. That happens and that guy can build a great company for sure. Can easily raise money. But, that same guy partnered with co-founders who are significantly less experienced than he is, arguably less talented, and he is not raising from anyone who invested in his previous company. That is, once again, a glitch in his matrix. It’s a hole in the ground. If the only reason the previous company died is not you, why are those investors not in line to back you up again? If you chose to partner with younger founders, why not present it as is? Why make it look like an equal partnership and have everyone in all meetings?
A founder presents 8 running pilots, great customer feedback. All that but no revenues. Why would you put such a burden on your team before you’ve made sure you can convert some of these pilots? If the feedback is so great, and you are struggling to convert, maybe you need a sales executive? That is a 100% legitimate need but you need to face it and address it. Otherwise, your story has a hole in it.
Writing this post, I was telling to myself “just don’t make it a ‘how to’ post, just don’t make it a ‘how to’ post. Guides written on how to tell a good story can fill your 1TB hard drive. Easy. People made fortunes teaching this. I’m not going to even try.”
But I couldn’t resist. So do not continue reading! And if you do, please please add your own tips in the comments ;-).
- Play to your strengths. Figure out what you have that others don’t (pro tip, it’s not the idea), and build the story around it. Do you have employment experience relevant to your field? Do you have a unique life story? Do you have proprietary information?
- Identify your soft spots and confront them. What others have that you don’t? What do you have that can slow you down? Don’t run away. Think about ways to mitigate these disadvantages and mix them into the story. If people meet your soft spot when it’s coupled with your idea for mitigation they feel less concerned about it.
- Find your strong suit and wear it at all times. Do you write well? Do you speak nicely? Are you better at one-on-ones or at public speaking? Try to accomplish as much of your communications in the medium that fits you best. I had a colleague that would call people up without warning. It would drive me crazy because I hate people calling unannounced. But, this colleague is great at phone calls and poor at emails and texts, and this questionable method got him very far in life.
- The grandma test. The mom test became famous recently, and I would like to suggest another test, the grandma test. Can someone that is a complete stranger to your cultural and professional space understand and relate to your story? Can they listen through the end? Can they get excited? Tell your story to your grandma and see how stupid jargon phrases, and clichés and logical gaps float to the surface.
- Seperate assumptions from opinions and those two from facts. Facts are what you can support with data. It’s a very narrow category and most of what you have in your head right now is not in it. Assumptions are things that you conclude are likely to happen, and they cannot be supported nor disproved. Opinions are comentry on the past, present or future. All three are nice to have, but a good narrative demands you separate them from one another and position them appropriately in your story.