Last month I was fortunate to catch a talk by Andy Raskin. Andy is a CSO, a Chief Storytelling Officer. His clients include startups backed by Andreessen Horowitz and First Round, and he has also led strategic narrative training at Salesforce, Uber, Yelp, VMware and General Assembly.
He was giving a talk on how to tell better stories and expanding on some tips from this original piece he wrote on the topic for Medium that garnered a lot of industry buzz.
His talk got me thinking about building better startup narratives. We all know the tech press forces narratives on startups based on their lifecycle and momentum (perceived or actual), but is it possible to define your own startup narrative? I believe it is.
More than just a mission statement, strategic startup narratives should embody the company’s culture and values while also expressing a vision. Harvard Business Review describes a successful narrative as one that states four things: who you are, where you’ve been, where you are now, and where you’re going.
While “where you’re going” is arguably the most critical of these four in order to illustrate a vision that others can get behind, a startup narrative will not be successful without first defining the problem (potentially an enemy) that you’re looking to solve.
A Problem or Enemy
The answer to “the why” behind your startup should almost always be a problem. Brownie points can also be awarded if you can make that problem sound like a true enemy. Raskin’s original piece on better pitching spotlights how Elon Musk’s problem and the enemy are fossil fuels.
If you can define the problem you’re solving as an enemy to the ‘greater good’, than your startup narrative can take on a life of its own. You’re no longer addressing a market opportunity, you are on a mission to solve a problem for the world.
Raskin is also a big believer in defining the “why now”. Looking at the HBR view of narratives — this is where you convince your prospective audience that they need to hop on the bus now for the change that will get you “where you are going.”
All good stories need a beginning, middle, and an end – but they also need a climax, where the turning point occurs. Once you’ve clearly illustrated the problem you are solving, you need to show why all the moving pieces are coming together NOW for the change.
Luckily, consumers always seem to have one eye on change. Why is it that so many Apple customers are fangirling over the X only a year after the last iPhone debut? Because we’re all suckers for change. If you can dangle the carrot of change in front of the right audience, you should be able to get folks to hop on the change bandwagon.
In the early days at a startup, the workplace culture often takes on the characteristics of its founder. Therefore, when thinking about what type of a culture you want to take root, think about where you’ve come from.
Where has this entrepreneurial pursuit originated from?
How was the culture inside your last employer?
What are your core values?
Core values serve as tools to both 1. Introduce yourself and to 2. humanize your business. With a set of 3-5 distinct values, you may find that this framework creates a culture that customers find akin to their own.
Just as a solid culture can gain customers’ interest, it’s also important for recruiting employees. Those entering the workforce today seek strong workplace cultures. Developing your business narrative with a focus on your core values could result in a much wider talent pool to choose from long-term.
As a founder, you not only set the tone for culture, but you also set the tone for credibility.
Once you’ve introduced yourself, honesty about where you’ve been is a solid basis for the second level of your story. Plus, honesty = major credibility.
This section of your narrative humanizes you like culture does, but it goes further via your skillset into credibility. Every business started from somewhere. Elaborating on how far you’ve come, or on your dedication to getting here (wherever “here” may be), leads target customers to trust your mission.
For startups, racking up long-term clients may feel like a distant dream. However, trust is at the heart of lasting relationships. By positioning yourself as a company with credibility in your narrative, trust will be ingrained in your business model.
Ben Horowitz, a founder of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, has stated in the past that story and strategy shouldn’t be 2 separate conversations – your story is your strategy.
That’s something you need to adopt at the point you’re currently at with your business and in perpetuity as you continue to scale your organization. As Raskin notes, all companies have various obstacles in their way and your strategy for getting around those obstacles can become your story.
As a startup leader, your number one job is securing followers — whether they are employees, customers or investors. To get those followers you must articulate a clear and compelling story that lays out how you will make it to the promise land.
If you do so, you’ll have a better strategy in place, and like Andy, you’ll be free to use the Chief Storyteller title alongside your title of founder.