When it all comes down to it, what is a business? You are an organization that has identified a pain point that people are experiencing. In order to remove that pain point, you are offering a product in exchange for money. It sounds so simple. In the startup world, we often talk about painkillers versus vitamins. You wouldn’t pause your favorite TV show, get in your car and drive to the pharmacy to buy vitamins. You’ll make do without for a couple of days. If you have a headache, you’ll go out of your way to pick up some headache tablets, however. The difference is the sense of urgency and need. That is where storytelling comes in.
When you think about it, every aspect of your company is about storytelling. Hiring your first employees into a startup is storytelling: You are spinning a story that contrasts their steady, reliable job at an established company, pitching it against taking a chance on your startup. Acquiring early customers fall in the same category: Why should they trust you over a larger, more established competitor? Marketing? Same. Advertising? Same. Raising investment? Oh boy — definitely an exercise in storytelling.
Telling the origin story of your company is part of the culture that underpins everything. It drives who your customers are. It influences who considers taking a job at your company. It informs how your employees think about problems and the types of solutions they offer.
Storytelling is the linchpin of everything you do. It’s the logo your company uses, it’s the design language you use, it’s the words you use to make the points you make.
Some CEOs are natural storytellers — and that’s a crucial function of their job in those companies. In fact, I would argue that in slightly maturing companies, it’s a fourth of the role of the CEO:
- You hire the right people.
- You create the right culture.
- You make sure the company doesn’t run out of money.
- You tell the story.
But what about companies that don’t resolve pain points?
“But Haje,” you shout at your screen, “some companies don’t fix pain points — they just cause pleasure. What about Pixar, for example?”
Excellent point. Many companies don’t reduce pain, but instead cause pleasure. These companies are plentiful and extremely varied. Coca-Cola, for example, isn’t primarily a thirst quencher (water does a much better job at a far lower cost). Pixar’s films don’t resolve pain directly, but they do reduce boredom and cause excitement and entertainment. (Pixar also has a pain reduction element: For many parents, putting on “Cars” buys a 90-minute break they can use to get some chores done or make dinner.)
The head banner for the Coca-Cola website tells the story — this isn’t about a tasty drink, this is about happy people enjoying life. That’s a conscious story-telling device. And, if their $41 billion annual sales is anything to go by, it’s working pretty well.
These companies are, often, the ultimate examples of storytelling. What is Coca-Cola’s product really? It’s a lifestyle brand. Look at the adverts and the way Coca-Cola markets itself. It’s extremely rarely about how tasty the products are, but instead about how much fun the people in the adverts are having. They’re adventurous, young, full of life and enjoyment. That is what Coca-Cola is selling. Sure, the company has a huge, global operations and supply chain organization, but the reason that Coca-Cola is so valuable is almost exclusively its storytelling.
Isn’t this just marketing?
A lot of companies decide to leave their entire storytelling efforts with the marketing team. I think that’s a terrible shame, because most marketing teams focus exclusively on how you can reach potential consumers. The storytelling element runs much deeper — and it’s about learnings that go far beyond just getting products into the hands of consumers.
At all of my companies, I’ve run behind-the-scenes blogs, and it’s a practice that has led to unpredictable results. For example, we discovered that our “unlimited holiday” policy backfired — it had the opposite result of what we intended. We wrote about it, and became the center of a media storm. Then we wrote about how that happened. Similarly, also at Triggertrap, we really struggled to deliver a hardware product. First, we wrote about the challenges we faced as delays piled on top of delays. When the project eventually failed, we bared all and explored what exactly went wrong. At Konf we created the “Konf Academy,” helping speakers, attendees and organizers make better events. And at LifeFolder, I picked a fight with the American Bar Association over their ludicrous, impenetrable use of language.
At all of my previous companies, I’ve been the de facto storyteller, and often we ended up writing about things that have little to do with the core business.
Want more examples of folks who do it well? Buffer runs a fantastic blog, embracing radical transparency in an effort to tell the story of what happens behind closed doors. The BBC’s technical team runs a fantastic blog that helps educate more about what happens under the hood at the world’s biggest broadcaster.
Despite its dumb policies, the company behind Basecamp and Hey (the email client) Basecamp had a similarly magnificent publication, Signal v Noise, which digs into what happens under the veil. The company also doubled down and published a number of books, and “it doesn’t have to be crazy at work” is a bit of a masterpiece that no doubt helped a lot of people who wouldn’t have learned about Basecamp otherwise find out about the company.
Some people call it marketing, but I believe it is something far deeper than that.
By telling the story — successes and failures alike — companies are able to open up a more genuine conversation with their customers. It’s part marketing, part branding, part doing the right thing. The business logic is simple: If your customers are able to follow along on your journey, they’ll trust you more. They’ll feel your pain. They’ll cheer you on. It makes you human, and I’d hazard a bet that when the time comes to hire, it helps you attract better, more engaged staff.
You don’t have to go all-in on radical transparency, of course. That isn’t for everyone — and it’s not the right approach for all companies either. But try and lift the veil every now and again — it’s incredible what opportunities arise as a result.
Be curious. Be open.
The fact is, at any company, you invent new things, you run into new problems and you come up with new solutions. Every single day. (If you aren’t, perhaps close up shop and go do something else.) All you need to do is keep half an ear out. Who is doing something awesome? What led them to those conclusions?
The story of your startup is far more than the sum of your successes or the graphs in your KPI dashboard. Dissect the challenges. Celebrate the solutions. Tell the stories.