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Three stories every startup needs to tell

One thing that separates great startup pitches from merely good ones isn’t always a better business model or a more compelling product. It’s the stories they tell.

Three stories every startup needs to tell
[Photo: Antenna/Unsplash]

Everyone needs to know how to use the power of persuasion. The ability to bring investors, customers, or new hires over to your side is vital for success. For a startup, this is even more important.

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I’ve had a lot of experience watching and judging pitch competitions. One thing I’ve seen that separates the good from the truly great isn’t always a better business model or more compelling product. It’s the stories the founders tell.

Storytelling is a powerful tool. It builds memory, empathy, and trust between the storyteller and the listener. It’s something that persuades far more effectively than any other form of communication, because we humans are storytelling creatures by nature. The biggest and most successful brands know this. Every businessperson needs this skill. But specifically for startup founders, stories can be used to convince those who can help grow and scale your venture to jump on board.

Many startups focus excessively on data, specs, and financials when presenting or pitching to investors, business partners, or prospective employees. Of course, those numbers matter, but data is not enough, and specs are not enough. You need to add some emotion, some relatability, some human dimension to that data. Stories will do that.

To get you started, here are three essential stories every startup needs to tell.

Your origin story

When we think of great ventures, we think of their origin stories, which inspire us and speak to our dreams and ambitions, and the role that their founders played in that. Think of the origin stories of Apple, Blue Bottle Coffee, or Airbnb. Your audience will want to know where your company came from to better understand the idea and the people behind it.

To tell this story properly, think about:

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  • Where does your passion come from?
  • How does your and your founding team’s background and expertise make you qualified to lead?
  • What prompted you to launch this venture, and what was its formative event?
  • What challenges have you encountered and overcome to get your startup off the ground?

Turn the answers into a story, and have the founder(s) tell this story. Personal stories are the most powerful and the most compelling. When we tell stories we’ve lived through, we show more emotion and more authenticity, and we are more persuasive. Show VCs that you can be mentored, show that you are someone who funders and talent would want to work with. Even if investors are skeptical about your product or service, they may buy into you.

The story of your customer’s problem and your solution

Your audience wants to see that you understand your customer or end user, that you’ve done your homework. Do this by telling a story about a typical case, and talk about a day in the life of your customer.

  • Describe a user’s journey, their problem, and their pain
  • Why is this a problem?
  • Why are the existing solutions insufficient?

Now you can fill in the easy part: how you can help them. Tie the story of your solution into the narrative.

  • What is your solution?
  • How does your solution address that problem?
  • How is it better than existing solutions?

It’s incredible how many pitches are unable to clearly answer that first question. The reason is usually a heavy emphasis on jargon and technical specs, which baffle the listeners. Instead of focusing heavily on data, describe how you will help the end user. Wrap your data in a story. Rather than only talking about gigabytes, bandwidth, monthly active users, or average spend, also tell a story about the emotional benefits your solution bring, how it will help people’s daily routine, and how that will make people feel.

That will move your audience more than just data (but don’t forget the data) and show investors that you know your customer.

The story of your vision of a better future

Think big, and think beyond the immediate benefits your product or service will bring. Share a story of your company’s vision of how your solution will help create a better future. A vision will persuade your audience, will inspire them and motivate them to follow you and buy in. Detail these points:

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  • What impact will it have?
  • How will you change the world?
  • What market do you want to play in?
  • What do success and failure look like?
  • Why should they care?

A fully illustrated vision shows your listeners that you are someone that they want to follow, that it’s worth their time. It shows that you think big, that you have ambition, that you think long-term and strategically. These are all necessary attributes for a business leader.

You can probably quickly think of your own examples of these three stories. However, have you ever sat down and intentionally crafted them? You need to think about how to take your existing stories and turn them into coherent and consistent narratives. Think about how you can weave stories into your pitch, or tell them on the spur of the moment in random encounters, like when you get one minute with that VC you’ve been trying to meet with for months.

Take time to sit down, think about all the stories you have, write them out, and answer all of the above questions. Then give them shape and some drama by putting them into a classic storytelling structure. Finally, practice telling them with the right mix of spontaneity and preparation.

Show that you are someone that investors can work with and who knows their market. Show talent that you’re the kind of company that they want to work for. Show your customers why your solution is the one that they should care about. By doing that—whether in a pitch competition, boardroom, on a website, or while networking—you’ll be setting yourself and your venture on the path to success.

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About the author

Darren Menabney lives in Tokyo, where he leads global employee engagement at Ricoh and teaches MBA students at GLOBIS University. Follow him on Twitter at @darmenab.

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