New startups are launching every day, making it harder than ever to stand out and get customer and investor attention. Telling a powerful startup story, however, can help your venture not only connect with the right audiences, but also make your brand more memorable, and easier to talk about.
In the interview below, Mark shares his thoughts on the right time to start telling stories, how storytelling can enhance your ability to connect with investors, and how startups can integrate an emotional element into their storytelling.
Q&A with Mark Evans, author of Storytelling for Startups
When’s the best time for startups to start telling their stories?
Storytelling should start right from day one. I think shaping your story helps guide the development of your product and vision. It also helps you get a handle on who you’re selling to, and why they would be interested in what you’re looking to do. At the same time, you need good stories to convince co-founders and employees to join you. You also need good stories to lure investors and partners into the fold. And you need good stories to get those early customers.
I’ve found that many startups come to storytelling late, and often it coincides with points of pain in the business. What they’re doing isn’t resonating with target audiences, even if they have a good product. Unless you have a narrative that sits on top of your product, it’s hard to attract the spotlight.
How can founders leverage storytelling when connecting with investors?
As much as the numbers matter and projections are interesting to VCs, they’re really buying into you, your team, and your vision. You need to give them a reason to get excited about what you’re doing and who you are. Stories that can give insight into where you came from, how you decided to tackle the problem you’re addressing, and your vision going forward are really important.
These stories make you stand out in a crowd of a lot of companies doing similar things. It’s all about differentiation, and creating something that resonates with VCs. It’s this whole idea of bringing them into the tent, especially when you’re early stage and don’t have a lot to show other than a product and customers. At that stage, maybe the story is about you and where you came from, which could be a really compelling thing to talk about.
What challenges do startups face when it comes to effective storytelling?
A lot of startups are created by product people and developers who believe product is king, and that “if we build it, they will come.” In some remarkable cases, that actually happens, but for the most part, it doesn’t.
You have to give people other reasons to be interested in what you’re doing. Some of it has to do with where you come from. Tell me where you came from, tell me why you started your business, tell me how you met your wife — answering those questions creates more of an emotional connection. It sparks things like curiosity, interest, aspirations, and dreams. Those are the things that work. It’s not the product. Product is important, but it’s how people use your product, and how they get value from your product, and how your product lets them lead their personal or professional lives in a different way that really matters.
Airbnb had a new video on the idea of belonging and discovery, and dreaming about your place in the world. It has nothing to do with finding accommodations, and has everything to do with experiences in different places. It’s hard to get that soft storytelling concept, but when you reflect on how we think, you realize that emotions are a big part of it.
Emotions are critical to memorable stories. How can startups — particularly technical ones — integrate an emotional element in their messaging?
Emotions are a very powerful sales and marketing tool. If you can tap into them, then you’ve got something really, really interesting. That’s the soft squishy part of what we do.
People love founder stories and learning how entrepreneurs started. In Storytelling for Startups, I cover the story of how Richard Branson started Virgin Airlines. The story goes that he was on his way to the Virgin Islands to meet a young lady, but his connecting flight was canceled, and he was very upset because he was excited to meet this woman. So he chartered a plane, then found a chalkboard and started walking around the airport selling tickets for $29.
That’s an awesome story of how someone started a company because it filled a need. Anybody could have done it, but it’s his story that resonated, especially the emotional side – it’s love, it’s romance, it’s exciting, it’s passion, or a willingness to take a risk.
Every entrepreneurial venture is risky, so we like stories about success. It’s hard to make the leap, and I think that’s why, as a starting point, there’s so much material for entrepreneurs to tell their own stories, because they’re the ones who’ve gone for it. From the outside looking in, the story of how they’re doing it is interesting to so many people because it’s alien to them. Most people will never become entrepreneurs, so these stories let them live vicariously. That’s the power of storytelling: being able to see yourself in that experience, and in this case, feel what it’s like to be an entrepreneur.
Once you’ve found that compelling story that resonates with your target audience, is it better to stick with it, or revisit and evolve your story as your business matures?
There’s two ways of looking at that. The founder story may continue to resonate because there’s always new people coming into the fold who may not know the founder story. That may be a really compelling narrative for them, so in some respects you need to keep telling the story.
But the story also needs to evolve and go in different directions. You need to tell it to different audiences: some stories need to be told to new customers, others to customers who’ve been with you for a little bit, then also to customers who’ve been with you for a long time. You need to keep them engaged. Then there’s stories you need to tell to potential employees and investors along the way.
It’s almost like you create your core story and then develop variations off it. When I work with startups, they often have a problem they’re trying to solve — their website isn’t working, they don’t have enough leads, the competition is getting more attention — but they want you to fix the symptom. What they really need is to address the problem: they don’t have a good story. Once you have that, it becomes easier to tell that story to different people.
Is it better to tell the founder story, or the customer story?
Early on it’s easier to tell the founder story, because they don’t have many customers, so that’s a no-brainer. But as they gain traction and get more customers, then you either start to flip the lens or broaden the lens, to take a very customer-centric approach to storytelling.
At some point in time, stories about how your customers are becoming more successful, getting value from the product, becoming more efficient, having more fun, or leading more exciting lives need to be told, because that’s how you get potential customers to cross the chasm and become new customers. It validates you because people see themselves in other people’s stories.
I look at the lowly case study as a good example of how storytelling can be done in a different way. Case studies are often boring, templated vehicles, but if it’s a story of a customer struggling or facing a hurdle, and your company was able to address the problem with a product, and the outcome was that they enjoyed success or something really good happened, and everyone was happy, then you have that story arc: problem, solution, result.
How can storytelling help with hiring?
Joining a startup is a risky proposition, even for someone who may not have a family or financial obligations. They need to be convinced that this is the right decision. A company with a good product may not be compelling enough a proposition if they have many other options, so you need to get them excited about how you started, or why you’re attracting more customers, or a story about an employee who joined and managed to take their career in an unexpected direction. That’s when people say, “I want to be part of that. That sounds like a place I want to work because they’re doing some really cool things.”
The flip-side of it is tapping your employees to become storytellers. When you think about taking a customer-centric approach to storytelling, and reflect how your customers experience your product in the real world, many of those employees are hearing those stories firsthand: “These are my successes, failures, struggles.” From a storytelling point of view, that’s so rich and you need to be able to recognize the stories that present themselves.
Why did you write Storytelling for Startups?
Storytelling has always been a part of the marketing landscape, and I think people are rediscovering its power. One of the reasons I decided to write the book is because I saw firsthand how important stories are and how they can help startups differentiate themselves, if not become successful.
People need to understand that storytelling matters. It’s so important to tell your story in different ways. It just was a natural thing for me to do because I saw the struggles first hand, and realized, “I have to do this.” Writing a book wasn’t really on the bucket list, it just kind of escaped.