The Key to Storytelling ...


In the world of startups, there’s truth to the cliché, “Ignorance is bliss.”

If the founders truly understood what was ahead of them — the agony of pushing the boulder up the hill only to have it backslide over one’s toes — many wouldn’t choose such a path. The founders’ combination of smarts, energy, optimism and chutzpah allows startups to jump over obstacles that logic says shouldn’t be possible.

Here’s another way of looking at it. If a job offer came with the caveat that there was a 90+ percent probability of failure. how many people would take that job?


Yet, these same “endearing” traits can also blind startups to business fundamentals. In the excitement to evangelize the story, they don’t see delivery on the brand promise to the finish line. In these instances, startups can end up communicating stories that are more aspiration than reality.

Which brings us to the “h” word — hype.

As you can see in the graphic below, it’s OK to push a tick or so beyond the bounds of reality.  But when the storytelling goes far beyond reality, the startup ends up in the hype zone.

Hype Chart- storytelling for startups

A couple of years ago we engaged with an overseas startup that assumed using the same functionality that was successful on its home turf would resonate with U.S. consumers. Ultimately, we returned a check for $4,865 to the startup and stopped work because we knew the company would fail. The best PR in the universe can’t spackle over a bad product.

When a startup does get the product right, it should embrace storytelling in its communications with the fervor of a gospel choir. By opening up and sharing more than just product information, the company helps the world get to know it better.

I also want to touch on a startup’s visual storytelling. In short, looks count. Prospective customers will make a judgment on the startup in a few seconds based on branding moments such as how the home page looks.

For example, some years ago we launched a startup called Zediva that specialized in streaming movies. This is what the company’s home page looked like when we engaged with Zediva:

Zediva Old Home Page - visual storytelling

We explained to Zediva that this design did not meet the benchmark, leading to a new design for the website with the following home page:

Zediva New Home Page - visual storytelling

Building a brand is never solely an intellectual exercise. Even for a B2B startup, there should be an emotional dimension to its communications.

Startups should use academic-like precision in evaluating their products/services in the context of two questions: What differentiates our product from competitors? What is the evidence that the target audience will care about this differentiation?

Here’s an obstacle that every startup faces —

Journalists who talk to the startup will be thinking, “Does this company have a chance to make it?” They won’t say this to the startup’s face, but they will be thinking it.

Perceived credibility plays a huge role in the success or failure of a startup. With this in mind, startups should capture and build out what we call “credibility assets.” All of these credibility assets in aggregate should then make an irrefutable case that yes, this startup has a real chance to make it.

Which avoids relying on that unsustainable quality called hype.


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