Snow White, Airbnb, and your Startup

Trust me, they’re connected
Nov. 21, 2023
Otto Pohl

World news feels particularly depressing these days. Wars, climate, politics—where is the hope?

At times like these my work, already fulfilling, becomes a form of therapy. In contrast to feeling drained reading about encroaching climate disaster, I get invigorated speaking with entrepreneur scientists like Greeshma Gadikota, who invented technology that can pull carbon from the atmosphere at massive scale by accelerating mineralization. Our best people are on it!

Passive vs actionable: It’s not just a recipe for emotional sanity, but exactly the shift you need for sharpening your startup language.

There are estimates that bad writing costs the US economy $400b each year, causes company to forfeit money on the stock exchange, and makes them have a higher cost of capital. But for startups, the risk is even more existential: you won’t get your first customers, you won’t find as many investors, and you won’t hire the best people. Next stop: oblivion.

When Airbnb was looking to build on its early success, they literally storyboarded out the entire guest and host experience.

Co-founder Brian Chesky had read how Walt Disney planned for his company’s first full-length movie, Snow White. To make sure that the story packed consistent emotional connection and that all the artists working on the film were aligned, Disney storyboarded the whole film, a process the company had recently invented. Inspired, Chesky and Airbnb copied the process to capture how people interacted with the company’s products. Each department, including Sales, Product, and Customer Service, all weighed in with their knowledge and experience.

The process allowed everyone to combine their ideas and learnings into one place. Pivotal points emerged, like that “moment of truth” when you walk into a rental and decide whether you regret having booked the place. “The more realistic it [the storyboard] is, the more decisions you have to make,” Chesky told Fast Company about the experience.

Here’s why you should try the storyboard approach, even if it’s just scribbled post-it notes instead of hiring a storyboard artist from Disney, like Airbnb did: it forces you to think through each step, and more importantly, the Why behind each step. Invite everyone who has knowledge of the audience you’re modeling (customers, partners, investors, employees) and work through their conversion process with questions such as the following in mind:

  • How do they become aware of your company?
  • What’s their problem?
  • What’s their first question?
  • Why would they decide whether to work with your company?

Home in on the key moments. Explore motivations.

My wife loves Waze because it solves a very concrete problem for her, particularly when we lived in Los Angeles: what’s the fastest route right now to her destination? She doesn’t care about the incredible programming that goes into making it work. She doesn’t want to hear about the complexity. She has a narrow need, and since Waze fills that, she loves it.

I suspect her customer journey map looks very different from what some of the early engineers working on the underlying technology imagined.

Whether I’m trying to write a website headline or lay out a broad media strategy, the first step is always: why. Steps are facts. Motivations create stories—and bring customers.

Grab a post-it pad right now and map it out.

You’re not just bringing your company closer to success. In these dark days, you are quite literally building hope. Clarity is hope. Action is hope. Specificity is hope. Show that you understand the journey your audience is on, and you’re halfway there.

Me, I’ll be busy working with all of you founders to sharpen your stories, mainlining the antidote that keeps me from drowning in the news out there.

Otto Pohl is a communications consultant who helps startups tell their story better. He works with deep tech, health tech, and climate tech leaders looking to create profound impact with customers, partners, and investors. He has taught entrepreneurial storytelling at USC Annenberg and at accelerators across the country. Learn more at