Stop Wasting Away in Startupville
I mourn Jimmy Buffett. His songs encapsulated carefree beach life. Even when I wasn’t on a boat, or a beach, playing his music made it seem like I was.
Buffett also leaves behind some profound lessons for entrepreneurs. Off the back of songs capturing the laidback shortcomings of a dissolute life he built a fortune worth upwards of a billion dollars. His songs resonated so deeply with the target audience that he was able to build an empire that spanned restaurants, hotels, and cruises. Great storytelling literally built his business.
Buffett didn’t start his music career with some grand scheme. He wasn’t cold and calculating. His authenticity was electric. He was just smart enough to realize the value of what he had created, and I want you to do the same.
Maybe your Margaritaville is the research you invented in the lab. Maybe it’s a great backstory. Maybe it’s the patents you’ve received, head start you have in the market, or deal you are closing.
I’ve been on both sides of the investor game—making startups look good and helping VCs find their investments. Here are the key siren songs that I’ve seen VCs groove to time and time again.
There’s an electricity that a founder exudes when they’re building a solution that the market really wants. There doesn’t have to be much—or any—booked revenue, but there’s a real difference about speaking vaguely about market demand and being specific. It proves that you not only have something hot, but that you have the wherewithal to find the right person and start making a deal.
Your startup might be the greatest idea ever, but will you be able to capture the value you create? Patents, unique talent on the founding team, connections, branding, first-mover advantage—anything that stops a competitor from recreating your solution. In many industries, a compelling founder story can be remarkable in establishing a brand and a gravitational pull which will make your company win even when others could (or do) offer something similar.
Research Then, All Business Now.
This is for founders coming from universities, but applies more broadly. Your research (or whatever expertise you had in your previous life; it certainly applies to Buffett and his music) sets you apart. Your business acumen makes you investable. You need to be able to tell both sides of that story.
Saying, Doing, Keeping in Touch.
Considering how easy this one is, it’s shocking to me how few do it. Say you’re going to do something, go and do it, and then make sure everyone knows about it. I’ve got one startup—one!—that put me on their newsletter distribution list and every month I get an update about something great they’re up to: new client, new learning, new accelerator, whatever. It keeps them top of mind, and that’s a key reason I’ve mentioned them several times to connections of mine. Investor relationships are long-term endeavors. Build those bridges and then keep in touch.
I make my living helping startups tell their story better, and firmly believe it is the single biggest bang-for-buck investment a startup can make. But the fact is that there is a limit to how much great storytelling can manufacture success. I once started a discount-tour-ticket business, and maybe it was a great idea, but it was a terrible idea for me. I wasn’t in it for the right reasons—I came across what I thought would be a good way to make a pile of money, and talked myself into throwing 18 months of my life into it. In retrospect it’s clear that I was out of my depth in the industry, had no relevant backstory, and was missing the right connections. Shutting it down and admitting defeat was painful. Nothing against those “Learning” experiences, but the key is to ultimately find a path where you can drop that costly “L.” When you have that, and then tell the story well: electric.
To force business school parlance onto Jimmy Buffett, he had extraordinary founder-market fit. He lived the changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes. That authenticity, authentically told—that’s what I want for you.
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 www.corecommunicationsconsulting.com