Get Your Startup Stories (yes, plural!) Straight. Here’s How.

Jul. 6, 2020
Otto Pohl

Every ambitious founding team has plans bigger than their launch product. Whether the plan is to add more products & services, vertically integrate, or expand across other industries, the initial product is typically just a beachhead.

The challenge is that the first product may not be that exciting — or at least, it pales in grandeur to the visions that drove the founders to quit their day jobs and focus on this new company full time. I’ve been part of so many conversations where one realization builds on the next and suddenly everyone around the table realizes, wait a minute, we could change the world.

The challenge is, the world is a stubborn thing to change. You have to coax it along a path that usually starts with a comparatively modest offering.

At the same time, you need to get investors excited. And great employees to jump on board.

Here’s what this means: You need to tell multiple stories, at the same time, to different audiences. You need a clear plan, and then stick to it like glue. Done right, it will guide you as your company grows. At the right time you will peel away from certain messages, like a rocket shedding booster modules.

Here are the 3 stories you need:

 

· The immediate story. It’s the product you have today. It treats your current product as though that’s all you ever set out to do. As far as readers of this story know, they’ve read to the end of the book.

· The middle story. This is what your company looks like when you achieve success in your vertical. You can start to talk about the benefits that accrue to the industry and the world.

· The moon story. This is when you are able to leverage dominance in your original vertical or product area into a platform that spreads across the industry, or even industries. This is TED-talk territory — the stuff you and your co-founders talked about that first night when you realized just how earth-shaking your idea was.

Now you need to know when and where to apply them.

What’s on the home page of your website? The immediate story. I know you want everyone to understand you’re building a world-changing company, that your TAM starts with a B, or even a T, and it feels small to position yourself solely around your launch product. Don’t worry.

Strictly eliminating the middle story and the moon story from your customer-facing communication serves two purposes: it keeps the customer focused on the product they can buy from you today, and it also focuses you and your team on the value proposition of your current product. Even if you never sold anything else, is the current product in its current form enough to be a hit? All those network benefits that will accrue to users once you’re big and huge are useless, from today’s sales perspective.

A dead giveaway that you’re overreaching is if you include the word “changing” (or it’s related, even more breathless brethren, “revolutionizing,” “disrupting,” etc) near the top of your website, as in “We’re changing the way real estate is financed.” That benefits you, not them. They want to be shown something so awesome that they want it right now, with the benefits they get today. Separating your immediate story from your other stories keeps you from breathing your own exhaust.

I’ve had people tell me they worry what it means if they keep adjusting the story as the company grows. Relax. No one is going to accuse you of inconsistency for expanding your vision later. No one accuses Amazon that they positioned themselves as a bookseller and now sell everything under the sun. And Bezos (I’m presuming here) didn’t care that the world first saw his startup as a bookseller, and that booksellers don’t get great multiples from private equity firms, or sufficiently impress people at cocktail parties etc. He knew he had bigger plans. But initially he presented his company as a great bookseller, and that’s all his customers needed or wanted from him. Then, and only if he succeeded at that, could he unfurl the next stage of his vision.

So: your immediate story goes on all customer-facing communication channels, including website, app, and social media pages.

Your staff, and potential hires, need to hear the immediate and intermediate story. Current staff need to focus on and be motivated to achieve the immediate story. That’s the focus. That’s what you talk about in the all-hands meetings. The intermediate story is the reward for success in the immediate story and that hangs like a carrot in front of everyone, along with fat in-the-money stock options. The moon story can be mentioned, but only in the right motivational moment, like when you’re convincing a great engineer to come on board.

Your investors need to hear all three stories. Depending on where you are in your growth, what business you’re in, and the investor’s investment thesis, your moon story may have outsize or even primary weight. It is the north star of your interactions with them, though everyone will also be acutely aware that you need to achieve short- and medium-term success for the moon story to mean anything. And they won’t care that your website doesn’t spell out the big vision. They’ll like having the insider knowledge of knowing how all the pieces fit into the larger puzzle.

You can also have the senior team sell the moon story in media interviews, conference presentations, and TED talks. Thought leadership is a time to look beyond the confines of your own business and talk about what motivates you and share your vision of how the world can and will be a better place.

I’ve seen a lot of startups that keep telling themselves, and anyone who will listen, about their vision to change the world. At some point, it becomes truth, for them, but sadly not for anyone else. Define your three stories and stick to your talking points for each audience. Keep your stories straight and you will keep your strategy straight. Communications is strategy.

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