Your Great Startup Needs a Great Story

Sep. 4, 2020
Otto Pohl

Founders are constantly asked to describe their company: In investor meetings, in interviews, in sales calls, and in written documents including pitch decks, email and the company website.

So how come so many entrepreneurs struggle to get the messaging right? It’s clearly not for lack of practice.

In the quest to punch above your weight — the most vital challenge of any startup — narrative is the quickest scaffold to erect, and one of the most often overlooked or undervalued.

Messaging is not a bolt-on or an afterthought. Messaging is not what you get to once you’ve done everything else and think, ok, now we need to make the website nice. Communications and strategy is a feedback loop, reflecting and informing pragmatic business thinking.

Here’s what others notice, even at a subconscious level: If you have clear, on-point communications, you probably have a clear, on-point business strategy and useful services. If you don’t, then it’s a sucker’s bet as to what’s going on under the hood.

Let’s get your messaging right.

Effort<>Progress. Message Aligns Actions. Value is created when each step you take builds on the previous. When you have a clear understanding of your benefits to each constituency you impact, it helps prioritize everything you do and say. Image from Visualize Value

Step 1: Define Your Constituencies, and the Benefits You Provide Them

The first thing I do in a consulting project is to understand the core of the company. What do you want to do, and for whom? When? How? And importantly: Why?

Asking yourself these deceptively simple questions forces you to think clearly about how exactly your company helps its key constituencies. Typical constituencies include:

· Customers

· Investors

· Employees

· Industry

· Community

List the key benefits that your company and its services offer each group. That sounds obvious — but I can’t tell you how many times I start working with entrepreneurs and ask them about the key benefits their product or service provides to customers, and there’s more uncertainty than there should be. Don’t be satisfied with generic benefits like “better” or “faster.” And don’t confuse future benefits to the company, or to the broader ecosystem, with benefits a potential customer would get today. For example, once everyone starts using your financial services platform it may well usher in an era of easy and secure cross-border transactions, but that’s not a benefit to your first customers.

Dig into the key problems a customer faces that your company solves, and how. Think through the negatives that the status quo represents and how you will resolve them. Focus on the immediate benefits but keep a list of those emerging benefits — like improving the financial services sector in the example above — as the world adjusts to the goods and services your company offers. These world-improving benefits are what will shape your thought leadership in articles and at conferences.

Step 2: Find Your Why

For each of the constituencies above, flip the script from step 1 and instead of starting with What, start with Why. Not every company needs to be mission driven in the save-the-world sense, but you do need to frame your efforts within the larger purpose of helping your constituencies achieve their dreams. It’s not what you do; it’s what you enable. Simon Sinek has an oft-watched TedX talk about positioning your company around the Why. Check it out.

The Founding Myth

The founder’s story can be the perfect way to summarize the motivation of the company. Inventing a new cancer-screening tool is clearly important, but if the founder lost a parent to cancer, the fight is personal. Streamlining a back-office business process like invoicing is wonderful, but if the founder struggled at a large company with this exact problem for years — and perhaps spoke with colleagues at other companies in a similar position and knows that there is no good solution on the market and the demand is there — suddenly everyone sits up and takes notice. Don’t be afraid to frame even mundane problems, like the struggles of those back-office-dwellers in this example, as part of a larger, heroic battle, in this case as a fight against soul-sapping repetitive, manual labor.

Not every company has a made-for-tv founding story, and that’s ok. Even in cases where founders might admit to themselves that they’re only in this business because there’s a buck to be made, there’s almost always a way to frame the company as mission-driven. (As the old tongue-in-cheek saying has it: Authenticity is everything — If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.)

Step 4: From Messaging to Marketing

Communications, PR, messaging, and even marketing are often used interchangeably. Nope. Your order of operations is as follows: First comes messaging, then communications, and finally marketing:

· Messaging is being super clear on why you exist and how you offer concrete benefits to each of the constituencies your company interacts with.

· Communications puts that language and ideas into action across company materials, in presentations, and in conversations.

· PR is a tool to spread your communications message further.

· Marketing is the process of taking those messaging talking points to generate compelling taglines, stories, and images, and then to proactively use those to find customers.

While there is overlap between communications and marketing, the key thing to remember is you shouldn’t hire a marketer to tell you what your message is. They can come up with clever ways to position or reflect your company with taglines, but you need to tell them what you stand for, not the other way around. If you have internalized your company mission and message, you will also quickly be able to judge if taglines that marketers come up with will resonate with your customers.

What Happens When Everything Changes?

Great news: the marketplace typically has a short memory for changes in company strategy.

No one holds it against Slack that it emerged from a failed game developer. No one is mad at Amazon that they grew beyond selling books (well, except perhaps the entire retail industry). Bezos had always planned to conquer retail like an internet-optimized Walmart, but the messaging reality was that one fine day a bookseller started selling hammers and diapers. Maybe that seemed a little weird for a moment, but did anyone hold a grudge?

Part of startup life is frequently changing course. A new feature creates unexpected interest; a customer uses your product in a different way than expected, or a customer type you didn’t think would be interested in your product suddenly is. You adapt. But you should have a clear messaging plan for the same reason you should prepare a financial plan. Despite the fact that the odds of your business unfolding the way you expect it to today is near nil, you need to understand your assumptions and present your vision clearly and cleanly right from the start — and simply adapt the message when things change.

Communications IS Strategy

My communication client conversations almost invariably veer into strategy. It might be that once we clearly delineate the benefits a customer needs from the product, the features on the product roadmap get re-prioritized. It might be a metaphor that emerges from the conversation that reframes the company mission. Once there is clarity of message, it’s much easier to have clarity of action.