Spinning a Yarn: 5 Ways to Weave a Story Around Your Startup
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So you are launching a new enterprise communication tool (Slack) carshare platform (Uber) or location based dating app (Tinder). Great.
With roughly 100 million businesses launched annually, unless you truly venture into Harry Potter levels of weird and wonderful, the chances are that there someone else has already created a product or service similar to yours. Consequently consumers and journalists alike are becoming de-sensitized and are increasingly more interested in the back-story and narrative to an announcement, than the product or company itself.
For this reason, when pitching to journalists you should keep the explanation of what your product or service is to a clear and concise few sentences in a pitch, then move onto the real meat of your story, the who and the why.
We spoke to Jonathan Greechan, co-founder of Silicon Valley incubator "The Founder Institute" about how up and coming companies can weave a story around their company which will really engage the media and consumers.
Telling the right story.
When reaching out to journalists or publicizing your product or service, it is important to stick to the facts. Journalists are renowned for their sensitive buncombe sensors and fact checking is an integral part of their job. So don’t try to slip one past them, or you could end up with a red face.
Remember that your end goal is for people to actually buy or use your product, app or service so if you tell tall tales about its capabilities, you will get called out. A few negative comments could soon spiral into your dirty washing being aired in front of hundreds of thousands of industry savvy readers on social media and platforms like Reddit, ProductHunt and Growth Hacker.
However, while the information you offer about what your product or company does should always be straightforward and factual, you have a lot more artistic freedom when describing the who and the why.
“Most entrepreneurs screw up when reaching out to journalists, because they focus on the features of their product,” Said Jonathan Greechan. “When you pitch the features of your product to a journalist, you aren’t pitching a story - you’re pitching an advertisement. Similar to the phrase “feature not a company” (FNAC), I like to call this “advertisement not a story” (ANAS).”
According to Jonathan Greechan, the common startup stories you’ll find in the press really boil down into just five major themes:
Whether you are pitching to TechCrunch or a tabloid newspaper, all media outlets love stories which are brimming with drama.
We are living in the age of disruption, when previously unknown tech startups are demoting global giants like Kodak and Blockbuster to the history books. However, on the flipside tech superpowers like Amazon and Facebook are monopolizing industries by acquiring tech and small companies to snuff out any startup competition. David vs. Goliath stories, such as Facebook launching it’s Poke App back in 2012 in a failed attempt to destroy new kid in town Snapchat -- which has since grown to become its biggest rival -- are music to journalist’s ears.
If you can tie your company to a Good vs. Evil theme where a previously unheard of company stands up to an established tech superpower, then do so. Likewise if your startup is solving a problem in which local authorities are failing, then this could be a great story too.
No one is safe in the modern world of business, and even the biggest companies are left with two options: change or die. Evolution is an attractive theme for journalists too, so if your company’s big mission is to change the way people do things for the better, or totally disrupt an established industry with new tech, then base your story around this theme.
Controversy sells. End of story. If your team is comprised of ex-Apple developers who are creating a product to rival the iPhone, then roll with it. If you are developing an app which could let you know which ones of your social media contacts are Trump supporters based on their likes on Facebook , then that has a good chance of getting picked up too.
The media are always on the lookout for announcements related to ‘trending topics.’ A publication’s end goal is to get as many hits and shares as possible for their article, and this tends to happen when it’s tied into a larger discussion.
Most of the world’s biggest business and tech publications, and consultancy firms like Deloitte and Mckinsey release “Tech trends for 2016” style reports. This year anything to do with V.R, A.R, cross-platform integration, or bitcoin style security tech is popular. If you can attach yourself to a “cresting wave” opportunity, you can immediately make yourself relevant.
That said, be aware that many trends -- especially in the world of tech -- come and go very quickly, so timing is key. For example, when Pokemon Go smashed app store records, anything linked to AR tech or the Pokemon brand was relevant for a month or so. Even the most high-brow leading publications’ front pages were littered with "Gotta catch ‘em all’" and "Pokeball" gags. However, editors and readers alike grow tired of these trends quickly and one month later, pitching anything linked to Pokemon warranted nothing but a snarky response from publication gatekeepers.
People are more interesting than companies or products, so try to include experiences of your founder or team backstory or your customer’s story.
Silicon Valley is brimming with eccentric, big characters, but many of them come from the same background. White, middle class, strong college education. If you as a founder do not fit into this stereotype, then this is something which you could make a story out of. Obviously this works better in the extremes. Stating you are 13 or 80, an ex-con or former politician or sport star, all add interesting differentiations to your narrative than your competitors.
Nick Morgan, author of "How to Tell Great Business Stories" states: “In a world where people have a lot of choices, the story may be the deciding factor."
Even if your backstory is distinctly average, maybe your struggle to the top was notable, like the female founder who wore the same pair of white trousers for three years to sell her product, the Swedish developer who went homeless and created a home office in a tent in the forest to cut costs, or the fact that the Airbnb founders raised $30,000 selling politics themed cereals when they were struggling to raise Angel funding.
These types of story paint a human picture of your company, and the hard work you have put in to get to where you are today, a far shot from the cold faceless corporate image of many leading enterprises.
Unlike in the fast pace world of tech, there are some global trends which no one is going to stop caring about any time soon. If you want to create a story which millions of people can relate to, have a big mission which can help millions of people. Force yourself to begin your pitch with phrases like “There are..”, “Today..”, “Since 2010” and you will effectively link yourself to a larger cause that makes your company relevant. Elon Musk is the master of this. His big mission for Space X isn’t just to launch commercial space travel, it is to colonize Mars and save the human race from extinction.
Take beehive manufacturer Flow Hive, which raised more than $13 million with its Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. Rather than just playing on how neat it is to be able to conveniently farm honey in your backyard, the company focused on making the process "easier for bees." By linking to major environmental trends of bee colonies disappearing around the world due to climate change, which scientists argue “poses an enormously grave threat to human survival,” the company created the story of why their product was important.
5. Unique insight.
Unique insights for startups usually boil down to data. Journalists like to work with hard facts, and if you can provide them with interesting data that either supports or contradicts widely preconceived notions, it is likely to be a great press opportunity. Use this data to form a problem for many people for which you have the solution, and voila you have the makings of a story.
Journalists want to pick up stories which are engaging, trending and most importantly interesting. If you are an SAAS provider or are launching a new app -- unless it allows you to move back in time, or change sex at the click of a button -- then the chances are that your product itself is not any of these things to anyone apart from you and your development team.
To improve your chances of standing out from the crowd, you need to match a great product with an eye-grabbing narrative. It is up to the powers that be in your startup to weave a story which really grabs people’s attention and inspires them to invest time, energy and money in your dream.