Startups: Less Tech, More Dragon Slaying Please

May 31, 2017

 

(Image from Skyrim; Property of Bethesda Studios.  All rights reserved)

 

I’m always amazed by how some stories get traction on Facebook or YouTube.  The other day I was browsing through my newsfeed on Facebook and came across a video about a Seagull which had gotten its beak entangled by fishing wire.  Two men approached the seagull, grabbed it and carefully cut through the fishing wire saving the Seagull from certain death.  This simple, yet moving video generated over 1.5m views on YouTube and millions more on Facebook as well as hundreds of comments from viewers.  

 

As human beings we’re fascinated by stories.  Stories matter.  They form the basis of what is discussed in our social circles.  From pre-historic cave drawings to religious symbols and epics to the TV shows and digital media we watch today, they help us communicate our values, heritage and traditions. They bring us together and give us purpose.  They can make us seem smart, in the know, funny or boring depending on what we tell and how we tell it.   

 

If you’re skeptical, think of the last time you were with a group of people and what you talked about.  Maybe it was the latest season of House of Cards, or an argument you had with your girlfriend or a co-worker you were having issues with.  These are all stories.  Every social gathering we have whether at work, at home or at a bar is an opportunity to share stories.  The best stories make us feel strong emotions:  joy, laughter, shock, fear, sadness or surprise.  Next time you’re with a group of people observe how much of your interaction with others is based off stories. You’ll be amazed.  

 

Why Entrepreneurs and Tech CEO’s need stories

 

Growth.  We all obsess over it.  Every meeting talks about growth.  Think about the last meeting you were in. How many times was the word “growth” mentioned?  Whether you’re working in  mobile gaming, ed:tech, drones, cloud computing or VR, growth is always a key driver of the business.  

 

Stories are essential drivers of growth and here’s why: great stories get shared and the more your story is shared the more people will start to have some basic level of awareness of who you are, what you do and why it matters.  In one of my previous posts I shared a story that went viral at a previous company and the impact that had for our business. Stories are great way to build awareness with customers and are one of the key STEPPS as described by Wharton Marketing Professor Jonah Berger in his book about why things go viral: Contagious.  

 

Brand.  In my post entitled Tech Companies Need a Little More Viking in them I talked about why brand matters and the advantages a strong brand can have for your company.  Stories are a highly effective way to help build your brand.  They set you apart by appealing to people’s emotions and help differentiate you from competition.  Good stories help explain the fundamental “why” question.  “Why”, as a customer already bombarded by marketing, should I even consider your company?  Or “why as a superstar engineer, should I consider your company instead of Facebook, Google of the next Accel Partners backed hot company?”  Great stories help explain the vision of why your company does what it does and why that matters.  As Simon Sinek says, “people don’t want to know just what you do, they want to know why you do it.”  

 

Cost:  This one should be intuitive but companies with powerful stories reach consumers much more effectively.  Powerful stories generate strong reactions in people.  These emotions, particularly in the age of social media, are much more likely to make consumers share the story with friends.  The more people share your story, the more free advertising you get and the lower your customer acquisition cost.  However, the reverse is also true.  Companies that have highly negative stories come out about them (think Uber, United Airlines or VW) can actually see customer acquisition costs increase or even lose customers altogether.  

 

What we do vs. Why We Do it

 

Part of the reason I started Mad Mork Stories was that often when I asked a startup founder or CEO what their company did and why either I would get a different answer two minutes later from someone else or I would get an answer about why the technology was so cool.  Rarely though, would they tell me “why” they are doing what they’re doing or why customers should really care.  

 

For example, take an educational technology company I worked with recently.  Course Hero provides a service that enables students to crowdsource and share study materials.  

 

When I first started working with them their story was really around helping students ask and answer any question in any class.  Essentially, to use the service to help answer questions they were struggling with academically.

 

Although this is certainly what the service does, the way it was being told missed the wider question of what’s happening in education and what’s happening more broadly in America.  

 

The wider point was that students in college today are dropping out in record numbers, have more student debt than ever and have multiple competing obligations which make the use of their time absolutely essential to succeed.  In the end, the revised story was more centered around helping students study more deeply and efficiently so that they could not only master their classes but master life.  The functionality is the same in both stories but the second story  is far more aspirational, powerful and relevant.  Here’s the product video we developed to help drive the message home.  

(Course Hero - all rights reserved)

 

The important thing to keep in mind when storytelling is that every story has a beginning, middle and an end.  The beginning should always present what I like to call a Dragon.  The Dragon is the pain point or villain which is keeping our Hero user from achieving their goals.  The middle showcases the product or solution and how it might help the Hero “slay” the dragon.  The end shows the positive end state that results from our Hero having slain his / her dragon.  This end state is the aspirational part of where we would like the user to be after using our product / service and how we would like them to feel.  

 

Consider the following launch video my team and I produced back in 2012 when we introduced Google play (the successor to Android Market).

 

(Google Play is a trademark of Google Inc. - all rights reserved)

 

We were trying to tell a story about how complicated it was for users to get digital content on Android devices.  Prior to Google play Android users went to Android Market for apps / games, Pandora, Spotify or Soundcloud for music, Amazon for books and Netflix, Hulu or ½ dozen other alternatives for movies / TV shows.  We we’re trying to unify everything in one place and make it universally accessible on Android and the Web.  The Dragon was the difficulty of getting the content you wanted quickly and easily on your phone and the “slaying of it” was using Google play to find things effortlessly in a single place independently of where you were or what device you were on.    

 

There’s often a tendency in technology to “build it and they will come.”  People build great technology and then scour the market to find a way to monetize it.  Sometimes this approach works.  Sometimes it fails horribly (Google Glassholes anyone?).  On average for every 10 companies that try 9 fail.  Failure is an endemic part of startup culture but there are ways to mitigate it.  By spending more time understanding users, identifying their Dragons and building solutions to slay those dragons we will not only dramatically increase the hit rate of the next generation of technology companies but will also solve some of societies most pressing problems. We also might even create a few more compelling stories to pass onto our grandkids.  

 

So as you think about how to grow your company always think about your story and why your customers should care.

 

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Mad Mork

Chief Storyteller


 

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