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Storytelling Your Way To Startup Success

“Today, if you want to succeed as an entrepreneur, you also have to be a good storyteller.”
-Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group

Marketing has Changed:

The fact is pretty websites don’t sell things. Words sell things. Nobody will listen if your message isn’t clear — it doesn’t matter how much you paid for your marketing materials. Visionaries, game changers and challengers striving to design tomorrow’s enterprises must simply explain what their company does. Is your message simple, relevant and repeatable?

I recently gave a talk to a full-house at Factory Berlin, a business club fostering innovation in the heart of the city known as Silicon Allee, where I shared some essential brand storytelling tips for startup founders, scale-up leaders and investors. Since there are common challenges that startups and scale-ups face, here’s a brief recap so you too can benefit from what was shared.

Table of Contents:
Act One:
* Introduction to business storytelling. 
Act Two
* Storytelling is a superb tool for startup founders.
* Typical storytelling framework — ready for implementation.
* Action! Storytelling at your favorite startups — winning with words.
Act Three:
* Step-by-step how storytelling helps smash funding goals.

Introduction to Business Storytelling:

Marketing can be confusing and wasteful. The problem usually isn’t a company’s product, service or idea but the way we talk about it.

Think about this: how many times have you collaborated with a design agency to create a website or brochure and asked if your graphic artist has experience copywriting? Can they also clarify your message so customers will listen?

Storytelling works because the human brain is drawn towards clarity and not confusion. Story is a sense-making device. It’s also a powerful tool for organizing information. It’s the ultimate competitive advantage because storytelling helps customers understand the benefits of using your products, ideas or services.

Storytelling also isn’t new! Nike had a Chief Storyteller in the 1990s!! Big companies like Microsoft and IBM also employ Chief Storytellers.

Storytelling is a Superb Tool for Startup Founders:

Startup founders have a million jobs to do but fundamentally, telling the story of their idea or project is the most important. Founders need to engage with many audiences; potential co-founders or employees, customers and partners, investors, advisers and collaborators.

Replex.io’s Co-Founder captivating the crowd at GTEC’s Demo Day in Berlin.

Storytelling is a critical part of building a brand. Founders often try hard by focusing heavily on small details when they explain features or technologies. This information can be valid, however, it isn’t easy or engaging to follow.

Without a clear sense of purpose, pitches can quickly become boring, uninspiring and easy to forget. If founders can deliver a clear brand narrative, it has the power to increase the value of a business’s product or service.

Founders looking to launch or scale should implement a strategic storytelling practice throughout their business. Here are three reasons why:

  1. The backbone of a strong marketing strategy is always a clearly communicated story.
  2. Heartfelt storytelling is both human and profitable.
  3. Stories emotionally connect people and create brand loyalty.

Typical Storytelling Framework:

People often don’t buy the best products, they buy the best products they understand. Without a story foundation, it is hard to clarify your message. Storytellers for centuries have known how to keep an audience’s attention — you can too.

Most stories happen in three acts: a beginning, a middle and an end. Characters are introduced and the scene is set in the beginning — sometimes referred to as Act One. Think of it as ‘the status quo’. A typical story starts with the hero wanting something and the question becomes: will the hero get what they want? This is similar to your customer with a problem they need solved!

Next in the middle, or during Act Two, the main character faces a conflict that must be overcome. This is where the main character’s world is turned upside down and they must overcome a series of obstacles to achieve their goal. Replace ‘character’ with ‘my customer’. It’s important to define something here that your customer wants or needs, because as soon as we define this, we place an age old story question in their minds: Can this brand really help me get what I want?

In the end or Act Three, the story resolves. In a traditional story the hero conquers the villain and makes the world a better place. In your story this translates to your customer conquering their ‘problem’ and their life is made better because of your product, service or idea!

Questions good storytelling answers include:

1. What does the hero want?

2. Who or what is opposing the hero getting what s/he wants?

3. What will the hero’s life look like if s/he does (or doesn’t) get what s/he wants?

Fun Fact: Hollywood movies usually answer these three questions within the first 15–20 minutes of any blockbuster film!

Action: Storytelling at your Favorite Startups:

First on Soundcloud:

Berlin based SoundCloud is a platform that allows musicians to upload tracks for fans to stream. Here’s the problem: music fans around the globe know the backstory for superstars like Adele, Jay-Z and Enrique Iglesias but the backstories of lesser-known, hardworking artists are not always publicized.

With their ‘First on Soundcloud’ campaign, the company aims to change this by putting an emphasis on sharing up-and-coming artists’ stories. It profiles how creators grew-up and what inspired them to make music, and of course reveals how the SoundCloud platform has served as a launchpad for their careers.

Through storytelling, the ‘First on Soundcloud’ campaign reveals the human side of today’s creators and aims to encourage people to take notice of them and of course, the SoundCloud site as a whole.

Taylor Bennett was the first featured artist in this series. His video tells the story of Taylor’s dedication to his art and belief of how music can change things.

Alien Abroad:

Babbel invented the market for app-based language learning and is now the world’s top grossing language learning application. Its founders’ were inspired to launch after traveling to Spain and wishing they could have better conversations with locals. Today the Berlin based startup aims to help everyone spark conversations in another language.

To create the ‘Alien Abroad’ campaign, Babbel put themselves in their customer’s shoes and tapped into that universal feeling of isolation that travelers go through, regardless of their country of origin or background, when visiting a new location where they can’t speak the local language.

How Storytelling helps smash Funding Goals:

Kickstarter is a master when it comes to inbound marketing brand Storytelling. Their entire effort is based on the idea that users tell stories that motivate customers to take the action of financially backing a campaign to see it realized.

Kickstarter is also a classic example of a platform that uses connection to speak straight to the core of both businesses and consumers. It works — Kickstarter has an insane number of successfully funded campaigns and continues to create value for itself and others.

Let’s take a closer look at how FashionTech startup ĀPA-Intemporal is leveraging the power of story to fund its launch on Kickstarter.

How Storytelling Underpinned the Funding of ĀPA-Intemporal:

Franco-Belgian fashion designer Léa Stein founded ĀPA-Intemporal in 2016. Her FashionTech startup aims to shape the future of fashion by combining luxury design with the most advanced technologies. She’s created ĀPA to provide style and performance at an affordable price for urban professionals who need clothes that look good and suit all types of weather.

Léa and her fiancée, filmmaker Eldad Eitan, live in Berlin and are Factory members. I met them around the Factory and crafted their story strategy and branding for the big launch. Blastoff happened May 17th, 2018.

Why Kickstarter you ask? She chose to launch by leveraging crowdfunding for a few reasons including being able to offer her first product at a lower price. It was also important to her to build and communicate with a growing brand audience. Now let’s investigate at how Léa was able to smash her Kickstarter funding goal of €30,000 in less than four days using storytelling.

ĀPA-Intemporal’s Kickstarter Video:

Kickstarter always tells startups that campaigns with a good video have a higher success rate. As we already talked about, stories are at the heart of Kickstarter’s success and they aim to help you win big leveraging video too.

Léa’s bit of ‘startup luck’ is that her fiancée is an award winning filmmaker. In fact it was a film Fellowship Eldad secured that initially brought them to Berlin. Since arriving, he’s co-founded Berlin production company Studio Matchbox.

For ĀPA’s launch, he’s produced a textbook example for how to win on Kickstarter. Watch it for yourself. Pay particular attention to how he weaves not only the story of ĀPA’s customer but Léa’s own startup story together to present the big picture and move the viewer to become an ĀPA backer.

ĀPA-Intemporal’s Kickstarter video. Fun fact: this handsome boy on the bike is Léa’s baby brother.

ĀPA-Intemporal’s Website:

Now that you’ve seen the video, you’ll be able to spot the key storylines and how they are written on ĀPA-Intemportal’s website. Right now all website traffic is being driven to the Kickstarter page for the conversion. Note: she matches her strong story with an equally compelling pull-through offer of an up to 70% discount for backers who buy early on Kickstarter.

Simple, Clear, Repeatable Messages = Sales and Shares:

The right brand narrative has the power to increase the value of your business’s product or service. If you haven’t figured out how to tell your brand’s story well, you’re missing out on the huge revenue-boosting potential of your content marketing efforts.

ĀPA-Intemporal’s story clearly establishes what its all about — the problem being solved, ĀPA’s core values and its mission. Every piece of content ĀPA creates, regardless of platform, weaves its story throughout — motivating the customer to step into their experience. This is done by crafting content in such a way that your audience feels as though they’d risk losing access to this somehow transcendental experience of being a part of the ĀPA brand if they didn’t buy, follow ĀPA, or sign-up right now.

Even the still photos and graphics used tell the story of ĀPA’s customer — the urban professional who can’t stay comfortable and dry in constantly changing weather. Here ĀPA has come to the rescue and he’s happy and comfortable!

Fun fact: this photo shoot took place in Berlin!

So now you’re seeing how ĀPA-Intemporal’s story resonates with customers and is woven throughout all platforms — including Social Media. Take a look at some posts. ĀPA’s press release is also included to show consistency.

This Instagram video follows ĀPA’s core value of transparency — showing its Founder and Lead Designer.
Facebook Update shared when half the funding goal was met within nine hours of launching on Kickstarter!
Smash the funding goal in four days and fans want to meet! ĀPA visited key cities in Europe & North America.
Photos from the pop-ups were shared on social media to show backers ĀPA was working hard for them.
Emails from Kickstarter Updates and Mailchimp to followers and backers always reference ĀPA’s story!
Even ĀPA’s GIFs are consistent with ĀPA’s story.
ĀPA launched a Magazine on Medium to share additional behind the scenes stories, news and updates.
Of course the Press Release also has ĀPA’s story woven throughout! Click here for the full Press Kit.

Storytelling helps Startups Overcome Unforeseen Challenges:

As actor and fashion icon Ashton Kutcher once said “opportunity looks a lot like hard work” and this is definitely true for ĀPA.

As Léa wrote in her Medium blog ĀPA Diary: 48 Hours Before a Crowdfunding Launch”, ĀPA lost its performance marketer just 10 hours before the Kickstarter release during the official launch party that was held in Berlin!

Usually a great Kickstarter campaign also combines the deployment of paid efforts like AdWords and paid social but this sadly would not be the case for ĀPA. Instead, Léa launched entirely relying on her story driven branding to motivate customers to back her and share the campaign with others.

I can confirm: ĀPA reached half its funding goal of €30,000 within its first 12 hours of being live. ĀPA then smashed its €30,000 funding goal within four days still without any paid performance campaign.

ĀPA did try to hire a second performance marketer after a week of being live, but the collaboration ended 48 hours later due to the freelancer having challenges tracking clicks to Kickstarter. If any company is paying for performance marketing — it really needs to track that return on investment. AdWords and paid social are not cheap.

Looking for the positive in this stressful situation, her unexpected savings enabled ĀPA to go on their city tour and meet fans and followers. This level of engagement with passionate customers has been priceless for Léa and her team. She’s listening to her customer’s needs and developing a clear idea of what product line to launch next for them.

Where is ĀPA Today?

They still haven’t deployed a performance campaign, however, ĀPA’s has clearly benefited from having a strong story foundation to support them during the turbulence caused by the resignations of performance marketers.

As I write this article they are an impressive 241% funded and still going strong. Here’s a screenshot of ĀPA-Intemporal’s Kickstarter page taken a few minutes ago.

APA-Intemporal’s Kickstarter camapign homepage — where all traffic is driven to make the conversion.

With 10 days to still go for the Kickstarter campaign, ĀPA-Intemporal continues to collect backers and fans worldwide. As you can see from Kickstarter’s dashboard metrics, their top referrer overall is Kickstarter (again NO paid performance campaign has been implemented due to unforeseen circumstances). As for the Direct Traffic, this is coming from people visiting the website directly after finding it through an email, a social share, a pop-up and so on.

APA-Intemporal’s Kickstarter dashboard metrics as of 7 June 2017–10 days left until the campaign ends.

Build your Brand on a Story Foundation:

In summary: story driven marketing works. ĀPA-Intemporal is living and growing proof that when used efficiently, it can help you launch and scale your startup.

Story Points to Remember:
*Story helps startups have a website with a clear message.
*Story helps develop a sales funnel that on ramps customers.
*Story creates sales emails that make clicks happen and close deals.
*Story showcases customer testimonials that actually sell products.
*Story helps you engage your loyal community using consistent lines across social channels.
*Story helps you stay profitable — and grows your business!

For the curious: fashionists, fans, and everyone who wants to look good while staying comfortable and dry in changing weather, can buy ĀPA’s coat on Kickstarter for up to 70% off before June 17, 2018. The earlier people buy, the greater the discount.

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Cambridge MBA | Marketing Consultant | Speaker | Author | Ghostwriter