Trying to get your product story straight? Go see a Pixar movie.

Every innovator hopes their product story is so good that prospective customers, employees and especially investors will fall all over themselves to be a part of what they’ve created. Who wouldn’t want that? After years of working with entrepreneurs, I’ve learned that the best way to help them find that story is to first talk about how Pixar makes movies.

Nemo and Marlin from Pixar Studio’s Finding Nemo (Disney copyright)

What does a film studio famous for bringing toys and monsters to life have to do with inspiring entrepreneurs? Pixar takes the time to get their story straight BEFORE they start telling it. So should you.

Let me explain.

A Pixar film takes YEARS to create. It’s not unusual for a film to take four years (or longer!) to go from concept to the screen. What takes all that time? The brilliant people at Pixar spend the majority of the time just working on the story. They have to determine who’s the protagonist, what’s their motivation, what creates the big conflict in the story, what are the major plot elements, and how does it end? They literally work the story in script and storyboard form for YEARS before they move into full production. This last production step (animation, lighting, music, etc.) typically happens in the final year of the whole process. In finding Nemo, for example, one important story point that had to be sorted out was when to introduce the back-story of Nemo’s dad, Marlin. Marlin lost his wife and every other baby (other than Nemo) to a hungry barracuda. Should they introduce the back-story up front? Save it for the end? The filmmakers chose to put it up front, which creates more empathy for Marlin throughout the story. If they had introduced it later, the audience might have viewed Marlin as an overprotective helicopter parent. Instead, the audience cared about him and hung on every twist and turn in the plot to see if he’d get his son Nemo back. Getting a key story point right can literally make or break a film.

So what does this have to do with getting the story straight for your product? Well, everything.

If you’re an innovator, you have to think hard about the protagonist in your story. Not every inventor starts here, but eventually, you have to figure out “who am I building this product for?” Once you’ve sorted that out, you have to understand your customer’s motivations well enough to be sure that you have a clear problem to solve. This is the conflict in the story. Storytellers can’t tell a great story, unless they have a big enough conflict to overcome. Likewise, it’s hard to have your innovation amount to much unless you’ve identified a meaningful problem to solve. The rest of the innovation narrative flows from here. This is the plot of your story. Your product or service has to solve the problem (and be better than the alternatives for doing so) or you won’t have a happy ending!

Here’s an example of a great product with a wonderful narrative that is flying off the shelves.

Pranoti Nagarkar (l) and RIshi Israni (r)

I was a judge at the Intel Global Innovation Challenge several years ago and saw a presentation from a pair of Indian expats living in Singapore. Pranoti Nagarkar and Rishi Israni described their customer (the protagonist in their story) as the modern Indian professional couple where both parents were working. This is a relatively new phenomenon with Indian families. Their insight was that despite all the benefits of a comfortable lifestyle, they were feeling guilty. Their guilt came from not being able to pass on some of their culture to their children. Food is central to every culture and one particular food was a supremely important part of Indian culture — the roti. The roti is a flat bread that is wildly popular. 2.3 billion rotis are eaten every day! Pranoti said that it takes anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours to make rotis, so modern families resort to frozen rotis or no rotis at all. Pranoti and Rishi set out to solve this problem. The solution? The Rotimatic. Just add flour and water to the device, press a button and voila: a beautiful fresh roti in two minutes. Happy ending right? They launched the product just last year and are currently sold out well into 2016!

So here’s your homework. Go watch a Pixar film and be mindful of the narrative. Then think hard about the narrative for your innovation. Until you get your story straight, you’ll struggle getting traction with customers and you’ll have a hell of a time trying to tell your story. It’s hard to do. Even the pros at Pixar need years to get it right. But you’ll be glad that you did.

About David Riemer

David is a former ad agency president and Yahoo! VP of Marketing who now speaks about innovation and story telling. He teaches at the UC Berkeley Haas Business School, speaks all over the world about “innovation narratives” and serves as an adviser at UC Berkeley’s Skydeck Accelerator. David has consulted with dozens of Silicon Valley start-ups to hone their product strategy and help get their story straight. He offers an online course on storytelling at Avanoo.com.