You Need a Creation Myth — A Garage is Optional

A creation story is a powerful parable, a memorable metaphor, a road map, and often a moral compass.

Warning: Facts may get in the way.

Some companies start in a garage

Do you know the story of two well-educated electronics employees, one had attended UC Berkley and worked at Hewlett-Packard and the other studied at Stamford and worked at Atari? Armed with education and experience in circuit boards, these entrepreneurs were provided with a plethora of free spare parts and components, and successfully designed and built computers.

Here’s another version of the same story: Two inexperienced young tinkerers founded the world’s largest computer company from a small dark garage. This is the creation mythology for Apple Computer. The garage is now a Palo Alto landmark.

Hewlett-Packard, Walt Disney, and many other companies were also created in garages. Think about it. A garage is an open, readily available and usually inexpensive, space from which to operate. It’s not a stretch to picture garages as a fairly commonplace start-up venue.

Not all companies start in a garage

eBay was created by its founder, Pierre Omidyar, to accommodate the request of his fiancé for extra space in their San Francisco apartment. He had to sell off his large collection of Pez candy dispensers. Totally untrue: this famous creation myth was fabricated by a public relations manager to stimulate the media, which were not interested in the previous explanation about Omidyar wanting to create a “perfect market”.

And, Sara Blakely met with a buyer at a Neiman Marcus clad in a pair of formfitting white pants. Blakely invited the buyer to join her in the ladies’ room, where she proceeded to demonstrate the difference in the way the pants looked with her stretch underwear, and without. Three weeks later, Spanx was on the shelves. Blakely, “I wore those white pants for three years to sell Spanx.”

Macy’s was founded by Rowland Hussey Macy, who flaunted a star tattoo received as a teenager while working on a Nantucket whaling ship. He opened four retail dry goods stores, including the original Macy’s store in downtown Haverhill, Massachusetts, in 1851. They all failed. Macy moved to New York City in 1858 and established a new store, “R.H Macy Dry Goods,” at Sixth Avenue and 14th Street. On the company’s first day of business on October 28, 1858 sales totaled $11.08. All Macy’s logos inlcude a star.

Moral Compass

According to company mythology, The Mutual Life Insurance Company was founded in 1857. The company experienced its first two death claims, when a train derailed, killing 14 people, two of whom were policy owners. “With losses amounting to $3,500 and having funds of only $2,000, company President Samuel Daggett and Treasurer Charles Nash personally borrowed the needed funds to pay the claims immediately.”

The company is now known as Northwestern Mutual. This creation myth sets an expectation for employees and customers 157 years later.

Tell an emotional, memorable story

“There are two elements to a successful Kickstarter campaign: the product and the story,” says Slava Menn, co-founder of Fortified Bike Alliance, a manufacturer of theft-resistant bicycle lights: a product classification historically without much story-telling character.

Here’s their creation story: “Our friend had his bike light stolen; then he got hit by a car coming home,” Menn says. “It was emotional and true and so simple that a person could retell it the same way after hearing it once.”

Fortified’s first product presold $84,000 on Kickstarter and is carried in 160 bike shops worldwide.

Shortly after the California gold rush of 1849, A Bavarian dry-goods salesman meets a tailor from Reno, Nevada adding brass rivets to blue denim work pants. The blue jeans were so strong that two horses could not tear them apart. This origin story for Levi Strauss creates the ethos of quality, the legacy of construction details and heritage roots in San Francisco that are integral to the brand today.

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

In “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” Senator Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart), explains to a reporter that the story of his heroism, that he shot and killed the villainous Liberty Valence, is not true. The reporter throws his notes into the fire. “This is the West, sir,” he explains to Stoddard. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

On the train back to Washington Stoddard thanks the train conductor for the many courtesies extended by the railroad, the conductor replies, “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!”

For Your Information

In 1910 on the lower east side of Manhattan, two Spiegel brothers, sell hand-crafted ties from a pushcart, and create Randa Neckwear. Today, Randa Accessories is the world’s largest men’s accessories company, a global consumer products business: 5,000 employees working from 20 offices in 12 countries. This creation story expresses a family business, a long history, growth and evolution.

What’s your story? Please share.

(c) David J. Katz, New York City, November 30, 2014