CEO, you are the hero of your story

Image and story ©Eva-Lotta Jansson

Many people have an epic story to tell about their life, if you ask them the right questions.

Lately, I’ve been speaking to several founders of US tech startups, and I have found that they can be an inspiring bunch.

It all came together brilliantly recently when I was hired by a CEO of a startup in California to write the story about his company, using the structure of the hero’s journey:

We talked about how his company idea arose from a bad employment situation; was cooked together on his kitchen table in a tiny apartment; matured into a bootstrapped tech solution; got angel funding; and is now providing jobs for formerly unemployed colleagues, whilst serving the product target audience with a brilliant solution. We also talked about big obstacles as well as cheery moments.

The “hero’s journey” is the tale of legends, starting with Achilles in Homer’s Illiad, back in ancient Greece. Joseph Campbell then showed us the mythical in our own human experience, in the most beautiful of ways, in his The Hero With A Thousand Faces.

Campbell touched us and brought the hero’s journey into popular culture. This phenomenal story structure was brought onto the big screen through storytelling by Disney and George Lucas, in Star Wars. Many dramas today still use this brilliant theme.

The hero’s path generally includes 12 different stages. To simplify, it’s got a beginning, middle and end, looking something like this:

1) Living in the ordinary world — and the call to adventure: Perhaps you’re sipping coffee as usual at Starbucks, and realizing just how many trees are wasted each day by consumers on paper cups. So you decide to venture out into the world and find a solution to the problem;

2) The ordeal — and the resurrection: Oh, but you lost your job at the brokerage firm while your were out travelling the world to interview trees and think about a solution. Now you can’t afford to buy a flight back to New York to present your genius solution — the invisible cup — to investors. What to do, what do? Crisis! Oh, but as you lay dying of hunger and thirst on a Bali beach, Richard Branson flies past in his hot-air balloon. He gives you a ride home. Death and crisis averted. You rise like a phoenix from the ashes. Not only does Branson take you back to New York in style, but he also gives you seed funding for THE project. Branson, as you know, loves entrepreneurs!

3) Returning a hero — bringing a solution to the people: You return to your favorite coffee joint in New York, bringing a stack of invisible cups. You are VERY thirsty for Starbucks coffee, so you drink the first cup yourself. The people in the coffee shop cheer when they see you drinking from your invisible cup. You hand out the rest of the cups to the other customers. They carry you out into the streets where you are hailed as a hero and tree-saving genius by the people of New York. The major erects a monument in your honor — in the form of a bronze tree, sprouting coffee-cup flowers.

This is the stuff that makes for absolutely magic storytelling, isn’t it? Why am I telling you about this? I wanted to share a few ideas about how company leaders can turn their (boring?) sales copy into something inspiring, by digging deep into their own personal stories.

Telling stories like these take a lot of self-awareness, and humility: For the words to ring true — and to be inspiring to your target audience — they need to be exactly that: true and honest.

And sometimes that can mean the need for some pretty deep soul searching and flaunting of ‘embarrassing’ details. But the thing is, we all go through what some deem to be ‘failures.’ However, seeing someone rise from the pits, to perhaps go onto creating something that benefits us all, can be inspiring.

Like Achilles in the Illiad, CEOs of startups often put themselves through the ringer to meet their goals — and won’t stop until they either ‘fail’ or succeed. They seem inspired to do so from some invisible force within.

Like Achilles in the Illiad, CEOs of startups often put themselves through the ringer to meet their goals — and won’t stop until they either ‘fail’ or succeed. They seem inspired to do so from some invisible force within.

And they’ll often start that cycle again with a new idea, once their startup has either succeed to be sold, or crumbled into bankruptcy. If the latter happened, ‘the hero’ of that journey might learn something valuable from that lesson, and rise again.

For example, one CEO of a US startup publicly tells the story about how he handled the bankruptcy of his previous company in the most ‘profitable’ way. He wanted to salvage important business relationships and minimize investor losses. So during the bankruptcy, he says he reached out to people in his network attempting to find new jobs for his employees. He also reported that he managed to transfer his building lease to a competitor, and sold his office chairs.

That’s perhaps not the same as fighting dangerous sea monsters and coming out alive, or something that everyone would deem heroic. But it’s certainly making the best out of the situation, and salvaging what’s possible, including one’s dignity.

Seasoned CEOs of startups often have been through many ordeals, and perhaps a bit of humiliation, to meet their goals. That’s what often helps to make them successful ‘heroes’ in the end.

“The hero’s journey” is traditionally an epic tale about personal growth — through tribulations — causing transformation. So it really is a fitting tale for startup CEOs to take pointers from when aiming to do powerful, personal storytelling about their businesses.

What’s your story? I often ‘interview’ my clients to make it easier for them to get their epic tales on paper. If you’d like my help, contact me here.

©Eva-Lotta Jansson