Four easy to tell stories for early-stage startups with no traction or customers

In talking about the power of storytelling over the past few months, one of the biggest challenges has been getting entrepreneurs to grasp how they can capitalize on telling stories to grow their businesses.

The entrepreneurs understand the benefits of storytelling and why it matters, but there’s a disconnect between concept and reality. In thinking about how to make storytelling more tangible and do-able, I created an “early-stage storytelling arc” graphic:

Here’s how the “arc” works:

1. Before a startup has a product, profile or customers, it can develop stories around its origins — something Jonah Sachs calls “genesis stories”. What sparked the launch of the business? Was it a problem that an entrepreneur encountered personally? Did the entrepreneur seize an opportunity that no one has identified or jumped on? Did the startup evolve out of an existing business?

A big part of the fascination with entrepreneurship are the behind-the-scenes stories. People are curious and intrigued about what inspires, motivates and encourages entrepreneurs. These narratives let people understand what it takes to become an entrepreneur, regardless of whether they want to start a business themselves.

In my book, Storytelling for Startups, I look at how Richard Branson started Virgin Airlines after he missed a connecting flight to the Virgin Islands while on his way to meet a young lady. It makes for a great story about how entrepreneurial success is often 50% inspiration and 50% being at the right place at the right time.

2. Stories about your growth. These are stories about a startup’s hurdles, challenges, troubles, and successes. They provide people with real-world insight into how entrepreneurs operate their businesses. Entrepreneurship is rarely good times all the time. There are many ups and downs along the way. When an entrepreneur talks about their challenges, it resonates because it’s seen as authentic and genuine. Some high-level story ideas could include things such as the challenges around hiring, marketing or relocating to new offices.

Some good examples of startups using this storytelling approach are GrooveHQ and Buffer, which “open the kimono” to talk about the inner workings of their businesses. Buffer, for example, talked about how much money its employees make, which could be seen as pushing the envelope a little too far. Groove’s Alex Turnbull provided insight about the benefits of talking to 500 customers in four weeks.

3. Stories about your industry and trends that demonstrate your domain expertise and thought leadership. Even if your business has no or few customers, it doesn’t mean an entrepreneur can’t provide insight, opinion, and guidance. When you’re living and breathing a product and market 24/7, you probably have a lot of valuable knowledge to share. This can happen on a blog, white papers, guest posts, conferences, etc.

4. Stories about your customers can be developed when business begins to come in the door. You’re looking for stories that put the spotlight on the success that customers are having with your product. It is important to tell “success stories” that illustrate how customers are getting value from your product in different ways. Some customers, for example, will leverage your product to drive more leads, while others will benefit from driving sales efficiencies. In other words, customers will get value in different ways. Take a look at Chango’s case studies to see this multi-faceted approach to customer success.

Regardless of a company’s size or the number of customers, there are many ways to capitalize on storytelling. In the early days, storytelling involves personal narratives that, if done the right way, can be appealing to many people. As a startup evolves and grows, the stories being told will evolve and change to serve target audiences in different ways.

To learn more about the power of storytelling, my new book Storytelling for Startups gives entrepreneurs strategic and tactical guidance on how to tell stories to the right people in the right places. I also offer storytelling workshops. For more details, send me email (