Storyboarding with Startups: Stolen Cars, Saucy Affairs, and Italian Translators

Dustin Larimer
Early Writing
Published in
4 min readMar 28, 2013


Over the past few years we’ve had opportunities to work with many amazing startups, from one coast to the other and everywhere in between, but some of the most exciting (ambitious!) new companies we’ve encountered are all coming from the SURGE Accelerator in Houston, Texas.

Our friends at SURGE work with ambitious startups who share their mission to solve the world’s many complex energy problems through software and innovative new services. They do this by connecting entrepreneurs with world-class mentorship and access to the capital needed to disrupt every corner of the energy industry.

Last year, I dropped in near the end of the program to help each of their ten companies lock down pitch presentations and slide decks, in preparation for their final “demo day” debut.

Yesterday morning, I hopped back on a bus bound for Houston to meet a new class of companies and share some storyboarding techniques for developing a clear, compelling pitch. Specifically, my goal was to get these teams thinking about how to humanize their value proposition through story. Why is that important? Read on.

Round 1

For the first round, I presented a single photo of a simple driveway mishap: a blue pickup truck sitting atop a red sports car, inside of a decimated garage. Nobody was injured, just plenty of potential for drama.

The full group split off into five randomized teams, each representing a different persona:

  1. The owner of the red car
  2. The owner of the blue pickup
  3. The insurance adjustor
  4. The repair shop
  5. The employer of the owner of the red car

Each team was given two 6-panel storyboard worksheets, and instructions to pick up where the photo left off, and continue sketching out the story.

Click to download [PDF]

The purpose of this round was simply to have fun and wake up everyone’s storytelling muscles. Mission accomplished.

The resulting tale was incredible: there were saucy affairs, a child was bit by a snake in the forest, premiums lapsed, scooters were fought over, and a mechanic fell in love with his Italian translator (while searching for parts abroad, of course). It was a five-part epic, spun from a single photo and some simple prompts.

Round 2

The teams regrouped with their co-founders and returned to their own teams, this time with a second pair of 6-panel storyboard worksheets and two stories to tell:

  1. A day in the life of your customer, experiencing the pain you’re solving, without you
  2. A day in the life of your customer, after you have saved the day

Every team nailed it. Limiting the story to six frames required a lot of refinement. Some groups even created outlines and debated scenes on other sheets of paper before committing their panels. No doubt, the participants already understood their customers and users, but this distillation process seemed to open up new conversations about who these people really are, what they really care about, and what it means to step into their story. This helped the teams refine their own narrative, not just about what they do, but who they do it for, and why that matters.

It was a simple exercise, but hopefully helpful.

So, why does all of this matter?

We are all wired for story; it activates our brains in wonderfully profound ways. Story is how we package and share meaning, allowing listeners to momentarily experience the sensations and emotions of what is being shared. Story inspires action.

But it’s asking quite a lot to try inspiring others about the big, abstract systems we build, because people do not experience systems.

Get personal

Drill down to the person who experiences the pain you’re relieving, and make me –in the audience– feel that pain. Frame it all with simple, heartfelt language. Make it agonizing. Experiment visual metaphors for heavy lifting, if particular concepts are too verbose or overly technical. Let everyone else in the crowd feel it too. Then zoom out and extrapolate that experience across the full market opportunity you can address.

But but… but!

It sounds easy enough, but it means dropping much of the cherished vocabularies and esoteric debates that hold highly technical communities together. Believe it or not, your vocabulary is a massive part of your personal identity. For some folks that I’ve worked with it’s like abandoning a child. It can get ugly.

One common excuse is “sure, there are a lot of people in the audience, but I’m only speaking to a few investors in the room, and they know exactly what I’m saying.” Once a few audience members glance down to check their email, others around them will feel that old familiar itch to check theirs as well. Slowly, one by one, you will lose the entire room.

What those investors really want to know is that you can carry the ball. They want to know that you can share your vision to inspire all types of audiences: your customers, your employees, and new investors in later rounds.

This applies across the board. Whether you’re trying to recuit potential co-founders, early hires, or even customers, they need to feel it to believe it. The best –perhaps the only– way to do that is through story.

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Dustin Larimer
Early Writing

I help teams bring new ideas to life. Product designer, engineer, and cape maker extraordinaire.