Why your company might never become a thing.

  • Objective social variables, in terms of the social identity being construed and displayed in text and talk by language users. Influenced by space.
  • The circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood.
  • The parts of something written or spoken that immediately precede and follow a word or passage and clarify its meaning.
  • The situation within which something exists or happens, and that can help explain it.
  • The text or speech that comes immediately before and after a particular phrase or piece of text and helps to explain its meaning.
  • The text or speech surrounding an expression (word, sentence, or speech act) that influences the way an expression is understood.
  • The influence on language use or discourse studied in terms of language variation, style, or register.
  • Physical and communicative dimensions such as: time, space, names, signs, and symbols. Manipulation of any of these dimensions results in a changed environment of interpretation.
  • The setting of a word or event. Any circumstance in which something happens.
  • The set of facts or circumstances that surround a situation or event.
  • The words that are used with a certain word or phrase that help to explain its meaning.
  • The situation in which something happens: the group of conditions that exist where and when something happens.


Let me put all the above in context. We compare ourselves to animals and particularly those with whom we share more recent common ancestors. And yet as is written in the book Sapiens, the real difference between us and every other creature is shared beliefs.

Like it or not, the very substance of your startup (or indeed any company) is the shared belief of your team, your customers, your investors, and society in general. You could have the best technology or product in the world, and if nobody believes in it, then you are going to crater.

Most founders start with some beliefs they are trying to share, and yet most fail to design a framework such that their beliefs hang together well enough to become shared beliefs. They pump out content, yet fail to get traction, and are left wondering why.

It is shared belief that makes us the apex predator on planet earth because it allows us to do what no other animal can. We can form up large numbers of us and operate at scale. (Yes, bees and ants do something like this, but only with inherited pre-programmed strategies.)

The mechanism that allows us to organize to play a game of football is the same one that makes Wikipedia work and the same that allows us to create and operate companies, governments, religions and unfortunately, wars.

Imagine a football stadium filled with chimpanzees and bonobos with trained chimpanzees and bonobos on the pitch facing off to play football. It would make soccer hooliganism look tame. It would be utter chaos.

While it might be said that a football match played and witnessed by humans is also chaotic, the reality is far from it. There are huge levels of organization that are powered by shared beliefs.

The fans believe they are fans. They believe that football is fun. They believe in the money in their pockets, and the hotdog vendors believe in that as well. Consider the stadium itself — how much shared belief went into its construction?

How is it that humans can create such massive amounts of shared belief? The answer is pretty simple. Humans tell stories, and stories that are well told create initial and with enough evidence (more stories) lasting belief.

This is a story of sorts. It started with a confusing list of definitions that make little sense by themselves, and this was because there was something missing. I removed the two important pieces of information. The first to be removed was the word “context”. Every one of the definitions above was for the word “context”. The second omission was of all the examples of context.

Having now told you that it’s all about context, go back and read each definition above, and they will make a lot more sense now that the definitions of context are in the proper context. That said it will not be fully clear without some little stories which are of course the examples that I left out as well.

  • ‘The proposals need to be considered in the context of new European directives.’
  • ‘Skilled readers use context to construct meaning from words as they are read.’
  • It is important to see all the fighting and bloodshed in his plays in historical context.’
  • ‘This small battle is very important in the context of Scottish history.’
  • ‘To understand this issue, it must first be situated in its context.’
  • ‘The production is deliberately styleless, and this takes the play out of its historical context.’
  • ‘What was the context you found the word in?’
  • ‘He thinks smacking is OK in the context of a happy family.’
  • ‘Her remarks were very tasteless in the context of a memorial service.’
  • ‘The context for the situation did not quite match the level of seriousness that Jane was using, and being oblivious to this fact, she was quite surprised when her sister told her to tune it down.’
  • ‘It is important to know the context of both sides of the story before giving an opinion on the matter, so the information is gathered from multiple points of view.’
  • ‘Two women were have a conversation about a friend, and based on the context of their conversation it can be assumed that the description of the friend was not a positive one.’
  • ‘It was Dickens who first used the word ‘detective’ in a literary context.’
  • ‘Entrepreneurship and civil freedoms depend on a context of civil order, predictability, and individual security.’
  • ‘The old building, its original acre, inside its high outer wall, was immune to change, out of context and out of time.’
  • ‘We need to look at the event within the larger context of world history.’
  • ‘If your friend is furious at you for calling her your worst enemy, remind her that the context of those remarks was Opposite Day.’
  • The beautiful phrase occurs in the context of the concluding paragraph.’

With the example stories restored and the overarching context understood you should now understand a bit more about context and how it makes content easier, indeed possible, to grasp.

Context and content are both points-of-view. Context sets the stage and is the larger, more inclusive idea. It is likely more holistic and is often taken for granted. Content occurs within context and you can have many different types of content in that one context.

When two different contexts collide, confusion is pretty much inevitable. When someone tries to put out content in one context and they find themselves in another context, they are confusing and may appear disingenuous.

When someone takes your words and makes it sound like you meant something else, they’ve usually taken your words out of context.

Context is decisive, we are always searching for how to belong (or occasionally how not to belong and rebel). Both belonging and not belonging are dependent on the context. When we have a sense of belonging it usually means we are acting in accord with the context that we find ourselves in.

Context is actually so powerful that it can override our own instincts for self preservation. Ask any soldier who believes in what they are doing and they will tell you that they are risking their lives for their context (country, king, cause, etc). If you want other examples of the power of context just look up Stanley Milgram’s experiments and watch Derek Sivers’ TED Talk on the Dancing Guy.

We hardly ever pay attention to context and mainly take it for granted, focusing on the content instead, and this is a huge mistake if you want to create something new. You see, you can invent a context — and if you do it just right with the right purpose, it can become a thing.

Creating a context is done with true stories that are well told. Occasionally a well articulated future truth will do, and it must then be worked on so it actually becomes present truth — for a future truth that has no commitment is without integrity and thus a future lie. The book Made to Stick suggests that stories should be simple, unexpected, clear, concrete, and emotional. This is strong stuff.

Great stories suspend disbelief, and great true stories engender action. Action in all its forms is content, and the more fidelity the content has towards its context, the greater the impact. Thus designing a context is done with stories, and designing your business is best done by first designing its context which will engender those all important shared beliefs.

When you have a purpose and you pick the right stories for your context, the desired behaviors emerge from those who enter your designed context, and also people show up as belonging or not, they will also be able to see how to be so they fit in. If someone invited you to a party and you are told it’s fancy dress and then it turns out not to be, you have violated the context and do not fit. So too you must make sure that everyone you need to know about your context hears all the right stories so they can come and fit in with your startup.

It takes time to find the right stories, refine them, test them, and transmit them — and it is so worth it to do so. You need to identify the behaviors you want to emerge within your context, and then you need to tell great and true stories to lock in those behaviors. You need to persist to grow your context through its stories.

Every part of a brand is really made up of stories including the name. When we founded CoderDojo, the global free movement of clubs for kids to learn to code, we spent some time on the name, as “Saturday Morning Programming Club for Kids” would not have caught on. “Coder” means computer programmer and “Dojo” means temple of learning, usually for martial arts like karate, and the expectation for learning in a dojo is that you learn experientially, collaboratively, and that you progress by your own efforts.

When I talk about what CoderDojo means to me, I tell stories like: “A young boy was asked what he loved most about CoderDojo, his answer, ‘I love that my wheelchair is invisible here!’’’ This is a true story made of actual facts, and it expresses a vitally important part of the context of CoderDojo, which is acceptance and inclusion. Without true stories like this, you only have an aspiration for your context.

Aspirations make good stories too, and they should be swapped out for reality as soon as possible — as soon as you have enough true stories to tell. And those true stories can be very short and pointed. For instance, “When I see a 12-year-old girl instructing a bunch of 16-year-old boys in how to make an array in JavaScript, I know we have CoderDojo’s gender equality on the right track.“

So if creating powerful stories is a good thing, collecting true ones is an upgrade. Further putting together a few outstanding true stories that speak to the way you wish people to behave within the context you create is a recipe for success that is at once more potent and less costly than any other form of organizing humans… because it connects them through shared beliefs.

Bill Liao is Managing Director at RebelBio and General Partner at SOSV.

Originally published at sosv.com on December 12, 2016.

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