How to Tell “Strategic” Stories About Your Company: Part 2
In Part 1 of this mini-series, we looked at two types of storytelling by two very different kinds of founders — “heroes” who charge into battle, and “generals” who stand back and strategize first.
I argued that even for hero-type founders, the general’s craft of strategic storytelling can be very useful.
So today, let’s look at a prime example of strategic storytelling: the Rippling Memo. It’s one of the best pieces of writing I’ve seen from any startup (or public company for that matter), I’d strongly recommend reading the whole thing.
For context, Rippling’s software to helps enterprises manage their employee information. Its co-founder is definitely a general — Parker Conrad who previously founded HR and insurance unicorn Zenefits. So yeah, he’s done some stuff and knows a bit about the industry.
So how does Conrad tell a strategic story?
What’s So “Strategic” About it?
The memo’s opening is typical of most startup pitches— with the problem:
Most businesses have dozens of systems that maintain a list of their employees, and for the most part, none of these systems talk to each other or to any central system about who these employees are.
… Whenever something changes about an employee, many (and sometimes, all) of these systems need to be updated, and because they don’t point to any central authority, they each need to be updated separately and by hand.
This, Conrad believes, is the cause of most admin headaches. So far so good, but nothing unique right? Everyone knows you should start with the problem.
But then things got interesting.
Usually this is where “hero” founders go: “and we have the perfect product to solve this problem!” They’ll then go crazy on the features, technical details, and benefits, etc.
But that’s not what Conrad does.
Instead, he devotes TWO full pages to Rippling’s strategy, NOT product. And he does it in three logical steps.
1. Lay out what competitors are doing
Conrad begins with the basic premise:
If you can be the system of record for employee data, you can build a really successful business… because this system has platform power that can be used in other business software and services categories that need to access this underlying employee data.
But then Conrad throws a curve ball — he reveals that all of his competitors, from ADP and Microsoft to Gusto and Zenefits, already know this and are going after the same thing:
This belief — that the system of record for employee data is valuable — is the least unique, and probably the least controversial, part of our strategy… Almost every other HRIS and payroll company views the world this way.
… The question then becomes, how do you “win” at being the system of record for employee data?
Like any good general, Conrad doesn’t just go straight into the product. Instead, he surveys the whole competitive field to see what everyone is doing, before he picks an angle that could be the key to victory.
And this is exactly what he does in step 2:
2. Identify Key to Victory
If everyone else from ADP to Microsoft is already trying to be the employee system of record, how could Rippling beat them?
Conrad reveals the answer:
Onboarding Software makes you the system of record for employee data… By virtue of being the ingestion point for this employee data, and because we are upstream of everyone else in this process, Rippling is the system of record by definition. Because every other business system is receiving its information about the company’s employees from us, we become the de facto source of truth.
And there it is — he pinpoints “onboarding” as the key to victory, because if every company uses Rippling to hire employees, Rippling automatically becomes the birthplace of all employee data.
And then every other system would have to get its data from Rippling!
All I gotta say is…
But the next paragraph is notable as well:
As a result of this, we are uniquely fanatical about employee onboarding software. For our competitors, employee onboarding tools may be useful features, helpful to clients. But for us, onboarding software is the only thing that matters, because if you win at onboarding, you win everything else.
Do you see how he uses the strategy to explain the product focus?
Most other entrepreneurs we’ve seen would present their product focus in isolation, without laying out why that focus made sense and fit into a larger strategy.
But wait, the next paragraph gets even better:
Eventually, though, if we’re successful, other companies will come around to our point of view… and will refocus their own efforts to develop employee onboarding software. The question then becomes, “how do you win at employee onboarding software?”
He isn’t just thinking about success. He’s thinking about what comes after success — what if competitors finally saw what they were doing, and came after the same prize? He’s thinking two moves ahead.
He’s not an entrepreneur, he’s a chess player!
That leads us to step 3…
3. Stave Off Competitive Response
If competitors came after them, what would Rippling do? He wastes little time getting to the answer:
To win at employee onboarding, you can’t be monogamous to any single department or functional area… To effectively solve employee onboarding, you have to orient your product around employee lifecycle events — getting hired, getting a new job or role, moving to a new address, getting promoted, leaving the company — and follow the downstream implications of these lifecycle events wherever they lead.
His thesis, essentially, is that whoever builds a solution to satisfy ALL enterprise departments will win. And that’s why Rippling is actually three systems, not one:
- Payroll, benefits, and HRIS
- Identity and access management
- Endpoint device management
This would seem strange on its face — diluting the company’s focus by going after so many systems. But predicated on his strategy, it makes total sense.
Even better: he believes that his much larger competitors don’t think this way, as a later paragraph in the Competition section makes clear:
But the larger dynamic is that each of these competitors thinks of themselves far more narrowly than Rippling does: they make HR software, or Identity software, or device management software. It’s embedded in their culture and mission statements and taglines. These companies are going to stay in their swim lanes.
They might partner — but these partnership will always be thin tethers connecting otherwise unrelated systems.
Our competitors won’t be able to do this because it’s not in their nature.
The way Conrad tells the story in this memo is quite unlike 90% of the pitches and writing we’ve seen from entrepreneurs.
It’s not even about the words he uses — rather, it’s the order and logic of his narrative, and the way he builds on fundamental assumptions to move the reader towards a conclusion.
The rest of the memo is full of potential learning for startup founders who’d like to think and write more strategically — from the way he answers the Why Now question to his deft positioning of Rippling as a new category.
Go read it, seriously.
But for the next and final part of this series on strategic storytelling, we’ll dive into some of the “how” of building a strategic story.