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How and Why to Constantly Craft Your Company’s Story

In the early stages of building a company, it’s easy to get caught up in the rush to generate revenue and launch increasingly complex builds and products to an increasingly large pool of end users. While the founders may have envisioned the company solving a big, ambitious problem someday, you have to start small and hire for people who can simultaneously see a big vision and work in the details. As time goes on, founders and investors hire for people who can build systems and sustainable products. Rarely do these two groups overlap. The founding team often moves into managerial roles or exits the company as investors who bring in new management. The consequence is a team with the skills and know-how to build a sustainable, growing business model but not necessarily the vision for a compelling story around the company. If the people managing the company are different than the founders, then the founding story of the company — why the company was started — becomes more of a founding myth.

Crafting a compelling case for your product goes beyond simply conveying the value or convenience it creates. The marketer’s job is to market the company, not merely the product. Marketing your company and your company story allows you to set up a compelling case for investors, future employees, business partners, PR, and customers. It also works as a barometer to keep your product development on track.

What You Can Learn from AWS

Amazon Web Services is the biggest bulk of the AMZN empire. With over $12 billion in revenue last year, AWS provides much of the capital to fuel the expansion of Amazon’s ecommerce and media operations. AWS is a collection of cloud-based tools and resources for developers, from server space that can be elastically requisitioned to services to send emails and text messages to data transfer programs to IoT technology to machine learning libraries. Each year, AWS rolls out hundreds of new features and updates.

Before even beginning on any of these updates, AWS managers require developers to write a PR release for the update. This is more of a mental exercise than anything else, but it forces developers to think through questions like who will be using the product, what new value it will create, how it will create that value, and why they built it. If they cannot write that compelling case, then the project is sent back to the drawing board.

This helps AWS keep itself from investing valuable resources into products that users do not want or will not use. It also makes it easier to sell the products and features once they are released, building in an anticipation of user needs and expectations.

This strategy works well because it forces those inside the company and inside the product development — not just marketers or PR people — to think seriously about the big questions the company is trying to solve. Companies are often founded on concerted solutions to big questions. Asking big questions throughout the product development and launch cycle is a way to keep that inspiration and user-oriented touch that is lost in extended sprints and planning cycles.

Photo by Twenty20.

Why are you building a product? For whom? What problems are you trying to solve? When you get into the details of running a company, too often teams fall into focus on building something that they think people may find useful. Crafting the story forces the team to make the value proposition clear and the way of delivering on that understandable.

Crafting a company story neither requires resurrecting the founders of the company nor having a complex understanding of the direction that every single individual in the company sees it going. There are a few overarching themes that, when properly applied to the context of a company or product story, create a compelling case across industries.

Paint Yourself as Part of a Conflict

When crafting a story for a company, make use of a conflict narrative. Companies are born out of conflict. An inconvenient process, an annoying way of doing something, and complexity out of simplicity all drive people to start companies. For end users, they use any product because it is more convenient than the alternative. This is a “man vs. the system” conflict narrative. The overarching status quo is the system. It’s difficult to use, is taking up time, and is resulting in inconvenience. But it continues to exist because of its own inertia.

It’s the heroic act of David vs. Goliath that brings down the system. A startup is naturally a revolt against the old ways of doing things. Painting yourself as David in the Biblical parable allows you and your company to leverage people’s association with that victory to think of your company positively.

On the product-level, think of your product as the newest, sleekest, most convenient way of addressing the system. Automatic SMS-as-a-service (Twilio) does not sound like David vs. Goliath but understanding just how much more convenient automatic SMS-as-a-service is vs. sitting at a computer and copying and pasting texts to hundreds of users or employing somebody to sit around and send messages is really a huge revolt against the old ways of doing things.

Common conflict narratives employed well by companies include:

Man vs. the System: This is the startup’s revolt against the status quo and the easiest conflict narrative to craft around your company. Understand that just because it is the easiest does not necessarily make it the best.

Man vs. Nature: Does your product make people’s lives safer or less uncomfortable in the face of brutal mother nature? Do you provide housing, connection, safety, comfort, or any combination of these values? Man vs. Nature narratives work well for companies that help people in the face of catastrophe or unexpected natural dangers.

Man vs. the Collective: Any product that helps people feel special, set themselves (or their companies) apart from the pack, and leverage the human need to feel significant can use the Man vs. the Collective conflict. Feeling “cool” or “special” work well.

Man vs. Himself: Does your product help people become better versions of themselves? Do you want to make people know they could be smarter, earn more, be more productive, save more time, have more sex, look better, or generally feel better about themselves? Painting your company story in the light of striving to find the best version of any person plays up this classic conflict narrative.

You need not launch major advertising campaigns to bake these narratives into your company’s story. Understand that your company is striving to overcome something clear and something real. Real goals against which your progress can be measured helps your team understand why progress is (or is not) happening and gives you a clear angle through which you can pitch new products.

Choose a Big, Grand Vision

People yearn to have something significant in their lives, to feel like the world is getting better (or moving towards something not-bad), and to feel like they are contributing to something good. While your product may be best described as increasing engagement rates for direct response campaigns 3% better than your competitors, you paint a larger vision for the world you are moving your clients and your employees towards through the creation of the company. Higher engagement rates mean a higher ROI on marketing campaigns, which means more revenue for clients through products sold and more happy customers of those clients with improved lives. More revenue for clients means more money reinvested in jobs and more money paid in salaries, which means a higher quality of life for everybody. In a few simple messages, a company that helps drive engagement rates for DR campaigns changes the world by making it a better place.

Paint a grand vision of what your company achieves. Amazon catalogues the entire world and delivers it to your door. Tesla removes the gas station from daily life and gives clean, efficient cars. Apple simplifies the computer experience to make it intuitive and painless. Google puts the entirety of the world’s knowledge at your fingertips. JetBlue brings humanity to one of the most hated industries in America. SpaceX takes us back to Mars.

The Grand Vision as a Barometer

Each of the companies have their own business models barely associated with these visions but leverage the big vision to drive sales, recruitment, and understanding of new products and ventures.

Choosing a grand vision gives you something against which you can compare new initiatives. While building a company, temptations to launch new, easy product lines to bring in more revenue pop up from time to time. Those lines increase the bottom line and drive revenue and growth for the company but are they things that your company should be doing?

Rather than asking yourself, “what can we do with the resources we have now?” and being forced to choose between alternatives, you can ask, “what gets us closer to fulfilling our grand vision?” and then generating options from there. You use the grand vision as the starting point and then work backwards from there, taking into account the resources that you have.

This also gives you and your team a strong point against which you can compare alternatives during debates and discussions. In order for somebody to make a case for Option B over Option A, they need to make the case in terms of achieving the grand vision. Too often do these debates and discussions get mired in questions of user acquisition or revenue instead of how user acquisition or revenue can help the company in achieving its grand vision.

When a company discontinues a service or a product line, rumors swirl about the firm not doing well and having to cut something that was bringing in revenue. Having a grand vision allows you and your PR team to frame any kind of discontinuation in terms of focusing on achieving the vision of the company, protecting your team and brand from criticism and preempting concerns about not doing well.

Lead Your Clients to the Promised Land

Once you’ve established the grand vision against which your products are measured and to which your clients and customers look, lead them there. Your vision should infect every ounce of your promotion and every inch of your products. There should be an ethereal “feel” to your product that evokes that image in the user’s mind, especially when juxtaposed against a competitor’s vision for the future.

Your email marketing, content marketing, and thought leadership circle around getting your customers to this promised land. You have to get them through a certain period — a metaphorical desert — to get to the promised land of the grand vision you are painting for the future.

This gives users a reason to keep coming back and using your product even if some of your services are inferior. They want to be locked into your system as you are moving towards something they know they will prefer to the now-superior alternative.

Remind users and employees constantly what this promised land looks like. Features with your team members, rolling out new product lines that play up this narrative, and a general branding schema that oozes with the promised land moves people in this direction.

How Lyft’s Company Story Supercharged Their Growth

Lyft’s company story is compelling, paints a clear conflict narrative, and paints itself as taking the consumer to the promised land. The historical story of Lyft is not as well-known as Uber’s story of taking black cars in San Francisco and making them accessible through an app but the story of the company — to connect strangers together in a friendlier, happier, more convenient world — supersedes Uber’s story of fighting off regulators and branding itself like a 1980s dystopian sci-fi corporation. This has been a large leverage point for users in the wake of #DeleteUber and other scandals rocking the company in 2017 as more users flood to the product-wise inferior Lyft (Lyft is not as widely available as Uber and lacks Black Car and Luxury options).

Both of these products ultimately face marketplace problems. Not only do they have to attract users, they also need to attract and retain a steady supply of drivers. Uber’s cold, corporate branding that seems to lack a clear and compelling vision of the future (the company’s self-driving cars are even intimidating robotic Volvo SUVs while their competitor Waymo lends friendly-looking minivans to test users) while Lyft can provide a clear and compelling vision of at least the evening to both classes. Drivers with Lyft are considerably happier than drivers with Uber.

Self-driving Uber. Image credit: BBC
Self-driving Waymo van. Image credit: CNN

The issue at the core of Uber’s problem is ultimately a cultural crisis that extends from the board (which now includes lawsuits against Travis Kalanick by Benchmark) to engineers to drivers. Cultural problems are problems of the vision for the company. Where is the company going, what is it building, what role do employees play in building that, and how does that improve the lives of consumers? Lyft has been fighting that war covertly for years.

The upper hand that Lyft holds could only be possible by cultivating a strong company story with a conflict narrative, a grand vision, and a promised land and then imbuing every bit of the company’s culture, branding, and user experience with that. Pink mustaches might seem silly, but they make a lasting impression on people.

Image credit: Auto Rental News

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