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For Startups, Storytelling is a No-Brainer

For startups, product is king but it takes good stories to drive awareness and spread the word.

Storytelling comes in different shapes and sizes. It depends on your target audiences and where they consume your stories. For startups looking to establish a foothold in a competitive market, stories are a powerful to differentiate.

Here’s a presentation that I did recently at MaRS about storytelling and how startups should embrace it.

Marketing Communications/B2C Sales – Entrepreneurship 101 2014/15 from MaRS Discovery District

Sometimes, Startups Simply Need More Time

Earlier this year, I worked with a startup focused on a big corporate opportunity but struggling to establish a foothold.

The startup had created a mobile app that worked and worked well but it struggled to convince buyers its products could deliver enough benefits to adopt something new.

timeIt was a classic story of a startup with a new and different way of doing things battling the status quo (aka entrenched technology).

But this story took an interested twist. One of its customers starting using the app an internal communications tool for all kinds of information. It has little to do with the problems tackled by startup

The startup’s platform, however, was ideal for internal communications – it was mobile, interactive and user-friendly for users and administrators.

All of a sudden the startup had product-market fit (aka selling products that buyers really want to use).

The startup’s sales, which has been like pushing a rock up a hill, started to rumble forward. The grind of trying to get corporate traction appears to have disappeared.

So what’s the lesson here? Well, there are two:

1. Sometimes, it simply takes time for startups to find their way. A startup with an interesting product may need time to drive brand awareness and a recognition among consumers about its value.

In some cases, it could be a matter of being too early. I worked with a natural language startup during the original dot-com that I’m pretty sure would have been successful if we had launched it in 2004 or 2005.

In other cases, a startup’s product gains traction because customers have a new problem to solve or, for whatever reason, they are unhappy about their existing tools. Suddenly, they want something new.

2. Customers may use your product in ways that were never envisioned. There are many examples of customers who didn’t use a product’s biggest features, but loved features seen as less important by a startup.

Instagram’s initial product, a location-based social network, was not a big success. But Instagram’s founders noticed that its users loved posting photos. Exit Burbn, enter Instagram.

As much as entrepreneurs focus on a problem to solve or a new way of doing things, customers ultimately decide if they are going to use it and how they are going to use it. This makes it critical for startups to carefully track what users and doing and saying to ensure there is product-user alignment.

In today’s fast-paced, multi-tasking world, there is an expectations for startups to quickly succeed. If a startup doesn’t click with users right away, it is a failure. There is little patience for startups, particularly the fascination in being lean, agile and iterative.

But startups sometimes need time to mature, evolve and establish connections with customers. It is often a waiting game, provided a startup has enough runway to continue long enough. For some startups, patience is a virtue.

For start-ups and fast-growing companies looking to jump-start their marketing, I offer strategic and tactical services. Everything from building marketing engines to telling better stories through messaging/brand positioning, and reaching audiences by developing engaging content.

Job One for Startups: Storytelling

When should startups begin to craft and tell their stories? The answer is easy: as soon as possible.

startup storytellingThe need for startups to embrace storytelling was front and centre last week when I watched the Startup Next participants make their final pitches.

In trying to win over the judges, the startups did their best to tell good stories. A few of them had all the right elements: an interesting and clear narrative, energy, and the key messages about their status and future plans. A few stories, however, were not as accessible or user-friendly despite a lot of hard work.

Startup Next is a seven-week program in which early-stage startups work on shaping their business ideas. Some startups have a product or service, while some simply have a concept. During the program, the startups focus on validating their ideas, talking to customers, and getting from mentors (such as myself).

It is amazing to see how much progress the startups made in less than two months. As important, it was interesting to see how their stories evolved. In some cases, there were abrupt changes in direction.

As someone who believes in the power of stories, it was fascinating to see the different stages of storytelling, as well as the struggles that startups experience in crafting stories.

A few observations:

1. Startup entrepreneurs focus on their products, not their stories. This is not surprising given product is king. At the same time, it is difficult to get people excited about what you are doing or want to do without a compelling narrative. It is critical to have stories that explain what a startup does and why anyone should care about their products.

2. Customers are the best sources of story ideas. A key part of Startup Next is getting startups to engage with customers, or potential customers. It means getting startups out of the office to talk with people who could buy their products. Some startups stalked customers at Ikea, some started talked to doctors, and some got together with “makers”. By talking to customers, the startups received much-needed insight into a customer’s needs and interests.

3. In crafting stories, perspective is a vital ingredient. It is difficult to create a story or a startup in isolation. Even smart entrepreneurs with a clear vision need feedback, guidance and criticism to shape their ideas. Getting third-party thoughts and ideas provides an entrepreneur with many ways to follow a better path.

Truth be told, most entrepreneurs are not good storytellers. It is not part of their skill set or expertise, or something they have done before. But it is important for them to become good storytellers as soon as possible to improve their chances of success.

The best way to get going with storytelling is simple: start crafting your stories right away, and then get feedback from different kinds of people. At first, your stories may not work but storytelling is an iterative process as opposed to something that quick materializes.

By continuing to tell, refine and test stories, startups can develop stories that resonate and reflect the value of their products.

For start-ups and fast-growing companies looking to jump-start their marketing, I offer strategic and tactical services. Everything from building marketing engines to telling better stories through messaging/brand positioning, and reaching audiences by developing engaging content.

Can Anyone Become an Entrepreneur?

As an advisor to The Next 36, I attended a presentation last night as part of the final selection process.

It featured 72 super smart university graduates from a variety of disciplines looking to launch themselves into the world of entrepreneurship.

As part of the event, Reza Satchu conducted a Phil Donahue-like interview with the finalists about their interest in being an entrepreneurship. The responses were standard fare: making a difference, building things, controlling over their own destiny, etc.

the next 36In some ways, it was interesting to see young people so excited about becoming an entrepreneur given the risk, challenges and hard work involved. Then again, we live in a world of economic volatility and no job security. This has reduced the risk of entrepreneurship given the alternatives.

It got me thinking about whether entrepreneurship is a nature versus nurture proposition. Are the Next 36 finalists an anomaly, or do they reflect how people are now raised? Can these students be nurtured into entrepreneurs, or can they be taught? Can anyone become an entrepreneur?

I think being an entrepreneur resides in most people. But actually doing it is difficult because it involves risk, unconventional thinking, wild enthusiasm and huge challenges. It prevents most people from embracing it because are so many reasons not to do it.

But for people interested in being an entrepreneur, programs such as The Next 36 are invaluable vehicles to push them over the edge.

Sometimes, the path to entrepreneurship only requires a nudge. It’s not a huge leap but, instead, a small step forward. Having programs to encourage people to take the step is an important driver.

Another thing that struck me last night is how my entrepreneurial journey is so different from the students, who seem to know what they want to do. I spent more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter. It was a job that I thoroughly enjoyed. Having the opportunity to interview smart people and write about interesting technology trends was rewarding.

Being a reporter was something I envision doing for a long time. I liked being a reporter – the access to people, the variety of work and the stature of being a member of the media. Becoming an entrepreneur was not on my personal radar.

This changed, however, when a friend of mine, Mark Walker, had an idea for a startup during the original dot-com boom. He convinced me that leaving the Globe & Mail was a great idea. Mark is not only smart but a super-salesman, so I took the leap.

The startup, Blanketware, didn’t work: it was an idea (natural language search) ahead of its time. But I caught the entrepreneurial bug.

After going back to journalism for five years, I threw myself into entrepreneurship in 2006 by joining a startup, b5Media, that operated a blog network. Then, I got traded to a travel startup, PlanetEye. Then, I lost my job during the economic crash of 2008.

At that point, I could have gone back to journalism (aka the easy route). Instead, I decided to start my own consulting business. At the time, it was a difficult decision because I had a young family and a mortgage. But once I took the leap, I never looked back.

One of the biggest things I learned about being an entrepreneur is it’s an all in proposition. It is difficult being an entrepreneur, while still wondering whether the corporate cubicle is a better place. A key part of entrepreneurship is commitment, focus and drive. These are the key ingredients for survival and success.

Since starting my business, I’m surprised by my passion for being an entrepreneur. In addition to doing marketing for startups, I created a Canadian blog directory, co-founded an online wine delivery business, and written a book.

Now, being an entrepreneur is a such a strong calling that I would never go back to the corporate cubicle.

Whether you’re fresh out of school or spent years in the workforce, there is a way to embrace entrepreneurship. Sometimes, it’s a matter of having a program such as The Next 36 as a spark plug. Sometimes, you have the freedom to finally make the leap. And sometimes, you have no choice.

For me, the entrepreneurial journey has been surprising, fascinating and rewarding – particularly because being an entrepreneur hadn’t been on my radar…until it was.

For start-ups and fast-growing companies looking to jump-start their marketing, I offer strategic and tactical services. Everything from building marketing engines to telling better stories through messaging/brand positioning, and reaching audiences by developing engaging content.

Talking to Customers Will Reveal if Your Startup Idea Sucks

In many respects, startups are a hypothesis or an educated guess.

An entrepreneur decides to create a startup after experiencing a problem or recognizing an opportunity. This provides enough insight or inspiration to jump on the bandwagon. Armed with optimism and a vision, they throw themselves into product development.

While excitement about an idea drives a startup forward, it is also important to test the hypothesis. The most effective approach is simple: talk to potential customers. Is this a problem they are having? Would they purchase this product? What products do they currently use?

customersBy asking questions, a startup discovers whether they’re on the right path, need to adjust their focus, or missed the mark. It is feedback that reinforces the hypothesis, or forces an entrepreneur to reload.

As a mentor for Startup Next over the past couple of months, the value of talking to potential customers has been clear. During the initial meetings, the entrepreneurs were confident about their ideas because they solved problems.

A key part of the Startup Next’s program is forcing early-stage entrepreneurs to venture out into the world to talk to customers.

In some respects, it is an exercise that forces entrepreneurs out of their comfort zone. It is one thing to develop a product, but another thing to actually talk to the potential customers – strange, but true, reality.

It has been interesting to see startups receive different reactions from customers. Some startups had their ideas validated, while others discovered targeted audiences have little interest in their product. It has made for interesting discussions and changes in strategic direction (aka pivots).

One of the startups, for example, is developing an e-commerce service. To get a better sense of their potential customers, they talked to customers at an Ikea store. They took an interesting approach by talking to customers who had made purchases, as well as customers who were returning products.

The exercise delivered some interesting insight into the kind of customers to pursue – single males between the ages of 25 and 44 who value convenience. As important, the exercise told them who wouldn’t be their customers – women – and why.

While the e-commerce idea is still valid, the startup realized that a focused approach to sales and marketing efforts improves their chances of success. It seems like a basic proposition but this insight is only delivered by talking to customers.

The problem for many startups is they operate in vacuums. They are so enthralled with their ideas that the outside world becomes a distraction or a hurdle to their vision. But customers rule the business world. No matter how good the idea, it is impossible to force a round peg into a square holes (although many startups try really hard to make it happen!).

Talking to customers is an exciting and intimidating proposition because there is a good possibility they will say things you don’t want to hear. This is a difficult exercise for entrepreneurs because it is a shock to the system – no one wants to hear their baby is ugly.

But it’s much better to have customers provide all-importance guidance early, rather than discovering you are selling a product with not enough appeal.

For start-ups and fast-growing companies looking to jump-start their marketing, I offer strategic and tactical services. Everything from building marketing engines to telling better stories through messaging/brand positioning, and reaching audiences by developing engaging content.

Startups Not Solving Problems Are Wasting Their Time

It’s easy to create a startup but they need to created for a reason, other than being sexy and cool.

Startups success happens when they solve problems, drive efficiencies and productivity, help people make more money, etc. It’s “Business 101″.

problemsBut I continue to see startups that are puzzling. They are not solving problems, or offering benefits to potential customers. At best, they are features that could be part of a larger offering, but have little value as standalone products.

Nevertheless, entrepreneurs enthusiastically pursue an idea – pouring time and money into an idea that appears doomed from the beginning. For whatever reason, they believe they’re onto something, even if no one can see it. As an outsider, it makes you wonder whether the entrepreneur gets blinded by optimism.

Over the past six years as a startup marketing consultant, I have seen hundreds of startups. It’s pretty easy to tell who has a shot – even a minimal one – of being successful, and who is not going to make it.

The startups with dubious prospects aren’t tackling a big enough problem or meeting a need. Instead, they work the edges because it lets them get into the game. It’s like wanting to play hockey in the NHL but signing up for a beer league to get started, even though you aren’t talented enough to play at a higher level.

By nature, I’m an optimistic, half-glass-full person so it’s difficult to cast aspersions at entrepreneurs who truly believe in what they are doing. But the startup world is cruel. Most startups failIt happens for many reasons (led by “no market need”), even though the entrepreneurs are completely devoted to their ventures. Still, this hasn’t stopped a growing number of people from creating or working for startups.

The question is whether these people are wasting their time?

You could argue it is a waste of time because it is a Sisyphus-like exercise. (He was the king of Ephyra forced to roll a rock up a hill). No matter how much time, effort or money invested, their startup is not going to work.

So why do people throw themselves into startups? What do they from startups if there is no return on investment? For many people, startups are matter of scratching an itch, or trying to do something different at a time when there is so much economic volatility.

This is particularly applicable to younger people, who have a low risk profile because they have few obligations (aka mortgage, children). At the same time, there are people with more experience who want to see if they can apply their expertise, industry and insight to their own thing. And then there are people who are simply dreamers.

As much as failure is a fact of life, I think one of the biggest benefits for startup entrepreneurs is experience. Failure teaches valuable lessons about operations, sales, marketing and finance. In harsh ways, it shows you what doesn’t work. But it also delivers valuable insight so, hopefully, the same mistakes aren’t repeated.

For many entrepreneurs, their initial ventures may simply be a real-world training “exercise” as opposed to a viable business opportunity. While do not experience success, the stage is being set for their next act: the startup they will create or join down the road. From failure, they will have new tools to navigate toward success.

Being a startup entrepreneur isn’t easy. It’s a cruel, painful and mean world. But every step along the way provides value if you can see the big picture.

For start-ups and fast-growing companies looking to jump-start their marketing, I provide strategic and tactical marketing services. Everything from building marketing engines to messaging/positioning and creating content.