Founders capitalise on power of narrative

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When Dr Andy Harter hit upon the idea of selling mugs and T-shirts to the programmers that used his Cambridge start-up’s remote access software the most obvious benefit was the £100,000 it raised at minimal cost.

But cash was not the only reward of Dr Harter’s crowdfunding brainwave. It gave him a story, which he now tells to inspire his team of top computer science graduates.

The ability to tell compelling stories that chart the highs, and lows, of your entrepreneurial journey is now accepted by advisers as a critical element of building a successful venture.

Angel investors love to back a winner and many will dine out for years on their demonstrated ability to select and sponsor the creator of a trend.

Stories can also charm your customers. Just ask those Apple disciples who would queue around the block in downtown San Francisco to hear Steve Jobs wax lyrical about what was effectively a laptop or a smartphone with a bit more processing power than his company’s existing product range.

However, many entrepreneurs fail to fully capitalise on the narrative gold within their companies, they either think others will not be interested, fear being made to look vulnerable or lack the communication skills.

When Saul Klein, the entrepreneur and investor, relocated from London to Tel Aviv a few years ago to help Israeli start-ups, one of the first things he did was create a storytelling class.

“This is one of the attributes of successful entrepreneurship that US founders are particularly good at and European and Israeli founders are very poor at in comparison,” he says.

“Customers want to buy from people, not faceless organisations and telling stories make you human.”

It is not just a cultural problem in terms of nationhood, according to Mr Klein. The biggest challenge for many founders of technology start-ups is that their strengths are in engineering not communication.”

Often storytelling is an under developed skillset in these companies because the founders come from very technical, computer science backgrounds, where logic is prized over non-linear, creative thinking,” he says. “Frankly the best products and services have your story embedded in them, which is your brand.”

Business coach David Glassman says a well-told story can motivate most staff. “The believers will go that extra mile with a pioneering spirit that gets translated quickly into war stories for the next generation of recruits,” he says.

“Knowing the value of their individual contributions to the success of the enterprise as a whole is a major reward, one that is far more important than money or bonuses in most surveys on remuneration. Pride in that contribution is addictive.”

Giving an account of what challenges have been overcome as a founder also appeals to one of our earliest childhood memories, the bedtime story.

Those anecdotes usually begin with “once upon a time” and end with a “happily ever after”, just the ending that entrepreneurs tell because the histories are written by the successful.

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