I’ve been fascinated by startup stories ever since entering the high tech world in 1980. I referenced the origin story of VisiCalc in an earlier post. I’ve either heard or read about the origin stories of many successful startups. (Origin stories of companies that failed, like Friendster, the first social media site, don’t seem to get circulated.).
Perhaps one of the most famous, or perhaps infamous, is the origin story of eBay. Supposedly it’s founder, Pierre Omidyar, built the site to help his girlfriend in her quest to collect Pez candy dispensers. That sounded great, but wasn’t actually the case.
So what makes for a compelling origin story and should you use one in your presentations and conversations with investors and others?
- The best origin stories seem to center around a founder solving a personal problem or creating a new opportunity. Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t trying to create a multi-billion dollar company when he created Facebook. It was actually one of a series of sites he built as a Harvard College student, but all of them had the common and powerful theme of connecting people through technology, e.g. the Internet. Bill Warner, founder of Avid Technology, was a marketing manager at Apollo Computer and was frustrated at how difficult it was to edit the promotional videos he was created. This personal frustration lead to the invention of The Avid workstationc, used to edit thousands of TV shows and movies.
- Origin stories don’t necessarily have to stick to the facts. For successful companies they are more like legends than history. But if you are just starting out your origin story shouldn’t stray so far from the facts that investors or others begin to doubt your veracity.
- Origin stories that focus on helping other people are by far the most powerful. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who was on my advisory board at Mainspring, created the Web to enable better collaboration amongst his research scientists at Cern, where he was working. Rather than patent his invention, in the spirit of academic research he made it free to anyone, with no restrictions. Like the inventors of VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet, he never made any money from an invention that changed the world.
- Providing context is important. When you are creating your origin story it’s important the people learn not just what you invented, but what were your personal circumstances at the time – did you have a day job? what were you doing? did your friends and family think you were crazy, as often happens? were you on the verge of giving up, perhaps more than once, but kept pushing on?
- As Jean-Luc Godard, famously said, “All stories have a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order.” But don’t leap from the beginning – when you got the idea, to the end – when you launched the product. Make sure you include each of these three elements of the story.
- Stay away from technical or business jargon. Nothing will derail you origin story faster than sprinkling it with it jargon. In the best case your origin story goes viral, but it won’t even go over with anyone if it’s encrusted in software, biotech, or AI terminology or larded with marketing speak. As the saying goes, sexist and agist as it is, your mother should be able to understand your origin story (even if she knows it’s not totally accurate.)
- Keep it short and sweet. Many entrepreneurs labor for years trying to bring their idea to life. You need to condense and collapse all the time and effort you put into creating your product into what amounts to a short paragraph.
- Study the origin stories of successful companies. Facebook, Google, Apple, and many other companies have great origin stories easily found on the web. Understand what makes these stories not just interesting but compelling. But your origin story needs to be original. If you seem to be parroting Apple (“My partner and I started out in my parents garage …”) for example, your audience will probably tune you out immediately
Origin stories become part of corporate culture, so they should reflect corporate values and/or mission, though those missions in the case of both Google and Facebook, can and do change over time. The best origin stories become legends, but the odds of this happening are about the same as turning an idea into a billion dollar company. But those odds not only don’t seem to deter entrepreneurs, I’ve never met a founder who even bothered to consider them.