An upstart, by definition, is a newly successful person who bucks the established way of doing things. Author Brad Stone, who has covered technology companies for twenty years, believes today's successful entrepreneurs have added a critical skill that separates them from previous generations: strong communication skills.
I recently spoke to Stone about his new book, The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World. Stone argues that entrepreneurs like Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and Airbnb cofounder and CEO Brian Chesky represent a new breed of tech leaders. They are not the "awkward and introverted" entrepreneurs Stone has covered in years past. Instead, Kalanick and Chesky are "extroverted storytellers, capable of positioning their companies in the context of dramatic progress for humanity and recruiting not only armies of engineers but drivers, hosts, lobbyists, and lawmakers to their cause."
What worked in the past doesn't work today
Today's entrepreneurs must be strong communicators because the demands of the market are changing. According to Stone, "In the past, tech companies were able were able--to a large degree--ignore the world around them, other than their customers, of course. They certainly didn't have to engage in the political process for many years. Microsoft for about twenty years, Google for about ten years."
Stone reminds us that the early days of Uber and Airbnb were marked by nearly nonstop controversy. Uber got hit with a cease-and-desist order three months after it launched. Airbnb had to resist and challenge zoning and hotel laws almost immediately. "They had to be politicians very early on," explains Stone.
In addition to challenging the regulatory market, Kalanick and Chesky had to explain their services in a way that built trust with their customers. "They were asking us to do something our parents told us never to do...get into a stranger's car or stay in a stranger's home," says Stone. "They had to persuade people to be comfortable with something that felt unnatural."
Airbnb's Brian Chesky wears failure as a badge of honor
Chesky, especially, uses an effective storytelling method to build trust. He acknowledges Airbnb's early struggle and failures, wearing it as a badge of honor. In doing so, people see themselves in his story. Who hasn't felt rejected? Who hasn't been snubbed, and made to feel as though their idea was ridiculous? Chesky embraces the rejections and says so publicly.
In 2014 I was invited to speak to entrepreneurs at a summit arranged by the billionaire venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. Chesky was another speaker. I was mesmerized as I watched Chesky spend more time on the history of the struggle than on the product itself. After speaking to Stone, I know why. Chesky was building trust by drawing us into his story.
"For the first two years, I would wake up in a panic," Chesky began. "Everyone thought it was crazy. No one supported us. We had no money. It was the best weight loss program ever. I must have lost twenty pounds because I didn't have any money for food."
Chesky also likes to remind his audiences that early investors didn't believe in the service. "Twenty investors had been introduced to Airbnb. Any one of them could have owned 20 percent of the company for $100,000. Fifteen of them didn't even reply to my email. I met with one investor at a cafe. In the middle of drinking his smoothie, he got up, left, and I've never seen him again."
The stories served a purpose. For customers or partners who might have been skeptical of the service, the stories remind them that they're not alone. Everyone was skeptical, and look at where they are today. "Both Uber and Airbnb had to create trust where suspicion existed," says Stone.
Today's entrepreneurs need communication skills to be set themselves apart and to navigate an increasingly complex global environment. As Vinod Khosla once told me, "Facts alone are not enough; you have to do storytelling." It's no longer enough to have a great product. It's no longer enough to come to a pitch armed with statistics and charts.
Billionaire Richard Branson agrees. "Today, if you want to succeed as an entrepreneur, you also have to be a storyteller," Branson wrote in his blog. "It is not enough to create a great product; you also have to work out how to let people know about it."
Tell a story behind the product--its failures, struggles and successes. Telling it often and consistently will help you build trust and win over your audiences.