Think about your favorite television show.
I'm willing to bet that it started off a little slow, then hooked you. It had a great season in the middle of its run, then ended in a way that was wholly satisfying.
This is how episodic writing creates a great long-term story. My favorite show right now, hands down, is Ted Lasso, the sports dramedy on Apple TV. And I'm hooked, not only to see what happens from week to week, but also in anticipation of a satisfying ending.
Now, what if I told you that building a startup, by its very nature, follows the same episodic storyline.
Every scripted television series follows three main arcs.
The A-story arc is each episode. It's what is happening in front of you right now. Almost all the episodes are self-contained, and each A-story can be enjoyed on its own. However, there are always plot lines that don't get wrapped up at the end of each episode, because they point to a larger story arc.
The B-story arc is each season. It has its own expanded plot, new twists, maybe even new characters. The B-story usually has its own beginning and end, but new seasons don't completely start over from scratch. Rather, a new season picks up where the last season left off, and it ends with the expectation of a new B-story next season.
The C-story arc is the overarching story of the entire series. The C-Story plot might progress a little bit this week or may not move forward at all. But a good series keeps us interested in the ultimate end game with every single episode.
This is not how television always worked.
Up until about the 1990s, television series were almost exclusively a parade of loosely-connected A-stories, with maybe a razor thin seasonal arc and a retro-fitted series arc only when cancellation was inevitable.
The B-story season arc wasn't so much a storytelling device as it was a means to keep viewers interested in each A-story episode. Characters got married (to increase ratings), maybe had a kid (to increase ratings), maybe an actor left the show so a new up-and-coming star got introduced to replace them (to increase ratings).
In other words, the B-story was reactively written based on real life, not proactively written to advance a larger plot.
At some point in the 2000s, people who made television shows either got more protective about their art or wise to the fact that most television series get canceled after a couple years. Either way, they started thinking about the end of the series from the very beginning.
For better or for worse, Lost is a great early C-story example. The entire show was an answer to the question: "What are these people doing on this island?" And still, that C-Story meandered for years and fell flat.
Today, almost all scripted television is written with the C-Story ending in mind. We all know Ted Lasso will end either when his team wins the Premiere League or when he is no longer coaching them. The C-Story arc of that show is set, and it's part of what makes its A-stories and B-stories so good.
And that's where we can learn something useful from television. Finally.
Write your startup's story proactively backwards from the end.
Some businesses, even startups, are run like old television shows. They write episode after episode, try new things, back-burner others, just hoping to keep the doors open another year.
Other businesses, especially startups, do the opposite. They write a great ending to a fantastic C-Story, but they have no idea what might be the first thing they need to do to get there.
Indeed, the game-changing company you have in mind with the billion-dollar valuation is your C-Story. Dream it. Outline it. Connect the dots. But your billion-dollar series finale is years out. And what's more, the story and its timeline will change and shift as you go.
But just as no good writer starts writing towards an ending with a blank sheet, don't try to build your billion-dollar company on day one. Instead, work backwards, like seasons in a series, from that ending to the beginning. Dream each season's goals and milestones. Outline them. Connect the dots in each.
Then go back to season one.
This is your first B-Story. It's your next six or 12 or 18 months. Season length doesn't matter any more as long as the story gets told.
Fill season one with A-stories -- what you're working on today. Each A-story is self-contained and can stand on its own, but they're all interconnected. Maybe you work on more than one at a time, but only one can be your top priority, because it has to go live. Soon.
When you're finished scoping your A-stories for your first B-story, review all your future B-stories and your C-story, and make sure they still make sense.
It doesn't matter what each A-story actually is -- it could be new software features or services or retail products or sales initiatives. What's important is that you build all those episodes into a season, and all those seasons into a series.
In other words, keep your eye on the billion-dollar valuation, but keep your head in this week's episode.