Statistically, telling a good brand story matters. It conveys your voice, what you stand for, and your place in the world. And the better the storyteller, the more likely your company will succeed, catching on in the media and in the minds of your customers.
But lying and bending the truth won't get you to a good story, especially if a startup practices bad behaviors. As infamous health tech falling star Theranos is currently learning during its high-profile fraud trial, the cracks will always show eventually. It had a powerful brand story -- a self-made founder creates faster, cheaper health care for everyone -- but didn't have a good company to back it up.
Good stories more often come from good startups. So here are a few questions to help craft a solid startup story to help grow your business -- one that is effective, inspiring, and true.
What are my company's weaknesses and failures?
No, I'm not talking about your toxic work culture, poor pay, or exaggerated product claims that would even make P. T. Barnum blush -- though, if those are your weaknesses, you should definitely fix them. I'm talking about a "warts and all" approach to finding your story.
When it's time to look in the mirror and really think about what makes your story compelling, most startups have a really hard time. They see their motivations and circumstances as mundane and ordinary. They remember the early days as mismanaged, disorganized, and embarrassing. They see their personal passions and motivations as indulgent, and any struggles or failures as a sign of weakness. And so they think the answer is smooth over the rough edges -- to embellish or fictionalize something flawless. That's a mistake, as Theranos learned when it reportedly decided to hide its difficulties perfecting its tech in favor of boosting its image as a miracle worker.
Universal experiences like failure can be valuable to a brand's story if used in the right way -- with humanity and demonstrating a commitment to getting things right. So, tell the flawed truth. And, most important, work on fixing those flaws. Being a good startup, and not just a made-up startup story, means admitting something's not working, correcting it, and then making it part of a stronger foundation for your future success.
Like in movies, failure makes for a great first act, allowing others to invest in the story of how you overcame and found success. So tell the truth and let it set you free.
How does my startup help people?
No, in this case, a business is not a person, no matter what the Supreme Court says. Your goal should be to solve a problem, showing some sort of value to people in addition to other corporations. Not every startup needs to save the world. But just remember that a smart piece of tech or innovative idea makes everyone money, but that doesn't make it a good story -- or a good startup. The stories that connect are the ones that keep their messaging and solutions planted firmly on the ground, showing results that impact and improve lives, not just bank accounts.
Theranos apparently understood this all too well when it became a media darling by regularly touting its tech's ability to not just slash medical test pricing, but to provide a more pleasurable blood-testing experience that saves lives. It tragically forgot to deliver on that promise with a product that worked.
Even as that facade fell apart, a storytelling lesson was learned. It's great that your algorithm saves time and slashes budgets, but consider how its ability to use fewer resources might also positively impact the environment. Yes, your project is easier to use, but does that mean it also increases access for underserved audiences to important information or resources? These are the applications that matter for the purposes of a brand story. Save the financial spreadsheets for your sales presentations.
Is my brand story worth telling?
Good innovations (ones that help people at an enormous scale) sometimes come from troubled or problematic companies -- ones that, despite their best efforts, can't seem to match their altruistic ambitions. When that happens, the truth is that promoting a big brand story might not be the best bet and, instead, a startup should stay under the radar. That might sound strange coming from a PR professional, but it's the truth.
One wonders what Theranos might have actually achieved if its desire to truly help people (and not just be famous for helping people) matched its desire for recognition. Funding is an obvious reality of the startup world, and acclaim is a component of that, but not at the expense of everything else. The "act as if" startup culture has downsides, especially when that mantra is taken to extremes as Theranos did. As a result, we'll never know if Theranos could have thrived in a scaled-down, ethically and medically sound, incrementally innovative but less bombastic form that actually helped others.
A company shouldn't lie for the sake of its brand. At some point, if the mission is at odds with its missionary, it could be more valuable for a brand to choose another path forward -- one that prioritizes being a good startup over being celebrated as a good startup.
Overall, remember -- telling a good brand story isn't about hiding the truth, explaining the features, bells and whistles or listing a bunch of technical specs. It's about making someone understand the mission of your brand at its highest aspiration and then (if you're a good startup) delivering on that promise.