Apply to StartupYard Accelerator, Prague

How to Apply to StartupYard in 1 Hour or Less

It’s amazing how difficult filling out forms and following instructions can be for startup founders. But why not? After all, startups aren’t supposed to follow the rules.

Still, this is one thing we strongly recommend applicants to any accelerator take the time to do properly. It only takes an hour or less to write an application that will place you within our top picks for an interview with the selection committee.

This is our strategy for finishing your application as soon as possible. But our application platform F6S, allows applicants to revise their applications continuously until the due date: January 31st, 2018.

Ready to Apply to StartupYard?

We’re looking for startup founders in Crypto, AI, IoT, and AR/VR!

Get started applying to StartupYard Batch 9. Applications close January 31st, 2018.

Apply to StartupYard in < 60 Minutes

 

Phase One: Data Entry (5-10 Minutes)

Pro Tip : Don’t go in Order! Go through the whole application and fill in the data answers first. This should be easy, and it will help you better answer the other questions.

For example: When did you start your company? How much revenue have you made? What is the total amount of cash invested?

Also use this time to fill in your team information. You’re building a picture of the company basics here, you’re not telling the story just yet.

Also provide any links or documentation requested at this stage. Now the annoying part of the application is totally out of the way, and you can focus on the good stuff: the long form answers.

Phase Two: Positioning Work (20-30 Minutes)

Pro tip : Do this in a separate text file!

Go to our post on Positioning for Startups, and read it first. After reading it (not before), use the template provided to fill in your positioning statement:


Product Positioning Statement:

(Our Product) is for (target customers):

Who (have the following problem):

Our product is a (describe the product or solution):

That provides (cite the breakthrough capability):

Unlike (reference competition):

Our product/solution (describe the key point of competitive differentiation):

 

To be extra nice, I’m going to give you a concrete example you can compare your statement with in terms of length, specificity, and scope.

“MyFamilyApp is for parents of young children, who can’t afford to hire a babysitter and take a night off every few weeks. MyFamilyApp is a social platform that allows parents to share responsibilities with other parents, and get some time off for themselves. Unlike a paid babysitter, MyFamilyApp is free to use, and is restricted only to verified parents who pass a strict background check.”

(Note: This is just a fictional example. We would likely not be interested in this kind of product, though a good positioning statement would force us to at least consider it).

Another pro tip: The Positioning Statement is not a marketing document. It is a clear description of what your company does, how, and for whom.

Phase 3 : Answering The “Hard” Questions (10 Minutes)

Now that you’ve done the positioning statement, the remaining questions are relatively easy. What problem do you solve? Who is your target customer? These have become clear thanks to your prep work.

Also take a few minutes to come up with your answers to the Q&A at the bottom of the application. The more you tell us, and the more questions you ask, the better we will know what you’re looking for, and will be able to answer your concerns.

Phase 4 : Self-Review (10 Minutes)

Here is a checklist of questions to ask yourself before clicking “Submit.”

  • Would a Non-Expert in my field understand basically what I am doing?
  • Have I answered all the questions completely (not just part of the question)?
  • Are my answers also about the company, and not just an advertisement for the product?
  • Am I being really clear and honest about our current status, and not exaggerating or distorting the truth?
  • Is my spelling and grammar reasonably good? Do I write in complete sentences and  thoughts?
  • Do I sound like someone that would be good to work with?
  • Have I clearly shown why my project is a good fit for the accelerator? Have my answers shown that I am aware of how acceleration works?

And there it is: you’ve just shot to the top of our list with a great looking application. We look forward to seeing you in the next selection round.

Ready to Apply to StartupYard?

We’re looking for startup founders in Crypto, AI, IoT, and AR/VR!

Get started applying to StartupYard Batch 9. Applications close January 31st, 2018.

Startups: Do You Make Me Money, or Save Me Money?

Something jumped out at me from a recent podcast by Y-Combinator with Des Traynor, Founder of Intercom. Asked about the problem he solves, he described how over time, their approach to sales has changed:

“. When you’re trying to pitch them something, they just say “Hey, here’s my two numbers, which one of these are you changing?” And I think when we show up and we’re like, well if you love your users you’re going to stick around, and they’re like sh-sh. Don’t care about any of that. Are you going to make me money or save me money? And we need to get better at answering that question. And we need to have better evidence to answer that question.”

In Startup culture, there is always a lot of talk about “solving problems.” Every product and service has to solve some problem. That’s true as far as it goes, but “solving a problem” for your users is not, in itself, enough to build a business on. You have to also answer some version of this question: how do you make me money, or save me money?

As we accept applications for StartupYard Batch 9, this question will be forefront on our minds when making initial selections.

Lots of problems exist, but not all of them are promising new businesses. How do you know when you’ve nailed down that problem that people are willing to pay money to solve?

You can check out the video podcast here:

A Problem That Isn’t a Problem

The reason we always begin our acceleration program with the classic Positioning Statement, is that expressing the problem you solve is one of the hardest things an early stage startup has to manage.

Often times the “problem” founders pick to talk about is just another way of saying that their customers want their product. Maybe they do, but why?

Over the course of in-depth positioning discussions with dozens of startups, I’ve developed a sort of framework for determining whether a problem is in fact a real problem, and not a “startup problem.” While not universal, this framework is extremely helpful in determining whether you’ve really nailed down the problem you’re solving.

I apply this mental checklist:

  • Does the problem have clear financial implications?
  • Is the customer aware that this is a problem?
  • Does the customer actively search for other solutions?
  • Is this problem something your customer would list among their most important concerns?

One of the most typical early positioning problems is that founders will identify things like “a better interface,” or “more efficiency,” or “saves time,” as the key benefits of their solution to a problem.

But by applying this checklist, we can see that benefits like “saving time,” are not always as urgent as they might appear. Does the time have a clear financial cost? Is the customer aware that they can do something faster? Would they actually seek a faster solution on their own? Is this time that they are wasting a concern for them?

You can sell me a way to shower in half the time every morning, but I wouldn’t buy it. It’s only a problem if the time I spend showering is a frustration to me.

Sometimes I ask founders: “Have you ever sat down and googled: “how to do x faster?” Most of the time, they haven’t, because that’s not typically how people behave. Only when something is taking so long, and is so arduous that it has become a clear problem, do people act to find solutions.

A Case Study: Steel Mountain

Steel Mountain

Getting your positioning, and particularly your problem statement to answer those questions can mean changing deeply how you talk about what you do, and how you see your customers, and who they are.

I’m going to use the case of one of our most recent startups Steel Mountain, the home-network security company that will soon be offering a single device to monitor and protect homes from digital intruders, viruses, and other threats.

Steel Mountain, it must be said, were already in a more than usually advanced stage of development when they joined our program, but I would say this exact roadblock was among their toughest questions early on. They had a compelling product, but they needed to really be able to express the problem that it solves.

The “You Need Us” Problem

After about a month in the program, their positioning looked something like this:

“The privacy and security of homes and small businesses are increasingly at risk from digital threats. Steel Mountain’s Secaura device plugs into your router, providing enterprise grade security across your entire home network. Unlike typical security software, Secaura covers all connected devices instantly, requires no active maintenance, and employs advanced artificial intelligence against known and unknown security threats.”

That is a very straightforward positioning statement, quite typical of a security company. Just one problem: it doesn’t quite pass the checklist I mentioned earlier. Let’s see:

  • Does the problem have clear financial implications?

Not really. We are told first of all that there is a threat lurking out there somewhere online. But that threat has no exact proportion, and the target customer (the head of a household or small business), is at pains to estimate how much exactly a digital threat means in terms of lost income, lost business, theft, or other mischief.

  • Is the customer aware that this is a problem?

Maybe… although given that this is such a simple solution to a complex problem, it’s rather doubtful that anyone who truly understands the problem doesn’t already have a solution in place. Perhaps there is market awareness of the problem, but we aren’t yet clear from this statement that the target market knows they’re in real danger.

  • Does the customer active search for other solutions?

Again, it’s not yet clear whether the target customer actively engages with this problem at all. Some probably do, but the alternatives mentioned, such as security software, serve only a minority of households. Most do not have a sophisticated solution in place. Is the product only for security minded people, or is it for people who can’t deal with complex solutions?

  • Is this problem something your customer would list among their most important concerns?

Again, we can speculate that the typical household or small business does not list security among its top concerns. Those that do are probably using more complex solutions. For those who are using no solution, it is seen more as a low-level, constant issue that many people would rather ignore than understand, and most people believe will never have an effect on them either way.

As we can see clearly from this checklist, we haven’t identified an urgent, well-understood need from a well-defined target customer. 

Making the Problem a Real Problem

How did Steel Mountain come down to a positioning statement that did involve a clear problem and urgent need for the solution?

First, they took the painful but necessary step of considering that while their expertise and the value of the product as they see it is in security technology, the typical customer in their target market has no way of evaluating such products.

Instead, they went back to these 4 checklist questions and identified a problem that satisfies all of them at once.

The problem they identified was this:

 

“Parents of families feel great pressure to provide a safe digital environment for their children, and are prone to wasting money and effort on partial security solutions that never completely protect their homes and families.”

Bingo.

For starters, we have narrowed the customer set in this positioning statement to parents. In doing so, we’ve been able to identify a more universal emotional and social problem that the target customer can easily identify with.

So the problem is no longer: “my home is not secure,” but instead: “I am afraid of feeling like a bad parent who can’t protect their family.”

How does it do with the checklist?

  • The problem has clear financial implications. Every parent has wasted money on safety equipment that wasn’t really needed. This solution promises to end that guess-and-check approach to digital security.
  • The customer is very aware of the problem. Any parent who gives their child a smartphone or a tablet knows the dangers, and tries to consider them.
  • Nearly every parent in the target market has or will in the future investigate digital security to protect their children. The solutions are in fact much broader than merely software, as in the earlier positioning statement. Education products, specialty devices, operating systems, and many other solutions are available to address the same concerns. This solution can now be compared to those as a cost effective and complete alternative
  • Child safety is a top concern for most families with children. Again, by shifting the problem to one of “parents with children” rather than “owners of homes,” we have also shifted the conversation towards top concerns that parents have, for their children. Now, rather than comparing Secaura to an anti-virus software, we can compare it to other home security essentials: baby monitors, door locks, or fuse-plugs.

This process also helped the founders identify more features of the product that were very attractive for customers. Parental content locks, and “bedtime” settings for individual devices, though the founders had included them as an afterthought, were of prime interest to this new target market.

The reactions the founders got began to change because of this new positioning.

When Steel Mountain’s CEO Will Butler began pitching the company with this strategy, the change in enthusiasm was remarkable. People in his target market started asking: “Can I have one?” And “I’ve always wanted that!” It went from a geek product to something the customer had to have, and should have already owned.

Steel Mountain CEO Will Butler pitches about the stress of living up to your role as a parent.

It’s often said that “people don’t buy security.” What’s really meant by that is that people have a hard time seeing the value of something that protects us against a problem we don’t understand. If the product solves a problem we do understand, and even better, one we already have right now, then the customer is much more likely to consider buying it.

Some security companies only manage to sell to customers who have already been victimized by attacks and theft. But others find a way to sell “peace of mind,” instead.

When solutions really find a clear and understood problem and customer, they begin to feel not just strong, but practically inevitable. Why hasn’t someone done this before?

Applying it Yourself

Of course, not every problem has to do with security, or money, or peace of mind. Your customer might not be concerned with saving or making money. The logic of the framework is about the relevance of the problem to a particular customer. Have you picked a customer and a problem that match?

If not, how can you change your thinking about who the customer really is, or what their problem really might be?

Squaring that circle is never easy. As a founder, you’re naturally absorbed in what you’re building, and driven by your own reasons for building it. Opening up and applying that work to problems you haven’t considered is part of a continuous creative process. It involves talking to your target customer and others about what their real feelings and concerns are.

You have to talk to a lot of people. Not just customers, but the people who sell to those customers, and understand them best.

Getting the problem right is a life or death challenge for an early stage company. That’s one of the reasons an accelerator can be such a great choice for a team like Steel Mountain, or many other companies we’ve worked with. The opportunity to shift your thinking and test it with so many mentors and potential customers in such a short time is a rare opportunity for a startup.

 

StartupYard is currently accepting applications for Batch 9. We’re looking for startup founders in Crypto, AI, IoT, and AR/VR!

Get started applying to StartupYard Batch 9. Applications close January 31st, 2018.

Video: StartupYard Alumni Founders Tell Their Stories

At the end of StartupYard Batch 8, we asked our founders, along with some alumni to tell us about their experience with us for 3 months. Here is what they had to say.

StartupYard is currently accepting applications for Batch 9.

We’re looking for startup founders in Crypto, AI, IoT, and AR/VR!

Get started applying to StartupYard Batch 9. Applications close January 31st, 2018.

 

Accelerator, StartupYard

Choosing an Accelerator: 11 Questions to Ask

So you’ve got an idea for a tech startup. You’ve done your positioning statement, you’ve talked to people you trust about the idea. Maybe you’ve even talked to customers. Maybe you’ve already sold your product, or gotten users to sign up for your beta. Fantastic. Now maybe you need a Seed Accelerator. Not every tech startup needs one, and not every accelerator is the right choice. How do you know?

To Accelerate or Not?

At StartupYard, 59 startup investments in 6 years have shown us that the most important factor for founders looking at acceleration programs is fit. If the founders and their company are a good fit for the program, with the other startups, the mentor community and investors behind it, then the stage of the company, the domain, and the market focus are not nearly as important.

Accelerator, Startup, StartupYard,

This is why we’ve invested in companies doing hardcore cutting edge technology like AI and Cybersecurity, but also companies doing technologically simple things, like marketplaces, and sharing economy startups. If the fit is good, then the diverse backgrounds and ideas of the founders enhance each other, and mentors and investors get more engaged, because all of them are able to find something they’re passionate about in every batch.

We emphasize fit over most other considerations. How can we actually help companies succeed?

Nothing can guarantee fit, but there are at least 11 things you *can* ask any accelerator to determine whether it is the program you really need.

So here they are:

1. Why Is the Accelerator Interested in My Startup?

Few founders ask us this, but to me, it’s a potential game changer as a question.

What I see as an ideal answer is: “Because we see potential in your team, because we believe in the market you’re in, and because we think our program can help you.” It helps if the accelerator likes your technology, sees it as a big opportunity, and doesn’t want to miss out. But that’s unlikely to be enough on its own.

If the accelerator can’t clearly show you why your interests are aligned, you should think twice.

2. Are You Convinced by My Pitch?

Everyone likes validation. But you don’t necessarily want an accelerator that isn’t willing to say “no.”

We are not convinced by every pitch we hear, and that’s ok, if we *are* convinced by the team. Founders should go into a program knowing that they may need to consider big changes to their approach, and their assumptions. We want teams with a passion for their ideas, but not with a toxic sense of pride.

If an accelerator is not willing to voice doubts when you ask, then it might be a sign that they aren’t going to challenge you when needed.

3. What Do Your Investors Want, and/or Where is the Money Coming From?

Another key question almost no one asks. You really should, because the investors largely determine the direction of the accelerator. They ultimately control who runs the program, and thus the decisions being made.

If the money is from a corporate sponsor, what does the corporation want? If the money is private, then why are the investors backing this accelerator? Pay attention to how aligned the accelerator team are with the investors. If the investors and the team have a solid relationship, then you aren’t dealing with office politics or competing ideas about what success looks like.

4. Does the Accelerator Management Team Have A Stake?

This is related to the previous question. Ideally, the decision makers at the accelerator have a financial stake in the decisions they are making. This helps you to determine what their motivations in working with you really are.

Is it a deal breaker if they don’t have a stake? Maybe not, but you need to know who you’re talking to. The decisions a person makes when they have no financial stake in the outcome are bound to be different. Is the person making a decision because of the politics of their job, or because they really believe in it?

5. Why Are Your Terms What They Are?

Terms vary between accelerators. I don’t think there’s an ideal formula for how much an accelerator gives, or how much equity it takes. Zero equity programs are not always a bad thing, and programs that give more or less money for more or less equity have their own reasons for doing so.

Accelerator, StartupYard

The answer tells you how the accelerator views their role in your company. “Founder friendly” terms are very important. On the other hand, a mature investor is also up front about what they would be willing to do in case something went wrong with the relationship.

The terms are one thing, but the answers are another. Any contract is in place primarily to outline a relationship, not to define it in personal terms. Those personal terms often matter more than what’s on paper, so you need to know why the terms are the way they are.

6. Have You Ever Fired a Startup During the Program?

Not every accelerator has ended a relationship with a startup in less than ideal circumstances. It does happen though, and the story is usually instructive.

StartupYard, for example, has been very open about relationships that have gone wrong. In case such a thing happens, we try hard to identify the mistakes that *we* have made that led to the problem. In each case (and there has only really been one out of 59), we recognized our own errors in choosing, working with, and helping those companies. We have only “fired” one company during our program.

Accelerator, StartupYard

We were not vindictive and did not blame them for our own mistakes. If an accelerator puts blame only on the other party, that may indicate that they don’t acknowledge their failures or their part in the relationship. We all make mistakes, but you need investors who learn from theirs, and are not afraid to tell you about them.

7. What Do You Expect from Me?

What we expect from our founders informs how we choose companies to work with, and what we see as success when they go through our program. We have our own tough standards, but they are not universally what all accelerators expect.

We want every one of our companies to be a unicorn. We expect them to try. We expect ambition and drive, and hard work. We expect companies to improve markedly in all areas during our program. We expect them to challenge themselves and to meet challenges that we help them set.

But if you ask us, we will tell you that we also expect things like personal availability, honesty, willingness to talk about your motivations and to discuss your feelings. We expect our founders to take a broad range of input that other accelerators might not insist on. We expect them to adjust their ambitions according to new realities; to make changes swiftly if something doesn’t work, and react to obstacles rather than avoiding them.

Some accelerators will give hard and fast expectations in terms of growth, even on a weekly basis. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but you need to understand the consequences of failing to meet those expectations.

You just need to know what you’re getting into, and what success looks like to accelerator you choose. Be honest with yourself, as to whether these are things you really want, and can handle.

8. What is Special About Your Ecosystem? Why Should I Go There?

Accelerators are deeply affected by their location in a particular ecosystem. What that ecosystem has and doesn’t have, and where it is, are important factors in your decision.

For example, StartupYard is located in a beautiful, accessible, and highly livable city: Prague. Our geography places us between East and West. We see that as a big advantage, and we want startups who also see it that way.

Our ecosystem has its strengths and weaknesses. Its size makes corporates more available, while it also limits which industries are most engaged here. The history of our region affects what we have to offer startups, and we work hard to express those peculiarities and special qualities to our companies.

Pick an ecosystem that works for you. Just because a place is big, doesn’t mean it’s best. Just because there’s money, doesn’t mean it’s the *right money*. The accelerator’s answers to this question will tell you a lot about how they see their value to you.

9. Does the Accelerator Pay The Mentors?

Accelerator, StartupYard

Hopefully the answer is “No.”

Of course, accelerators do pay for input from professionals in areas like design, marketing, speech coaching, in-person sales, and other soft skills. These workshop runners are professionals, and you get what you pay for. Mentors are different, however.

A mentor community should be all-volunteer because the connections that founders make with their mentors must be genuine. These are people who you will be relying on to follow-up, to open their contacts to you, make introductions, and be available for further advice and support down the line. That has to come from a place of passion, not greed.

Our mentors do it for various reasons. It improves their personal or company brand, it makes them look good, it gives them insight into emerging trends, etc. Primarily our mentors tell us that they do it because of the personal fulfillment and stimulation they get out of being mentors. These are high achieving individuals, who relish the chance to talk to people at the beginning of their own journey, and share their wisdom and knowledge.

That should be enough.

10. What Entrepreneurial Experience Does the Management Team Have?

An accelerator is for true entrepreneurs. No one is better suited to recognize your entrepreneurial strengths and weaknesses than a fellow traveler. That’s why most of StartupYard’s management team are founders of one kind or another themselves.

The management team don’t have to all be former tech startup founders. I was not a startup founder when I joined StartupYard. Neither was our Associate Helena, or our Portfolio Manager Jaromir. But we had all been entrepreneurs of one kind or another.

Cedric Maloux, our Managing Director, was a tech founder before it was cool, in the mid 90s. Helena owns a Yoga Studio, I run several side projects, and our Head of Partnerships, Gustavo, ran his own healthtech company for several years- we met because he applied to StartupYard with that project. It failed, but no one has better insight as to why it failed, than he does.

A military leader with no combat experience is a danger to the people he leads. It’s the same in Startupland. An advisor who hasn’t seen plans and dreams fall apart, is a liability to the founders he or she advises.

11. Do You Have Partnerships with Potential Customers?

Accelerators are not just about learning. They’re about doing. A key part of growing your company is going to be working with larger partners inside and outside the tech industry. A B2B startup needs real customers to talk to, and a B2C startup needs to talk to companies who serve the customers they are after. So ask about the accelerator’s real relationships with companies that may be important to your success.

In Startupland, there are “Partnerships,” and there are Partnerships. Promotional partners are cheap, and the relationships totally impersonal. Sponsorships and co-operational partnerships are better. An ongoing partnership is better than a short-term one.

You want an accelerator with a real working relationship with key players inside multiple industries and corporations. You may not always know which contacts you need, so the depth of the partnerships are important. Just because a company’s logo is on the accelerator website, doesn’t mean you’ll get past the secretaries if you need to.

So when you ask about these partnerships, pay attention to which contacts the accelerator actually has: they should be C-level, or other empowered representatives like board members, founders, and investors.

No accelerator will have powerful contacts in every corporation or government institution you may need, but an accelerator should have strong relationships in a range of key industries. This is why StartupYard has a dedicated team member for Partnerships, and it is why we have investors with deep ties to tech-related industries, who can leverage their networks for founders.

 

StartupYard is currently accepting applications for Batch 9. We’re looking for startup founders in Crypto, AI, IoT, and AR/VR!

Get started applying to StartupYard Batch 9. Applications close January 31st, 2018.

Build a Killer Customer Persona that Works in 5 Minutes

This week I’m in Kiev, talking to early stage startups in one of eastern Europe’s most interesting emerging tech markets. I’m mentoring at SeedStars, a leading international tech entrepreneurship platform that connects people and ecosystems together.

Ukrainians have a deserved reputation for cleverness and skill as engineers, but as in any very mathematically inclined culture, tech entrepreneurs here often struggle with customer oriented thinking. Because in the last few decades, most of ukraine’s tech industry has been based on outsourcing, product design thinking has not been a priority.

But that’s changing. One thing I’ve noted in my sessions so far is that local entrepreneurs are globally minded, and key to learn new tricks and mindsets in order to achieve their goals. Give me hunger over raw ambition any day: it’s clear these young tech people are looking to grow and to be part of a better future.

The Killer 5 Minute Customer Profile

The truth is, in Central Europe I have less and less occasion to talk to techies about positioning and problem oriented thinking, because the culture has become used to the ideas StartupYard has been promoting for many years.

But today I’ve pulled out an old favorite I personally love to use: the 5 minute customer persona. It’s quick, it’s dirty, but it’s a great way of challenging your thinking about what your company is really selling.

Why do a customer persona?

Most founders are used to the idea that a startup “solves problems.” The trouble is that often the “problem” as they view it is essentially “our customers don’t have our product.”

Take the case of a recruiting platform I met today. The problem they were solving, according to them, was “recruiters don’t have a single platform where they can gather all their leads.”

Maybe that is a problem, but it functions more as a description of the product. I asked the founders a simple question: would your target customer google the phrase “single platform for gathering recruiting leads?” And if so, what would they actually find there?

The answer is a ton of different products. Agencies, software, content, forums. A problem this generic has no one answer.

Enter the 5 minute Persona

Instead of defining the problem, I ask the founders to do a simple paper exercise. I write down the job title of the customer at the top of a piece of paper, and on the left margin I create three sections: Goals, Frustrstions, Fears. It looks like this:

Head of Recruitment Persona

Goals:

Frustrations:

Fears:

Fill in each section (in order!) with 2-3 key points. If you aren’t sure, bracket the point. This helps show what you know and don’t know about the customer, and to get you thinking in their shoes. It’s important to phrase the points as they would be seen by the *person* behind the persona, not the company, or just the position.

The persona we built took five minutes, consisting only of me asking questions about the customer:

Head of recruitment

Goals:

  • Increase Deal Flow (fees)
  • Train subordinates well
  • Improve Pipeline value

Frustrations:

  • Turnover in the team
  • High customer expectations
  • Lack of deal flow

Fears:

  • Automation (bots, AI)
  • Conflicts of interest with clients
  • Competition (Cheaper? Faster?)

Pretty simple, but here’s the clever bit: I then ask the founder to state the problem by describing the fears of the customer, describe the solution as solving the frustrations mentioned, and then describe the outcome as the goals you’ve identified.

Eg:

Problem: Competition and automation threaten recruiters. They need better deal flow and fewer errors to stay ahead.

Solution: a platform that helps you train your team and manage your deal flow, meeting high customer expectations faster.

Outcome: higher fees, a better team, and more business.

This pitch has been transformed into a winner in just minutes.

By starting at the “outcome” or goals, and working down to fears, you get away from your biased views of what customers need or want. First empathizing with the customer, then identifying the benefits your product offers (frustrations), and only then getting to the motivation to buy (fears), we short-circuit our biases about what’s important about the product.

Do This Often

This tool is so easy, I often feel bad for founders who don’t know it. Often they think me as if I’ve revealed some incredible secret, but this isn’t hard to put into practice at all.

In fact, you ought to do it every time you think about a customer, an investor, or even a new hire. Practicing empathy helps us to gain insight into what we know, and shows us what information and experience we lack. And practicing empathy is not rocket science.

It starts with a 5 minute routine.

 

StartupYard is currently accepting applications for Batch 9.

We’re looking for startup founders in Crypto, AI, IoT, and AR/VR!

Get started applying to StartupYard Batch 9. Applications close January 31st, 2018.

Startups Talk Press

How Should Startups Talk to the Press?

How should startups talk to the press? So you’ve launched your startup. Now the hard work starts. This week, we happily announced 7 new startups at StartupYard, and they all got a chance to meet the press. Over the past 2 days, numerous articles have appeared about them in the Czech press.

Here are the top hits for StartupYard in Google News (they are only a few of the articles published)- note the variety of headlines

How Smart Startups Talk to the Press: Be Prepared

So how did they do it? Despite the way movies make press conferences appear spontaneous and easy, they are actually carefully staged events. The press pitch, or the act of approaching the press with an idea for a story, is also a staged process.

Particularly when it comes to startups, it’s usually the founders who need to generate interest in the story. Journalists aren’t knocking down our doors, and few small companies get press they don’t earn.

Old fashioned preparation works today, just as it did 50 years ago. Take heart though: today, being prepared is easier than ever.

How to Prepare

We use a kind of refrain at StartupYard when it comes to press. It is: “make the press’s job as easy as possible.”

While no good journalist is lazy, all good journalists have too much to do. Making life easier doesn’t mean spoonfeeding them PR, but it does mean doing the boring stuff yourself.

A journalist has a reputation to protect (hopefully a good one). So you need to help them feel at ease. Certainly, if you don’t appear prepared, a journalist isn’t going to take a risk writing about you.

Here’s what you can prepare for a journalist before bugging them to write a story about you or what you are doing:

  • A Press Packet (PDF, Dropbox Folder, etc)
    • Photos of the team
    • Screenshots or shots of the product in use
    • Company one sheet, with Company history
    • Financial and user data if needed
    • Testimonials if you have them
    • Contact details and bio of team members
  • A Press Release with the Story
    • Properly formatted
    • Well written and objective (not a sales pitch)
  • The product: Website URL and credentials if needed to test a product
  • Pick the right target
    • Someone who has written about you or your industry.
    • Someone you have a personal/professional connection to
    • Someone whose writing you like
    • Someone at a publication that matters to your audience

It’s possible a journalist won’t need all this stuff to write about you. They might also write about something slightly different than what you pitched them.

Still, it’s helpful for the sake of your own clarity and confidence to have all these items ready to deploy. You never know when someone will ask for them. And if they do, it might be because they want to write about you.

Know Your Audience

Remember, you’re trying to get a journalist to write about you. So it pays to research exactly what that journalist is interested in, and what info they usually like to cover.

Some famous tech journalists have even published explicit guides on how to pitch them a story.

Mike Butcher is one example of this. While I find his approach a bit extreme, and also very much focused on tech-industry journalism, many of his points are universal. If you can’t answer every question he mentions, you might not be ready to talk to the press.

Solve a Problem for the Journalist

In that same infamous cheat sheet, Butcher writes:

“The most solid pitches come when the startup relates what they do to a CURRENT news story of the day. For instance, say Apple just came out with a new kind of headphone, and your startup has a product relevant to music or headphones. THAT is when you should jump all over the media – while your story is current and you can get into the tail-wind of a hot story. Not 6 months later when we’ve all moved on and forgotten about headphones.”

There’s a reason this is right out in front.  Remember that the journalist has a job, and it involves generating content their readers want. If they don’t get read, they lose their jobs.

In addition, if they don’t “break” stories, and become a trusted source of news, then their reputation never grows, and they don’t advance professionally.

So you need to approach members of the press as people who have their own needs. As such, how can you help them fulfill those needs?

Here are a few easy ways to do that:

Become a trusted source: Journalists from several publications regularly ping me for my opinion on various topics. Often I am not quoted or mentioned, but when I have a story I want the journalist to tell, then it’s likely he or she will at least listen to me. To be a trusted source, you have to give more than you get.

Give them Real News: Remember, the journalist’s reputation is built on their ability to be first, to be right, and to be read. So help them do that. If you have a tip, and it is ethical to share it, then choose a favorite journalist to talk to about it.

Remember Your Friends: The other day, I was on Twitter when I spotted this:

Steve O’Hear happens to be the journalist who wrote the “big story” about our alum Gjirafa, and its founder Mergim Cahani. Since I worked with Mergim to craft the press pitch that got Steve interested in the story, I immediately thought of him.

The good news is, Gjirafa didn’t forget Steve. But when some big news happens for them, they have to remember who was there from the beginning. Journalists take risks on startups all the time. Make it worth their while, and show some loyalty.

Plus, what’s better than Steve O’Hear getting to boast that he broke the story about Gjirafa 2 years before they “made it big,” and he gets to report that he was right all along? That’s a win win. Your best press is the press that loves you.

Make It About the Story. Not About You.

Remember, you are not entitled to a story just because you are a startup. My mother can start a startup. Anyone can. Tech journalists hear about new startups all day, every day.

If you want a journalist to take you seriously, then you need to have a real story. Real news.

Hint: you being a startup isn’t news. You launching a product is *probably* not news. Because who are you anyway?

So what is news?

Real news has a narrative. It connects with what’s going on in the world and where you are. There are other ways to describe it, but It’s simple to think of it like this:

  • Controversy: What about the story is controversial or unexpected? What is challenging or new, or possibly unexplored or counter-intuitive?
  • Trends: How does the story reinforce a trend that the journalist can describe and the audience can recognize? How does it “fit in” with other things that are in the news?
  • Data: What are the facts? Why are those facts significant?

A press pitch that isn’t developing one of those things isn’t doing its job. Why tell your company history? Because it is part of a trend, or a controversial approach or point of view. Why are you doing what you’re doing? Because data shows that it matters. Everything is connected with advancing a controversial idea, a broader trend, and real data.

Keep in mind: You are not the story. You are *part* of the story. An important part, but not the only one.

Your Press Release

How do you deliver that story? There are many methods, but one of the most straightforward is with a classic press release.

We won’t dive into that here, but I will refer you to my authority on this topic: Colette Ballou from Ballou PR, a friend of StartupYard.

Her presentation on PR for Startups gives detailed instructions on how to craft and format a press release. It’s worth studying closely.

What is News?

Because this point is where many startups fail, I’m going to pay special attention to talking about what *is* and *isn’t* news.

I’ve prepared a handy list:

Not News:

  • We launched a Startup!
  • We pivoted our Startup!
  • Our startup is better than another Startup!
  • We have a (generic) opinion on something!
  • We have a (vanilla) mission statement!

Is News:

  • A famous person endorsed our product! (Proximity)
  • A famous company uses our product! (Credibility)
  • Our product solves a problem everyone is talking about! (Timeliness)
  • We are experts on a hot topic and have an opinion! (Authority)
  • We raised Money! (Relevance)
  • We have a controversial mission statement! (Controversy, Sensationalism)

Get Professional Help

I know. You’re a rockstar. Everyone will want a piece of you.

I’ll let you in on a little secret though: rockstars have PR reps too.

You’re a small company, and your authenticity is vital. Still, using a PR pro can really help you develop your approach to press and connections you’ll need to get your story heard.

People see PR as a dirty word. It’s fake, or insincere. But that’s not necessarily the case. A good PR rep that understands and cares about what you do can be magic.

Think of it like this: you help your customers the way you know how. A PR rep helps the press the way they know how. The best marketing and PR isn’t dishonest, it’s mutually beneficial. It helps good stories get told by the right people. You don’t pay PR reps to lie. You pay them to find someone who cares.

StartupYard uses a PR agency. That’s how we get our startups covered in the press. Not because we can’t tell our story, but because we can’t spend all our time on relationships in the press. If you have a good agency, the press will trust them, and work with them. They can bring you credibility, and hopefully help you tell your story better.

With all that said: go forth and tell your story. Just do the footwork too.

Your Landing Page Sucks (Probably)

The Landing Page. Yes, in 2017, this is still an important part of your arsenal of marketing skills as a startup. That’s why at StartupYard, I still do a full-on workshop on just this topic, and why with every startup we accelerate, we drill these basic themes over and over again.

Why? Because the ability to write and execute an effective landing page depends on a very clear grasp of good marketing in general. A landing page is a “single serving communication,” or a piece of marketing that has to speak for itself, and be judged on its own. So it is also a great testbed for ideas, and seeing what works, or doesn’t work.

Since we face many of the same challenges with startups year after year, I thought it was high time to publish a post about the basic principles behind an effective landing page. These strategies can be used in many forms of communication (like email), because they focus on understanding the *why* of messaging decisions, rather than the *what* of any particular message.

What is a Landing Page?

For the purposes of this discussion, a landing page is a part of your website (or online product) where visitors “land” first. Depending on what kind of company you are, you might have only one landing page: your Homepage. Or you might have many. A blog post can serve as a landing page if it is meant to draw people in via search or social media.

Here are some examples of successful modern landing pages of different kinds. Take a moment and appreciate what about them is consistent and familiar.

In this discussion, we’re going to follow the KISS principle, and only talk about one kind of landing page, which is the single-purpose landing page, with one target audience, one message, and one call to action.

The Trust Pizza

Over the years, I’ve worked as a copywriter on uncountable landing pages, and other single-use marketing materials for scores of startups. I’ve devised a very simple formula for determining whether I am being effective with a particular page.

Content is King, as we say. A great message is most important. But an effective message follows from the right approach. Having a formal structure that is designed to be foolproof is important in helping you shape a message.

My formal approach is simple. I call it the “trust pizza.” Here’s what it looks like:

Landing Page

What is important about the Trust Pizza is its shape and the order of ingredients. Follow this simple strategy, and you’re much more able to judge whether your landing page is likely to work or not.

 

  1. Trust = Crust

The most boring but essential element of the pizza is the crust. Not only do we grab a pizza by the crust, we also use the crust to judge the pizza overall.

Just think about evaluating a pizza. If the crust is burnt, what does that tell you about the overall quality of the thing? On the other hand, if the crust is soft and inviting, then you know the pizza will probably be good. Looking at the middle of the pizza tells us very little about it: it might be good, but we can’t know.

The “outer layer” of a landing page is just like that. Trust is composed of every background element of your page. Do you have a header and footer? Do you have appropriate links and contact details? Is the font, color and any background image on-brand?

You should spend as much time on these details as you do on the central message of a landing page. These things tell us whether you can be trusted at all, much less believed in this particular case. Get them wrong, and forget about anyone taking a “bite” out of your landing page.

The trust crust also reminds us not to get too clever. At the end of the day, no matter how revolutionary the idea, a pizza still looks like a pizza. So it is with a landing page. The content should be interesting, but not *less interesting* than the format.

Landing Page

Not only confusing, but actually disgusting.

 

If you want to give the impression that you’re incredibly hip and modern, do so with the understanding that this may be the only message that gets across. I may admire a pizza shaped like the Eiffel tower, but I don’t want to eat it.

2. Understanding = Toppings

The “understanding” aspect of your landing page is the heart of the message. It is the information you want to convey. It’s often a number or a date. It’s a key point. If a visitor remembers anything about you, it should be this.

Of course when you order a pizza, the toppings are the focus. They differentiate your pizza from all other pizzas. Cheese and pepperoni is totally different from a cream sauce with BBQ chicken.

But remember: an effective pizza has only the right combination of toppings. Go too crazy, and you turn something good into something truly nasty. Burgers are good. Fries are good. Nuggets are good. But all 3 on a pizza are not good, they’re gross.

Adhere to the KISS principle (Keep it Simple Stupid), when choosing your toppings. If you aren’t sure how to blend two ideas together, then don’t try. Choose the most important one, and go with that.

Better a few good toppings than a mess of bad ones, right?

Landing Page

All of these things individually are amazing. All of them together are horrifying.

3. Emotion = The First Bite

Finally the good stuff. The pointy edge of your landing page pizza is the spot at which a customer will “bite.” So you need to give them a good reason to do so. You’ve presented an appealing crust, a nice set of toppings, and now you want a nice, crisp wedge shape to finish the job.

This is the Call to Action. The button, or other cue which should prompt a person to do something (take a bite of the pizza), and be led somewhere else on your website, or in your customer funnel.

The call to action is the simplest but often most important part of a page. It prompts the user with their next move, and at the same time must show them exactly what happens when they click the button, follow the link, or enter their information. The “ first bite” has to be rewarding enough: it has to be mouth watering.

The Pizza Shaped Landing Page

Landing Page

The above is a tool for planning and assembling the elements of your marketing message for a landing page. But remember that just as you must form a pizza from raw ingredients into a certain shape, so must you shape a landing page to be enticing and “edible.”

One of the keys here is “visual momentum,” or what I call the pinball effect. That is, the attention and visual interest of the page should eventually lead down to the place where you want eyeballs to be. It can’t *start* there, but it shouldn’t end somewhere else. No big exciting things to see off to the side. No distractions: just one bigger message leader to a smaller one, leading to a simple action.

In principle, you should try to keep the three key sections of your landing page organized in order of interest:

  1. The Headline
  2. The Body (or Subhead)
  3. The Call to Action

 

The Headline

The headline, while simple, should grab the most interest from the beginning. It is something bold and maybe unexpected. It is not, I repeat, *NOT* a list of buzzy words like: “Analyze. Evaluate. Innovate.”

That’s just lame folks. Your headline needs to be a statement about why you’re different. It should be something ripped straight from the “unlike” section of your positioning statement. It can even be negative: “Don’t Be Lame,” or “Had Enough BS for One Day?”

That’s an eye-catching statement. Something weak and defensive is not eye-catching. “We Care about You,” is not compelling. “Our Customers Come First,” is an eye-roll at best. Say something definitive about what makes you different, and more importantly, why your customer should even care.

Remember: the Headline is about letting the visitor know what they’re in for. It’s a signal of what’s to come. So it needs to be a strong one.

 

The Body (Or SubHead)

Here you have the most freedom. You should include numbers, or statistics, or outcomes that your product or service will provide.

“Trusted by 3 of 4 Startups,” for example, or “Proven to lower your costs by 30%.” These are informative, direct statements about what the product is promising to do. If the landing page is for an event or a sale, then it might be time to include the date or time.

Now is *not* the time to sell or urge action. Don’t jump the gun here. You’re being informative. You’re showing the meat of the offer, not closing the sale.

The Call to Action

Now you’re closing. The call to action is simple but very tricky. You want to accomplish a bunch of objectives at once, to some degree or another. You want the visitor to know a number of things:

  • What am I supposed to do
  • When am I supposed to do it
  • What will happen
  • When will it happen

And remember, this is a call to action that may be as long as two or three words. It has to accomplish a lot in that space of time. It needs to rely on context and build upon the preceding elements to do that.

But always consider the call to action in this context: Is it clear to the reader exactly what will happen when they press that button? And is what they think is going to happen what will actually happen? As a landing page is meant to create a relationship, you need to start it off by delivering on what you’ve promised.

Don’t offer something in your call to action that you can’t deliver. Don’t lie. Don’t even get close to maybe being a little bit dishonest. Just don’t do it. 

Here are some common “Call to Action Lies” to avoid:

  • It’s Free! [But give us your credit card]
  • Start Your Trial [Actually give us your contact so we can sell you ]
  • Get it Now [But you have to wait a while]
  • Get the Beta [When it’s ready]
  • Learn More [Just Kidding Buy Now]

Instead, a call to action should do exactly what the user expects. If you want their email, say: “Enter Your Email,” if you want them to buy, say: “Buy Now, Save X.” If you want them to demo the product, then make the demo accessible when you say it will be.

Remember: If you’re thinking it’s a cheat, then your visitor is too. Don’t treat your customers as dumber than you are. Assume they’re smarter.

Stick to the Trust Pizza

Landing Page Pizza

Remember, whatever decisions you make about *what* to communicate, never forget the importance of *how* you communicate it. In my experience, more than half of the message is not the words you use, but rather their format.

Does it look right? Does it make visual sense? Is it weird or somehow off? These details make or break a landing page much more easily than a less than perfect turn of phrase. Stick to the pizza. Don’t reinvent it.

About Part Two: The Good The Bad and the 1999

In part two of this post, we’re going to look deep into some good, bad, and 1999 landing pages, and explore what about them works and doesn’t work.

We’ll be approaching that using the Trust Pizza methodology, seeing how effective landing pages approach visitors with building trust as their priority.

Until then: do a pizza.

Stortelling

What is Good Stortelling? (Part 2)

In our last post, we talked about the “Hero’s Journey,” the basic premise of most modern storytelling.  We looked at some examples of this story in action, and some examples of it done badly.

Now we’re going to talk about your story as a Startup. 

Starting with Characters and Plot

We start every round at StartupYard with Product Positioning Statements. The structure of a positioning statement has a useful clarity. In essence it’s this:

  • Who it’s for
  • What problem they have
  • What the solution is
  • What the competition is
  • What makes this solution unique

This is the plot of the story, and it introduces key characters.

But it isn’t enough. The key to a great story about what you and your company does is conflict. What are you fighting against? What is wrong with the world?

Building an Appropriate Setting

All stories take place against a backdrop. A time and place, or a certain part of the world or of society, or business. And that setting is a part of the story. The setting changes along with the characters. The characters are affected by the setting.

Your setting is a key part of your story because it helps to define the stakes of the story. Putting a story in the wrong setting can damage its impact. For example, telling the story of your Groupon-clone startup against the backdrop of the mobile revolution might be a bit too grandiose. Likewise, for a company doing something ambitious and far reaching, a setting that is too confining limits the story’s impact.

Your Story Seems a Bit Off

Thus, bad storytelling happens when there is a mismatch between the setting and the actual scope of the story. Increasing the efficiency of a complicated accounting process by 10% is not “making the world a better place,” just as altering the way that people travel and view hotels (such as with Airbnb), is not “increasing the availability of lodging by 15%.”

The stakes you are playing for are important. Don’t go too big, and don’t go too small. More importantly, particularly for early-stage startups: bigger is not necessarily better. We can’t all change the world right away.

Identifying Conflicts

Conflicts don’t always occur between competitors. Your conflict is what makes you, as a startup, different from everyone else.

Your conflict is what makes you unique. They are your reason for existing.

If I’m, say, a home security company, then what is the central conflict of my story? It might be that another security company rips off their customers, and I don’t. That’s a conflict with a villain. It might be that people need to be more concerned about their security. That’s a conflict with the status quo. Or it might be something else entirely.

Here are some examples of central conflicts companies use to define company stories:

  • Sustainability: Being more environmentally conscious than competitors
  • Affordability: Sticking up for the little guy and providing a better service
  • Accessibility: Being available to more customers, or to customers with more specific needs
  • The Underdog: A small company fighting the evils of a large corporation
  • Patriotism: Emphasizing a patriotic or locally-focused attitude
  • Exclusivity: Offering something with limited availability, for discerning customers
  • Charity: Using your profits, business model, or market position to do good for others
  • Design Focus: Emphasizing a high attention to material or visual design
  • The EveryMan: Portraying a company as representative of the average person, or lacking in pretension (often the opposite of design focus).

Why do we call these conflicts? Because in every case, the central conflict is put into contrast with an opposing force. Your company is sustainable, but others are not. Your company is charitable, while others are greedy. Your company is focused on normal people, while the competitors are for specialists or geeks, etc.

There is always an opposing viewpoint in brand positioning: there is always someone on the other side of the fence.

Putting Your Conflict Into Words

In Part 1, we talked about how all great stories are human stories. And so the conflict at the heart of a startup’s story has to be a human conflict.

Very often, startups get bogged down in talking about how they see themselves. They’re smart. They’re design-focused. They’re “fun.”

But what is smart? What is design-focused? How do we define fun? Why do we want a company to even be fun? We want those things because of how they make us, the customers, feel about ourselves. People don’t buy products from a company because the company is cool, they buy them because the products themselves are cool, and because owning them makes us feel cool too.

Your central conflict has to drive your story: it has to be what customers think of when they think of you.

Try a creative exercise: Pick a list of negative adjectives to describe how your customers feel about the problem you are solving for them. That list might be something like this:

  • Annoyed
  • Angry
  • Tired
  • Frustrated
  • Trapped
  • Unhappy
  • Hopeless

Do that step first. Now go back and supply a list of roughly opposite adjectives:

  • Relieved
  • Joyful
  • Energized
  • Pleased
  • Free
  • Happy
  • Hopeful

These are the words with which you will describe your customer’s feelings. The feelings your products give to customers are the opposite of the bad feelings they have now.

Thus, a story about a company helping its customers might go something like this:

“So many ordinary people are tired, and frustrated by X. They feel trapped and hopeless because there’s no way to stop X from happening. That’s why we worked long and hard to create [our product], it frees you from X, so you can enjoy relief, feel energized, and be hopeful for a happy future.”

That’s an extremely blunt story (and it sounds like an advert for hemorrhoid medication), but it is a story of conflict. There is evil, human suffering, sacrifice, and triumph. It’s everything a story needs to be.

Picking A Conflict You Can Win

It doesn’t matter how big your competition is, or how big the problem is that you’re solving. A startup story is about how you are different: how you see things differently from others.

In 2000, Google’s startup story was based on the words: “Don’t be Evil.” For a company positioning itself against competitors like Microsoft and Yahoo, both of which already had a reputation for being sort of evil, this story worked well. Google wasn’t bigger. It wasn’t more powerful. But it was *not* evil.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then that 17 years later, this is no longer Google’s story. Yahoo is gone. Microsoft isn’t a member of the “Big 4” any longer. There’s no one for Google to be less evil than anymore.

Your conflict has to be something you can win at, though. Otherwise it’s just ridiculous. Better logistics than Amazon? Probably not. Better natural language processing than Google? Doubtful. You have to be able to win at something a competitor doesn’t do well. What is that thing?

Identifying Arcs

The way that a character in a story changes is called an “arc.” A character begins as one thing, and ends as another. Foolish to wise. Arrogant to humble.

The arc of a character is best seen as a change in what motivates that character- how what they want changes over time. As in the Hero’s Journey, a character with an arc not only becomes wiser, but also wants different things at the end of the story. He or she learns to see the world differently, and thus change their priorities.

When we talk about character arc, it’s convenient to view it in a binary way. Characters are either “rising” (becoming better), or “falling” (become worse). In this way, almost any character arc in a story can be described:

  • Rags to Riches (rise)
  • Riches to Rags (fall)
  • Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
  • Icarus (rise then fall)
  • Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
  • Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

Thus, archetypal characters have arcs that are some combination of rising and falling. But this trope is not contained in just literature. It is all around us. A person’s life story and the story of a startup are a series of these arcs. Telling a story is about showing how a person has changed. Likewise, a startup story is about how the startup, or the founder, or any other character has experienced an arc.

Bill Gates is a Rags to Riches story (not just in the sense of money). He rose from a solitary geek to the king of a software empire. Steve Jobs is a Cinderella story: he rose to the heights of fame, then was drummed out of Apple, but returned to become one of history’s most impactful CEOs.

These arcs are all around us: they play out in every life and in every startup. Which is your arc?

Putting Your Story on Paper

One of the hardest things about my job is getting founders to sit down and commit their stories to words. The anxiety it provokes is very real. Does this story mean anything? Do I sound stupid?

There is a natural tendency for people to avoid exposing themselves for possible shame and ridicule. However, telling your story is a risk: if it doesn’t feel risky, it isn’t a compelling story.

Try to keep in mind the elements we’ve covered here: Your setting, your conflict, your characters, and their arcs. If you’re doing that, you’re probably not doing it wrong.

What is Good Storytelling? (Part 1)

First: What is Storytelling?

There’s no single compact definition that can cover every modern use of the word “story.” You may think of news articles, or children’s fairy tales. You may think of “user stories,” that product designers use to figure out what to build. You may think of a novel. In fact, most stories have common characteristics: characters, settings, plot, conflict, and an ending.

But in talking about a “brand story,” or a “cultural story,” or a “life story,” we are really discussing a specific kind of story: the “Mono-myth,” also commonly known as a “Hero’s Journey.” At the heart of what we call “storytelling” in the modern world, you find this core structure:

The world’s oldest documented story is The Epic of Gilgamesh, written 4000 years ago on clay tabletsIt’s the story of Gilgamesh, a God King of the Sumerian state of Uruk. He begins as a restless and foolish young man, who leaves his city behind to explore the world, faces many challenges, becomes wise, and returns home a hero, ready to lead his people.

That ought to sound familiar. It’s the basis of every epic story from the Odyssey to Star Wars.

The Hero’s Journey works incredibly well at persuading audiences because it is a simple and flexible vehicle for conveying the human experience. It speaks to us about our experiences in life, by recreating those experiences, only with more flair, more danger, and bigger stakes.

The Hero’s Journey

Pick a big successful brand at random. Recall what you can about their “story.”

Chances are excellent that it is a “Hero’s Journey,” following the same pattern laid out 4 millennia ago in Gilgamesh. McDonalds has its Ray Krok, Apple has its Steve Jobs, and Microsoft its Bill Gates.

Not coincidentally, there are movies about all these characters, and they are all Hero’s Journey movies. The appeal of this story is so great that it is virtually synonymous with storytelling in film.

Within each of these stories is a familiar narrative: a misfit, naive and ambitious, confronts a cruel world, fails, grows, and finally succeeds. That is the simple core of every human story, and thus, every company story as well.

Qualities of a Great Story

Now we know what a story looks like. So which are the specific qualities of a really strong story? What makes this overall structure work best? Here are a few things I think are essential in a good story:

Great Stories Have Human (imperfect) Characters

Great stories appeal to the listener by being, essentially, about human nature. Great heroes are appealing because of their humanity, and not because of their power.

 

The 2010’s Most Popular Hero

Think about why people love Batman, or Iron Man: it’s because they are flawed human beings. It is the human experience to face moral tests and temptation. Thus, a story in which good and evil are too easy to separate is a story without any moral tension.

For Example:

You may have at some point spotted this meme making the rounds on Facebook. It’s got enormous viral potential, which is why it has been shared so widely (by both those who find it hilarious, and those who take it seriously)

It’s also a great example of bad storytelling.

In this story, we are presented with two characters in conflict: one entirely sympathetic and brave, the other entirely unsympathetic and cowardly. Thus, the point of the story, or the moral, is never in doubt. While the story creates suspense by making it unclear exactly what will happen, it creates no suspense over what the story thinks should happen.

No one in the story learns anything. No one changes as a person. One wins, and the other loses, but nothing is different at the end.

Great Stories Are About Change

I attended a panel on startups by the renowned actor Kevin Spacey this past weekend. One phrase above all stuck out to me as an example of how he sees storytelling. When asking a founder a question about his motivations in business, the founder responded: “Well, that’s complex.” To which Spacey responded: “Go ahead. Be complex.”

People are complex. So stories must also deal in moral complexity. They must give the heros and the villains an “arc.” As in Gilgamesh (or any epic story), the hero must fail to become wise. A villain must experience pride before the fall. Otherwise, nothing has changed.

Take, for example, this highly compelling commercial from none other than Budweiser, simultaneously America’s best selling, and worst tasting beer:

This is practically the definition of a Hero’s Journey. A young man with a romantic vision leaves home, only to find that the world is harsher than he expected. Enduring many trials, he finds help in unexpected places (the black man on the river boat). Having grown through his experience, he reaches his new home ready to accomplish great works: in this case, brewing beer.

This ad was seen as shockingly political (released weeks after the 2016 US Presidential Election), but it was also very successful. And that is because it is a real story, not just an ad.

It seeks to reframe the story of Budweiser, “America’s Beer,” into the story of Americans themselves, where they come from, and what they should believe in.

It also presents a coherent moral argument: that adversity makes us stronger, and that perseverance leads to success.

Importantly, neither of the two main characters in the story (America, and Budweiser himself), are either purely good or evil. Budweiser shows hints of arrogance from the beginning, before becoming wiser, and America shows signs of openness, even after initially seeming a cruel place indeed.

The story is about these characters changing together.

Great Stories Are About Conflict

As we’ve now seen, conflict is essential to a powerful story.

Conflicts in stories boil down to need. Human beings and societies have competing needs. How those needs are addressed, and which needs win out over others, are key elements of a story.

Convincing an audience that one need is greater than another is vital. Otherwise, why should a person pay attention to your story? It involves no consequences.

This is a video I often use to talk about bad storytelling. It’s a coca-cola ad from the early 1980s, when Coke was getting its ass kicked by Pepsi’s brilliant marketing.

But what’s not to love? Sunny day, happy people, soccer for some reason, and everyone having a “Coke and a smile.”

This ad was a failure, along with much of Coca-Cola’s marketing at the time. There is zero conflict in this story. And because there is no conflict, there is no identification of any urgent need. Do I need to have a coke on a nice day? It seems these people are having fun, regardless of what they’re drinking.

Brands routinely fail to introduce real conflict into their product and brand stories. Here’s a more recent example:

 

There’s a lot wrong with this ad, but the most important problem is that the conflict it presents is false. We see trials and struggles for the hero, but we are told at the end that there is no solution. And instead we should just buy a car. It’s insulting.

Cowardly marketing and bad storytelling happen when we refuse to acknowledge that our customers are people with their own problems. They aren’t just people out in a park having a perfect day, ready to jump at the chance to buy a coke.

They won’t automatically feel better about themselves just because someone tells them it’s ok to buy a car. Even if that car is the best car ever. They have other needs as well- more important ones.

Coke actually learned that lesson. Here is a typical ad from more recent years:

Here is conflict. Suspense! Competing needs and wants. And the brand in the story is associated with wisdom, with the setting aside of personal enmities in favor of love.

That’s a great story to tell. It appeals to people as they are: always in conflict with themselves, and always unsure of what is right.

Creating and Resolving Conflict

How do you make your story real to other people? You do it by making the conflict real to them. By showing them how the conflict in your story should matter to them.

This is also where a lot of startup stories fall apart. They make the mistake of thinking that making a good argument is the same as actually persuading someone. But it is never enough to just be right. The person has to believe you’re right.

In the next post in this series, I’m going to talk about how to identify parts of your story, as a founder, as a company, or as a person, and bring out the hidden conflicts that will help you relate that story, and make it matter to other people.