Harness the Power of Your Origin
Describing the rationale for your product or company is an inspiring message for all your stakeholders
“When Buddy, my 14-year old Golden Retriever, was deathly ill with cancer, my vet prescribed me pills that cost $100 for ten pills and told me that Buddy needed to take 3 pills a day. What was I going to do? Of course I shelled out for the prescription. I’d do anything for Buddy. But when I told a friend who works in the pharmaceutical industry about the expense of Buddy’s prescription, he told me that veterinarians can get 100 of those pills for $10. I was astounded, then angry, and then I decided that others shouldn’t have to put up with this kind of mark-up when it comes to their sick pets. That’s why I started Pethealth.com, the cheapest place online to buy pet medications.”
That is the story that the founder of a business I used to work for (names changed) told investors, employees, and customers, and anyone else who would listen. He could easily have said: “Our mission is to drive down the cost of pet health care and to dominate the pet medication market through a low-cost, high-volume strategy.”
Which story would be more successful in motivating employees, in getting funding from investors, and convincing customers that they should trust Pethealth.com?
Why you need an origin story
As described in our previous article ‘Get What You Want by Mastering This Critical Communication Tool’, storytelling is a crucial skill needed to inspire, motivate, and persuade others, no matter what business you are in. But the type of story you tell depends on your objective, and the ‘origin story’ is a powerful technique to help you explain why your company/product exists, and why investors, employees and customers should support you.
The origin story is the oldest type of story in history (“Let there be light”). In business, it is often the proverbial ‘this company started in our garage’ story that helps build pride, provides historical context (“back then, the only alternative to taxis were expensive limousine services”), reinforces the company’s values (“we wanted to make knowledge available to everyone”) and inspires others by exemplifying why their work, participation, or support matters. And if you don’t think you need one, think again. If you don’t create and tell your stories, you leave a vacuum that others will fill in with their own story, and thus you give up control over an important part of your brand.
How to craft a compelling origin story
Like all other the story types shared in our previous article, it contains 5 elements, but the emphasis is different than for other stories:
- Context: What was the state of affairs before your company/product existed? This is the most important part of your origin story, since you need to tell your audience what problems, challenges, or deficiencies existed that prompted the creation of your company. Also, as time goes on, memory of that pre-origin state will fade and thus you need to remind people how incredible your solution was at that time (because with hindsight, most solutions seem self-evident and thus may not get the credit they deserve). Finally, this is where you can provide a great deal of color to your story to grab and hold the audience’s attention (“Can you imagine a time when you still needed to go to the library to do research?”).
- Character: Who came up with the solution to this deplorable state of affairs?This is a brief description of the person who started it all — the hero of this story. Whether that’s a founder of a company or the designer of a product, audiences pay more attention to stories that are about people (even if the story is about the idea that started it all)
- Conflict: Who had a vested interest in preserving the status quo, and why? Audiences love stories about villains that get vanquished and every origin story has a villain: competitors, regulators, or other companies whose business model is being disrupted by yours. The more powerful you paint these villains, the more powerful your solution (and story) will be.
- Action: What did you do to deal with the conflict you just laid out? This describes the early days of your efforts to overcome the many obstacles that any new company faces. You can keep this short, because presumably you are telling your origin story at a time when you’ve already overcome the obstacles, so the audience already knows the outcome (you succeeded!).
- Result: What did you achieve and what did you learn? The takeaway of an origin story is that any challenge can be overcome if you put your mind to it and persevere, so it’s more important to describe the results (“and after 2 years of toiling in a garage, we rolled out the first personal computer”) that justify all actions up to that point. This is also the proof point for why employees should be excited about your company, or why investors should pony up.
When to tell your origin story
Origin stories have great motivational power and are meant to inspire and to align employees and stakeholders around shared values. Thus, don’t be shy about repeating your story over and over again, because inspiration and motivation are not one-time actions. The Pethealth founder never missed an opportunity to tell his story. Whether you are trying to rally the troops in the face of difficulties, or attempting to wrangle more money from investors, or simply want to remind customers and employees about the true purpose of your business, you can see how the story of PetHealth’s origin is one of the best ways to achieve those objectives. Just remember to keep it short (so others can retell it), and be conscious of the fact that origin stories can become obsolete and less relevant as they recede into the distant past. You’ll recognize it when people take your business model for granted and stop asking what life was like before your great idea came along. At that point, you can shift from an origin story to a more forward-looking ‘vision story.’
You may think that only origin stories like Thomas Edison’s founding of GE to commercialize the lightbulb, or Ford’s assembly line, or Wells Fargo’s stage coaches are origin stories worth telling. Wrong! Every business had its start somewhere — all you need is to craft your story according to the recipe described here and rehearse it — then you can unleash a new and powerful tool in your arsenal of leadership skills.