What would you say your company does? It seems like a simple question that should have a simple answer, but that’s rarely the case.
Here’s something I’ve done over my 20+ years as an entrepreneur to keep everyone focused on the tasks at hand while also keeping an eye on the future.
Entrepreneurs usually blur the lines of what their startup is, what it will be, and what it should be. This is fine until you try to start planning around those stories. At that point, you need to be asking: What are the priorities today and how do we execute on those priorities without mortgaging the future? The reverse question is just as important: How much time do we spend working on those new things that aren’t generating revenue yet?
The Three Story Rule
Every startup should have three stories, loosely related to the three arcs most storytellers use in episodic storytelling. An easy way to think about it is a television series. When you watch an episode of a TV show, the writers are usually working on three storylines:
Story A: Story with an arc that begins and ends in this episode (or maybe a two-parter).
Story B: Story with a longer arc that lasts a few episodes or more. This current episode will advance the plot of Story B in smaller increments, and maybe drop a twist in here or there.
Story C: Story with a much longer arc, maybe out to the end of the season or the end of the series itself. This current episode might not advance Story C at all, or it may just drop a few hints. At the end of the season or the series, you’ll be able to look back and piece Story C together, but that won’t be easy or even possible in real time.
Now let’s take that story strategy and apply it to your startup, and I’ll use my most recent startup as an example.
Story A: Right Now
Story A is the what your company is doing today that is generating revenue, building market share, and adding value to the company. Story A is about this fiscal quarter, this fiscal year, and next fiscal year.
At Automated Insights, Story A was our story for the first few years while we were known as Statsheet, a company that aggregated sports statistics and turned them into visualizations and automated content. This is how we made our money — either using our own data to generate content or using data like Yahoo Fantasy Football to generate Fantasy Matchup Recaps.
While we were breaking new ground in the arena of sports stats, we were one player in a sea of players, and while automating content from sports stats gave us a competitive advantage, sports was still a highly commoditized and difficult marketplace.
Story B: What’s Next
Story B is what’s going to open up new markets using new technologies or new products. Story B is about what you could do if the stars aligned properly or if you raised enough money for a longer runway, because Story B usually comes with a lot more risk for a lot more reward.
A few years into Statsheet, when we went to raise our Series A round, we pitched using our proprietary automated content engine on all kinds of data, generating machine-written stories in finance, marketing, weather, fitness, you name it. We changed our name to Automated Insights and pivoted completely with a $5 million raise.
That pivot came with a ton of risk. We had friends (and potential acquirers) in sports and we would now be making sports just a part of our story. In return, we would be one of the first players in the nascent Natural Language Generation (NLG) market, a pre-cursor to the “AI” market.
It was not a coincidence that the acronym for our new company name was also AI.
Story C: The Billion-Dollar Story
Story C usually involves a seismic change that disrupts existing markets, and as you can imagine, it’s a million times more difficult to pull off.
Uber and Lyft are on Story C. They’re no longer known as a better taxi or for solving a specific problem. They’re about creating a market in which a large portion of people can no longer live without them. In most urban areas, ride hailing services are now a necessity, as the ability they offer to do more things cheaply has made a major impact on lifestyle. There’s just no going back.
Story C was actually where my vision split from my former startup. I was focused more on real-time, plain-word insights generated from a mesh of private and public data, i.e. Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri. The company was turning towards more of a B2B approach, first as a SaaS NLG tool, and then as a business intelligence tool.
No one was wrong here, but the latter was the direction the company took. So now I’m working on a new Story A at a new startup. And I’ve got Stories B and C in my purview.
So which story do you tell? Well, it depends on who you’re talking to.
For the press, for customers, and for potential employees, stick to Story A — if these folks aren’t jazzed about Story A, then you’re not spending enough time on Story A.
In fact, you should consider Story B and Story C to be intellectual property. It’s not the kind of thing you want to go too deeply into without an NDA or some protection in place.
For your board, your investors, and your employees, focus on Story A, of course, but also keep them aware of Story B and drop hints about Story C. Story B is where you’re headed next. It might be what you raise your next round on, or it may be your next big pivot. Story C is best kept in the distance until you’ve crushed Story A and made significant progress on Story B. It’s a goal, mainly, and you should just be making sure you’re not closing doors to it as you move forward.
Once you get your stories straight, then it’s just about execution. But come back to them often, every quarter or even every sprint, and make sure everyone is still on the same page.