Behind the Grind: Lessons from a Product Leader, Episode 6 – Your Story is Your Runway
July 26, 2022
As a farewell to the series, I wanted to leave you with perhaps the most important point of all about working on Pre-Product Market Fit companies or products:
Without compelling storytelling to sell your vision, you probably won’t have the chance to put the lessons from Episodes 1-5 into practice for very long.
In Episode 1, we defined an early-stage founder’s job as “…running a race whereby they are trying to get to the Product Market Fit inflection point before running out of gas. In this context, “gas” is a combination of at least the following finite resources: money, time, and personal grit/perseverance.” And one thing a founder running a startup is always thinking about is how do I add more gas to the tank?
The nice thing about the early-stage ecosystem is that, unlike a conventional vehicle on the road, gas tanks aren’t limited in size. They actually scale with the ambition of the adventure in front of the driver. That’s why you’ll see massive funding rounds for companies years before they expect to bring a product to market. It’s not that these investors don’t expect a return on investment, but it’s a long game, and they’re underwriting an opportunity that requires a TON of gas even to have a chance to get to the magical PMF inflection point. And, if they do get there, the return for those investors is unrivalled by any other opportunity available to them. Of course, the odds are even lower than usual for this type of super high-risk product work.
All early-stage ventures need some gas to get moving, and most choose to get that gas from some external gas station. The only exception is a solo-founded, completely bootstrapped company, which do exist but are rare in the early-stage world of aspiring global companies. And while it’s convenient to just think of “gas” as the same as “money,” it’s actually much more than that. It’s all components required to get from the point of origin (Day 1) to the PMF inflection point.
We’ve touched on “non-money” ones throughout the series, but here’s a quick refresher:
- Team – In Episode 3, we learned that the team is one of the biggest determinants of success when everything else is just an idea.
- Big Picture Approach & Day-to-Day Work – In Episode 2 and Episode 4, we learned that two investments all pre-PMF companies and teams should make are: (i) setting up the roadmap and aligning their mission, strategy, and experimentation layers so they are always rowing in a known, thoughtful direction, and (ii) creating high-efficiency experimentation loops to invalidate product strategies and ideas as quickly and efficiently as possible.
- Market – In Episode 5, we covered how the market is much more important than the individual product concept in the earliest stages of product development.
Keeping that in mind, “gas” becomes the unique combination of time, money, and people that take startups and founders from Day 1 to PMF. But here’s the catch: to secure these elements, you’ll need to convince people to take a bet on you, and your story is the main currency you have to generate conviction in your journey. You give them conviction, and they provide you with gas.
Your story is your lifeblood, and your ability to tell it and sell it (aka, the storytelling) is what will separate you from the pack. I can’t stress enough how much founders overlook this crucial point, assuming their “story” is merely the same as their “pitch deck.” That’s like saying an architect is the same as a handyman. Both have their value in the world, but the architect is in charge of defining the vision and bringing it to reality. The handyman is just one of many resources available to an architect to help realize their vision.
Proactively investing in becoming a better storyteller is critical for the early-stage founder. I’ve invested a lot of time and effort into becoming a better storyteller over the past few years once I realized (i) its importance and (ii) my relative weakness in this area. And this knowledge I’d like to share with you.
I’ve learned these lessons the hard way, and hopefully, they’ll help you lead others to share, believe, and invest in your vision.*
*Note: this is an ongoing process for non-natural creatives like me, and I’m still finding ways to level up! I’d love to hear your ideas as well, feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn.
1. Learn about and from the world’s best storytellers – whether you prefer blog posts, books, Audible, Twitter threads, podcasts, Netflix documentaries, or anything in between, begin seeking content that focuses on great stories that compel you and how they’re told. For example, I listen to several movie podcasts that interview directors who let the audience into their thought processes behind specific scenes in their movies. With enough of this content under your belt, you’ll develop a sense of what patterns resonate with the way you think, and you’ll begin communicating with greater effect.
2. Spend more of your time with naturally creative people (and see how comfortable they are with non-linear storytelling) – like a lot of us; I found that I was hanging out with people like me: highly analytical, “spreadsheet-minded” people. I’ve LOVED spending time with more creative, non-linear thinkers in the last few years, and I know it’s helped me develop my storytelling muscle.
3. Tell your story to anyone who will listen, mostly to get your “Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours” – there’s no place to start (literally) other than the beginning! Whatever your storytelling skills are now, prepare your story and just start telling it to anyone who will listen. It will be rough at first, but that’s OK – get used to finding the parts that create the most conviction in your audience, those moments where you see visible signs of excitement and the proverbial “eyes lighting up.” Change it up regularly in the early days to ensure that you are exploring different ways to tell your story so that the best one naturally emerges over time through these reps. Treat it like a product experiment – high-efficiency reps and learning loops win here too.
4. Isolate what makes your story compelling, and double down on it while losing the commoditized stuff. As you’re developing your story, think hard about how it’s differentiated (this is directly proportional to why you’re a solid investment). Tell your audience things about your journey that make them remember you. They’ll qualify your capabilities and the opportunity after they hear your story, so you don’t need to do the heavy lifting on that front in this part of the process. Instead, work on standing out.
5. Reposition your personal narrative to support the proposition that you are an obvious fit for the problem you’re solving. Building on the last point; the most memorable pitches for new ideas come when we believe someone is onto something that is (i) not obvious to the rest of the world and (ii) has the potential to be massively impactful. Given no product nor metrics exist to prove any of that at this stage, your audience has to feel more than just comfortable with the ideas being conveyed. They must feel excited about you and your ability to lead them to the promised land. Put yourself in their shoes, then dissect your story so that you would be convinced to commit.
6. Be humble about your storytelling, and be fine if it sucks at first. There’s no shame in admitting that this isn’t one of your strengths, and be prepared to be frustrated with a lack of initial progress. This process takes a lot of up-front investment, but being somewhat on the other side of it, I look back and see how much stronger my storytelling skills are now by making the right investments (it’s a lot like fitness, so think of it like exercise if that works better for you). Immediate results won’t be clear, but trust that progress is compounding in the background.
7. A/B test specific language that summarizes your ideas and leaves a lasting impact on your audience. As a product builder, you’ve very likely A/B tested features in the past. Think of your story as a feature that also needs testing. Workshop taglines, get feedback, and conduct “yes and” exercises with the creatives in your network. You need to consider what you’re doing similar to writing a script for a TV show pilot where every word has to be perfect for the show to get picked up.
8. Convey content, conviction, and confidence in a healthy balance. Too many stories focus solely on one of these aspects while blatantly ignoring the other two will do more harm than good. That’s why this takes several iterations to perfect – this balance is crucial to landing your story with your audience.
Building 0-1 products is, by definition, an aspirational endeavour. It’s a difficult journey with no clear path; instead, you usually just find some tips and lessons from people who’ve made the journey before. However, the best stories are almost always aspirational. And if you knew how the journey would unfold, you likely wouldn’t be interested in reading it. So lean into the experience, confident it will make for a better story later. Remember that stories and startups are similar in that the world is filled with both, but only the ones that resonate and bring value survive and are remembered.
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