# 4: Startups Are Stories
The Story behind the Passage
Somehow I am spending much time on the phone this week — but this time is absolutely well-invested. Yesterday I ended up talking a lot about the significance and so far unrecognized potential of storytelling with a founder in Berlin. I am not going into the details of my “mega theory on how important stories are for startups and business at large” now. But I need to clarify that I do NOT mean storytelling as a mere marketing tool. I mean hardcore business strategy and development; starting with the first investor money and including product development. Even without all that theory, that conversation at least triggered me to write about the passage above today.
It is from The Airbnb Story written by Leigh Gallagher. Chris, my founder friend and something like a “Startup Professor” to me (I do not know any German founder who knows more about Silicon Valley than he does) mentioned the example of Airbnb as a primary case of how important a story is for the success of a company. Well, now that I am repeating that word, I am tempted to give you a “scholarly” definition of narratology which is the field that basically studies everything relating to stories. Here it is, I cannot help it: “a description, either true or imagined, of a connected series of events” (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/story).
This very basic definition already tells you an important finding that you need to keep in mind for everything I am writing about startup literature on this blog: Stories are not about finding the “truth” — sorry, folks, now the cat is out of the bag ;o). That might shock you now and I could offer all the sophisticated details about what I mean by that. What is important for my work and my mission is: Stories teach you something because they make you remember whatever is written or spoken somewhere. And if you are brutally honest to yourself, you will notice that our entire life depends on stories.
Just think of the Bible. Do you believe in the story of Jesus? No? Yes? Maybe? The point is: All these questions are irrelevant if you look at the significance the Bible has for our daily lives in the Western world. Our holidays, our norms and values, our ethical assumptions… To repeat this: No matter if the stories in the Bible are true or if you give a shit about them, they have impact. And even more so: They are didactic tools. Did you ever use the expression “an eye for an eye” for describing someone who takes revenge? See, there you go…
So, stories shape our entire lives up to the point where we ourselves can be considered story authors. The story you tell about yourself shapes who you are and how you behave (there are tons of studies on this in organizational psychology, for example). What you see in the Airbnb Story is how this plays out in the process of founding and scaling a business. And that is what fascinates me so much. Stories are so much more than messages wrapped up in a nice gift box. Storytelling as an analytical approach that can give you completely new insights about how to “read” businesses and the decisions entrepreneurs make. Let’s check out how this is indicated in the passage above.
“Chesky had been chosen by the student body to be the commencement speaker, and he delivered a performance…” There are actually two interesting issues in this one short sentence. The first one is the relationship between startups and universities. This does not mean that all brilliant founders were brilliant students before starting their entrepreneurial endeavor. On the contrary, as we know from famous dropouts like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, finishing your degree is not a necessary preliminary for becoming a billionaire. What I am pointing to, however, is that universities breed infrastructures and networks (yes, especially for the ladies, networks are essential and can be fun — stop hating them just because “Old Boys” have twisted their image to the negative) that make people meet the right people. Furthermore, universities allow you to experiment with and develop your personal talents — that is the second aspect I thought of when reading the passage.
Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, is one of the heroes of the founder story. And the passage describing his “performance” on stage underlines the parallel between business heroes and actors. In fact, ever since the research on Performativity and performed identity flourished in the 1980s, we know that we are all actors performing our lives in different roles. These concepts also became part of management research. The important issue in practice is, however, that we prefer certain roles over others. So, talking in front of a huge crowd might be lovely for certain character types while others might be completely annoyed or even afraid of taking over such a role. We all know this but we hardly ever acknowledge it openly, especially when taking over positions that we think are right but do not feel so.
In the Airbnb Story, I remember that the author spent much time on explaining how diverse the founder team was and how much the different talents shaped the survival and growth of Airbnb. Again, it does not matter whether the founding myth of three guys who desperately needed money to pay the rent and thus ended up renting out rooms to conference visitors is “true” or not. What is helpful to learn about is how the mixture of characters and talents — with Chesky coming from a design background, Blecharczyk from a tech background, and Gebbia from a Fine Arts and design education perspective — helped them solve all the complex problems that arose on their path to success.
As a friend of mine and co-founder of a tech startup just emphasized when we spoke today: “Startup investment, especially in the very early phase, is a people business.” And that is not only important for investors to keep in mind — they know this very well. I think, it is one of the first things that potential founder teams should pay attention to from minute 1 onwards. Just starting something together without there being complementary strengths or clearly defined roles and responsibilities will most likely not end up in a success story.
“We’re going to start a company one day, and they’re going to write a book about it.” When I discovered that quote about a year ago, I immediately added it to my website. It tells you so much about the value that books still seem to have in our present culture. Obviously, book writing — in contrast to blogging, tweeting, YouTubing, TikToking… — still seems to be special somehow. When you write a book, you write history, it seems. A sentence like this spoken by a startup founder might simply raise suspicions about ego issues here. After all, writing a book can hardly be the real motivation behind founding a company, right? And if he really means this, what does this say about the shared responsibility of founding and running a business that serves customers and employs people?
I think, there is also a different way of looking at this, maybe a more positive one, if one wanted to judge this perspective. People who found companies do so for a reason. Of course, there are other ways of pursuing a topic of interest. You can become a scholar and learn ‘everything’ about a particular issue, let’s say about storytelling in entrepreneurship in my case. Or you can become employed by a company that extensively deals with storytelling, for example a newspaper or a publishing house. But all these options, even though they allow you to engage with your favorite topic and even live out your talents, do not allow you to take full responsibility over building new pathways into the future.
And that is something that, according to my impression, most founders share. Even if there might be weird ego issues at play — including narcissism and choleric outbursts — this awareness of being the author of one’s own story is quite striking. And it shows that writing, this process of documenting and sharing a certain status quo that came into being based on the actions of certain people, is a deeply human concern driven by the motivation of learning and teaching, that will, this is my contention, gain even more relevance the more complex and dynamic our communication channels get in the digital age.
1) When did you last look at the yearbook of your high school/college graduation class? What did people predict about your future career? Has it happened that way?
2) Do you sometimes catch yourself thinking “this guy/girl, boss, co-worker… has a huge ego issue, I cannot stand him/her”? What might be the positive side effects of such a behavior for that person?
3) If you decided to write a biography about your life at this point — what would be the three major turning points so far that decisively changed your life and/or career? Write them down somewhere and save/store the doc, so you can look at the notes whenever they come to mind.