For Starters: Developing Your Inner Mark Twain To Make Your Startup Stand Out

One of the more underrated tasks of starting a company is storytelling. (Yes, like Mark Twain.) Successful entrepreneurs must be able to not only craft a compelling origin story, but be able to garner stories from past customers to attract potential customers. As For Starters host Robbie Allen put it, if you can’t tell a compelling story about your company, why would anyone buy your product?

On the fourth episode of For Starters, guest James Kotecki, the VP of Brand at Durham’s Infinia ML, explains what storytelling means in a business context, then gives his run-down of steps for entrepreneurs to follow to put their own story together. Allen also talks to Fred Stutzman, CEO of Durham-based startup Freedom, about how he used deliberate messaging and storytelling to attract potential customers and gain publicity. 

Lastly, Triangle serial entrepreneur Scot Wingo draws upon his years of experience founding companies ChannelAdvisor, AuctionRover, Stingray Software and most recently Spiffy, to offer tips on how to develop a company pitch.

Here are some of the episode’s highlights:

  • Some companies have an inherent hook, or news appeal, to them. Automated Insights, for instance, garnered a lot of media attention because journalists were easily hooked by the rise of machine learning and Automated Insight’s technology, which they viewed as a threat to their livelihood, Kotecki said. (Allen founded Automated Insights and Kotecki worked there.) Even for companies with a less effortlessly appealing narrative, founders should still be able to convey their passion well enough to engage people—even if the narrative itself is confusing or boring. (7:00)
  • How do entrepreneurs go about putting their story together? Kotecki recommends the interview strategy: sit down with someone you love and have them ask you questions about why you started your company. Says Kotecki, “If you don’t have enough passion to give or fumble through a 5-minute spiel about why you’re doing this, that’s a sign that your business idea isn’t fully baked enough or aligned enough with who you are as an entrepreneur.” (11:30)
  • Freedom, a productivity app and website blocker that restricts people’s use of technology, easily gained traction because it naturally resonated with people who increasingly saw the negative effects of technology in their lives, Stutzman said. Therefore, the company’s story was almost entirely crafted and driven forward by the customers themselves. As he puts it, if your company makes something that people want to talk about at the dinner table, you’ll be very successful. (27:30)
  • Being told “no” is a blessing in disguise, Wingo said. To build a company, you have to be able to constantly whittle away at your company pitch, and dissecting why it didn’t land for a certain investor only gives you the chance to improve it the next time around. That’s why Wingo said he loves getting negative feedback: “If I can’t convince someone to invest in us or convince an employee to work for us, how can I convince a customer?” (44:10)

To hear more tips on how to use storytelling to your company’s advantage, listen to the full episode below and/or subscribe to it on your favorite podcast platform.