August 8th, 2008

The Startup’s Journey

[Editor: Over the past couple of months, I've had the pleasure of getting into a number of fairly deep conversations with the Portland-based Back Fence PDX crew, Frayn Masters and Melissa Lion, about the power of story. You see, that's what they do. They help people understand and formalize their stories.

I mean, technology is great and all, but the stories of the entrepreneurs in this town---the folklore---is what really brings these technology stories to life. But I could never really effectively capture that concept.

So why not let a real writer---an author---step in? Enter Melissa and Frayn---two real authors.

Melissa was kind enough to swing by Silicon Florist to write a guest post about the power of story in the world of startups.

Do you like what she says? Disagree? Why not take the opportunity to have that discussion with her, in person, at Beer and Blog tonight, where Melissa will be the guest speaker. And the beer is free. That's right. Thanks to TeachStreet. Win, win, and, um, win.

Now, on with our story...]

The Startup’s Journey

by Back Fence PDX

Storytelling is appealing at its core because it’s gossip—that delicious thrill of knowing a person’s hidden life a little bit better. The details of the person’s story stick in the listener’s mind to be retold to others due to the history and flawed point of view of the teller. And, like a game of telephone, as it gets passed on, the little details change making the story more and more enticing, adding to the lore.

Business plans, white papers and websites all tell a hygienic story—none have a distinguishing voice—they are the musings of robots. None share the shiver of a whisper in your ear, or the eyes-wide-with-anticipation surprise of what comes next. That gossip, that raw story, is the reason blogs and social networking sites bloom. They are a break from the bullet points and style guides. Voiceless PowerPoint presentations don’t make for juicy party chatter.

People crave a voice. People desire a story.

The Startup’s Story

There is the official story of the company. And then there is the lore. It’s the legend, the myth, what Joseph Campbell calls the Hero’s Journey. Campbell identifies the elements of the Hero’s Journey as the separation, the initiation and the return.

The separation is the moment the founder decided to do something different. Why the change? What was that moment? Was he or she on a bike ride? At dinner with a friend? Suddenly woken in the night? What did it feel like when the idea appeared?

The company is initiated through its initial mistakes, trials, additions and edits. It is the discovery of what works.

The return occurs when past life is melded with the present. When the business is at once, something totally new and yet blended with the past, with lessons learned and warnings heeded or ignored. It is the after shot of the makeover story—the person is still the same, but they are improved through the trials of the initiation.

Narrative Arc

Though storytelling is a natural element of humanity and the original social networking tool, an engaging and repeatable narrative is difficult to capture. The tools of the story from plot to character to voice can be unwieldy. The craft of narrative is one learned through years of trial and error. Skilled use of the craft is what separates lore from idle chat.

Professional storytellers have a trained ear for the details of the arc; they understand that it is not about perfection, but about flaws, the real humanity of the journey. They brush aside the static of the story, the starts and stops and craft a tale that is simple, compelling and easily retold so the lore is passed like so many legends through the community.

A story crafted by professional storytellers is the beginning of the buzz. There is a twist of the unexpected, or the make-over that engages the reader or listener. It’s the whisper that starts the cacophony.

It gives even the newest companies a past, a humanity that can never be felt through white pages. It is the history that all humans relate to. A well-told lore adds value to all companies, and invites a personal connection with those who hear the tale.

By creating a lore, a start-up invites others to become characters in the tale. The Venture Capitalist wants a role, they want to be character in the story. The Angel wants to be a hero. The lore provides a structure for people to better see their potential role in the start-up.

What’s your story? What’s the gossip passed around the community? What is the lore that is yet untold?

Back Fence PDX is a storytelling series in Portland. Co-producers Frayn Masters and Melissa Lion are professional storytellers, crafting the lore of Portland companies.

Melissa Lion of Back Fence PDX will be presenting at Beer and Blog, this evening. To RSVP, visit Beer and Blog on Upcoming.

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3 Responses to “The Startup’s Journey”

  1. Kyle Meyer says:

    There is little more disappointing than finding a company, service, or site that excites you enough to visit their about page only to find sentences that start with “ is a website dedicated to…”. I never really realized how much importance I have placed on the about page and learning more about the people that did the creating, not just creation itself.

    Great post.

  2. [...] It’s About: Surely, if you ever read Silicon Florist or Portland Creative/Event Review series you’ve heard of this “Portland tech community” deal [...]

  3. Rebecca says:

    I’d like to add one more element to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey reference. In coming full circle, after separation/initiation/return, there is the ‘giveaway’. The hero gives to its family/tribe/community/world what s/he has learned. Perhaps, as it refers to StartUps, this is what is offered as a service.

    Excited to read about Back Fence PDX. Great idea and a great time to implement it.

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