‘Your Story Is Your Strategy’ Says VC Who Backed Facebook And Twitter
“Storytelling is the most underrated skill,” says Ben Horowitz who, along with business partner Marc Andreessen, has built one of the most influential venture capital firms in Silicon Valley. Andreessen-Horowitz has invested in the next generation of leading technology companies including Airbnb, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.
I recently spoke to Horowitz, the bestselling author of The Hard Thing About Hard Things about the ‘most underrated skill’ and how entrepreneurs and leaders can improve their ability to tell an inspiring story in business. “Companies that don’t have a clearly articulated story don’t have a clear and well thought-out strategy,” says Horowitz. “ The company story is the company strategy .”
Horowitz says that business books are full of advice on how to achieve objectives and goals, but they’re light on explaining the “why” questions that matter the most:
Why are we doing this? Why does the problem need to be solved? Why should you join this company? Why should you invest in this company? Why should you buy a product from this company? The answer to “why” is the company’s story. Horowitz told me that he believes a leader’s ability to articulate a clear and compelling vision –and to tell a story around the ‘why’—is fundamental to the task of leadership.
“The story must explain at a fundamental level why you exist. Why does the world need your company? Why do we need to be doing what we’re doing and why is it important?”
“I agree with you, Ben. But what do we tell people who insist that the product is the only thing that matters?” I asked.
“You can have a great product, but a compelling story puts the company into motion. If you don’t have a great story it’s hard to get people motivated to join you, to work on the product, and to get people to invest in the product.”
A powerful, compelling, and well-told story caught Horowitz’ attention and eventually led to Andreessen-Horowitz investment in NationBuilder, a startup that gives people the tools to organize communities online. NationBuilder founder Jim Gilliam has a compelling life story; a story which evolved into a company.
Gilliam got cancer while attending college. His mother, too. Gilliam’s chemo worked and he survived. His mother died. The traumatic experience led him to pursue a path as a documentary filmmaker, where he turned to the Internet and crowdfunded several documentaries. A few years later the cancer returned and UCLA judged it be too risky to perform a double-lung transplant on Gilliam. He turned to his “community” who mobilized an Internet campaign on Gilliam’s behalf. Two weeks later UCLA added him to the waiting list and in one year Gilliam received the transplant. In his presentation titled, The Internet Is My Religion, Gilliam spoke about his feelings before the operation: “I owed every moment of my life to countless people I would never meet. Tomorrow, that interconnectedness would be represented in my own physical body.”
Investor Ben Horowitz had no interest in investing in a “community organizing tool” until he saw Gilliam’s video. Horowitz also saw the stories of how people were using NationBuilder to mobilize communities to achieve great things they never could have done on their own. “The whole story was incredibly compelling,” Horowitz adds.
Horowitz offers startup entrepreneurs and established business leaders the following advice: “The CEO must be the keeper of the story. The CEO is responsible for getting the story right, that it’s up to date, compelling, and can move the hearts of men and women. That’s the fundamental responsibility of the chief executive.”
Horowitz believes that if you take the time to refine your story, you refine your thinking and the company’s strategy. “The mistake people make is thinking the story is just about marketing. No, the story is the strategy. If you make your story better you make the strategy better.”
Carmine Gallo is a communication coach, popular keynote speaker and bestselling author of 7 books including his latest bestseller, “Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds.”