Recently I’ve been lucky enough to spend quite a bit of time travelling between San Francisco and London (where Adludio has its HQ)
During these visits I became aware of a fundamental difference in the way entrepreneurs talk about their startups in the Valley and the UK (and probs everywhere else in the world), I believe this is a key step of marketing your business successfully, which in turn can impact on the potential success of the business.
In this post I’ll describe what their key difference is, and I’ll give some guidance how any entrepreneurs can change their way of thinking to be more ‘Silicon Valley’ like (should that be something they wish to do).
Perception is everything
In the Valley people talk about things differently.
In the UK (London to be exact, which is arguably the best startup hub in Europe, and everywhere else I’ve lived, including Australia in Ireland), when asked to describe their startup, founders will explain in the following way:
- What their startup does
- How it’s doing
- What’s coming up next
Seems pretty normal right?
However when I first went to San Francisco, I immediately noticed that people did things differently. People would describe their startup as follows:
- We are this billion dollar idea
- Here are one or two examples of what we’re doing in the now
- But these are just early proof points of our billion dollar idea goal
Subtle, but very important difference.
Beer Spittingly Big
I’ll try to explain this difference with a story of how I experience this firsthand. On my first trip to San Francisco, on my thrird night I was out with a fellow UK founder Andy Crump, who’s done excellently with his startup Mitoo. We were in a bar, having a beer and I began chatting to one of Andy’s friends who was also in the startup world, after about 15 mins of talking about some random topic, I asked him about his startup, and what it did.
His answer was as follows:
(read the below in an American accent)
‘We believe this internet is broken,
So we’re re-writing a new internet’
When I heard this, I embarrassingly lost control of my reactions and literally burst out laughing in his face (I was standing right beside him), thanksfully without spitting out all my beer!
You’re doing what?? I asked.
I had never heard of something so ridiculous. This guy was clearly genius, or was smoking something I had to try.
Losing the fight to stop laughing I began asking some more question to try get a grip on what thi guy was talking about.
So…do you have ay customers, are you going for investment?
He replied calmly:
We’re backed by Peter Thiel.
I stopped laughing.
I still don’t know if the guy was smoking stuff or genius, but after speaking to him I was now leaning to the latter.
The rest of that night, and the following day I tried to get my head around what had just happened. It wasn’t about what his company was trying to achieve, or that he’s backed by one of the best investors in town, but rather I was stunned by how much of a physical and emotional impact this guy’s explanation of his startup had left on me.
It had given me a physical reaction. It was big. It was different. I speak to startup founders every day, few of which I remember but speaking to this guy had made such an impression on me and I remember his startup to this day (and I’m writing about it!).
In one of his most popular books Seth Godin writes about the importance of being a Purple Cow. In the book he say that if you drive through some fields of cows, you might be excited by the first cow you see, but then they will all blend in to be the same. However if you then saw a cow that was Purple, you’d go ‘wow’!
This guy I met was a great example of a Purple cow, he talked really big, was different, and wasn’t afraid to have someone almost spit their beer in his face with laughter when they hear about his idea.
I wonder how many times he was told he should tone down his idea? Because it’s ‘ridiculous’ or ‘sounds crazy’?
But he didn’t, I bet it spurred him on to talk even bigger!
Over the rest of my trip in San Francisco I noted that most other successful entrepreneurs all talked in a similar way (note, this was a trait that I only saw in the successful ones).
It all focused on their billion dollar idea. How they would change the world. And they described it in a compelling narrative. Not what whey were doing right now.
It works because people are used to hearing about startup ideas that are good, interesting and useful. Probably an incrementally better solution. That’s very nice.
However when people hear about a startup idea that is insanely big, it paints a picture of the future, and people think to themselves:
What does this guy know that I don’t.
One of the most overused data points is that 96% of startups fail. If you’re daring to be in the 4%, why not dare to be insanely big.
How to tell a big story
Talking a big story is something I’ve noticed that many entrepreneurs struggle to do. The way that they talk about their company is at best, incrementally better than what’s out there, and at worst, just a set of features
Usually for one of two main reasons:
- They are too deep in the trenches of what they’re working on, to have the perspective of the long term impact of the world what this could become.
- They started with a nifty solution to a problem, but just struggle to connect how that problem could become something much bigger than that
A few weeks ago, on another recent trip to San Francisco I found myself in Palo Alto, at the house of Keith Tier, co-founder of Techcunch and a bit of a Valley legend. At one point this subject of talking big came up, and Keith explained how to convince people of the importance of it:
Imagine you’ve decided to write a novel, the greatest novel that’s ever written. How might you start?
Erm, ok I’d decide a general topic I wanted to write about, I’d start thinking of a structure, and I’d think where I’d want it to end up at the ending & work back from there.
OK cool. So imagine you decided that you didn’t plan it like that. Imagine you had an initial idea and then just started writing it. What do you think the outcome would be like?
Probably just a rambling, story that doesn’t really go anywhere.
Exactly. That’s my point. When you’re talking about this big vision for your business, it’s not that you’re lying, or talking b.s. – you’re talking about the end point for your novel. So make it the greatest novel anyone’s ever read.
Doing this is Hard. How to Take Action:
Steve Job’s keynote speeches looked calm and effortless. But the reality is that months or practice went into each keynote he delivered. .
Your company, or startup’s narrative is no different.
Here are three ways I suggest to try:
1) Find Help
I think it’s almost impossible to do this in isolation or alone, you’re just too close to what you’re building to have big picture perspective. Pick a few people (two or three is fine) that are big thinkers and good storytellers (you know the type), and ask to buy them coffee once a week for the next 3 – 4 weeks until you nail it.
2) Test & Iterate
‘We all have a plan until we get punched in the face’ – Mike Tyson
Go and test your story in the market. Investors are perfect people for this (you probs don’t want to go straight to Sequoia as a first go 😉 Expect to get punched in the face a few times, when your beautiful story gets shot down. But this is just part of the process. Thank people for their feedback, ask for suggestions and move on. You’ll get there.
3) Go Bigger
When you think you’re onto something, push further and go bigger. What you have already is good, but good isn’t a billion dollar business, go bigger. Feel uncomfortable.
Now is probably a good time to take a trip to San Francisco to test your latest story with the best.
Telling a compelling story, that is really big and inspiring is a vital skill of an entrepreneur. This story is usually a projection of what the future will look like, not something that is a feature of a product. They may essentially be the same thing, but the way they are described are very different, and will result in a very different reaction from the person to tell it to.
How have you created a story around your product, or startup or company in the past? Do you think you need to talk so big to be successful? Please share your ideas in the comments below