An innovator's secret weapon: The Origin Story
The origin story: an innovators secret weapon
One thing stands out across the best founder pitches I’ve seen, companies I’ve worked at, or products I buy - they all have a great origin story.
Articulating why an idea exists and what motivates the people behind it is key for recruiting great people to your cause, this can take the form of:
Recruiting a team
Signing up early customers
Fundraising from investors
Getting press attention
In YCombinator’s awesome Series A guide the ‘Draft your story’ section is a short paragraph, but mastering your origin story is incredibly important which is why I’m expanding on it here.
We'll cover the following topics in this article:
Why does an origin story matter?
Optimizely - the perfect origin story
Crafting your origin story
Delivering your story
Evolving your story
Why does an origin story matter?
1. The deeper why
Humans are more motivated by ‘why’ something should happen than ‘what’ needs to be done. ‘Our friends are coming over later, we should tidy the apartment’ is more motivating than ‘We need to tidy the apartment’ and most of us already have the deeper ‘why’ programmed in that appearing tidy to others associates us with positive behaviours like being hygienic, organised, reliable etc.
When an innovator is trying to motivate people to do something different from societal norms - a new product, strategy, approach etc. - they must articulate the deeper ‘why’ to motivate change.
2. Repetition is the mother of all learning
As you recruit people to your cause, they should be an extension of you - most of all they need to understand and articulate the deeper why. Having something repeatable which can carry through everyone will mean you can scale your deeper why.
3. Cultural values in action
The origin story should demonstrate the cultural values in action. Talking about values is good, showing how the company/movement was built upon them and embodied by the leaders is better.
Optimizely - The perfect origin story
In 2007 Dan Siroker and Pete Koomen were working at Google as Product Managers when Barack Obama came to speak at Google. Dan snuck in to watch the talk and within weeks had packed his bags to join the Obama campaign working his way up to their head of analytics.
Dan and the team used practices from Google to run experiments on campaign landing pages, adjusting images, call to actions, and using data which drove donations of more than $60MM for the campaign.
But setting up these experiments was hard, it required significant developer time and the available tools were outdated. That’s why after Obama was successfully elected, Dan and Pete got back together to build Optimizely to make it easy for every company to run experiments to improve their website conversion and turn data into action.
Every Optimizely employee could recite that founding story and when we did, people's eyes lit up - they got it, and they wanted to be part of it. We quickly built a team of some of the most talented and passionate people from all around the world. It helped attract the best investors too.
Media outlets loved the story - Wired magazine published a feature print article in 2012 in the build-up to Obama’s re-election and we were featured on TechCrunch, Forbes, ABC etc. regularly which created a huge amount of leads.
Article in Wired magazine:
You can hear Emily Chang recite the elevator pitch version of the origin story in this interview with Dan on Bloomberg at ~0:25.
On customer sales pitches, we’d tell the story with different Obama campaign landing pages asking attendees to guess which was the highest performer. The correct answer was always “you can’t guess, you need data”.
The product had a great demo and pitch which Matt Althauser had masterfully crafted and trained everyone to deliver. This was unstoppable when combined with how motivated by the movement people were.
Having a great founding story helped us with:
Recruiting top talent
Fundraising from top investors
Awareness through top media publications
Customers - lots of them
Crafting your origin story:
A great origin story isn’t different from any other great story, it needs to have a beginning, middle, and end. The more the audience can participate in the journey, the better, so you have to find a balance between bringing them with you on the journey while maintaining their attention (keeping it short).
I’ll use Apple’s early days as an example, building up to their venture capital raise in the late 70s.
Act 1 - The beginning:
Establish the characters in the story (your team), their motivations, and set the stage for the challenge which will set your idea in motion.
Who is there?
When is it?
What brought them together?
What makes them credible?
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (Woz) were introduced in 1971 by a mutual friend and hit it off based on their shared love of tech and practical jokes. They first worked together on the Atari arcade game Breakout while Jobs was working at Atari and Wozniak was working at HP - Jobs had asked Woz to help him reduce the number of logic chips required for the game.
Act 2 - The middle:
This is where you shift gears to identifying the obstacle or challenge to overcome and the discovery of your initial solution.
What were they doing?
What challenge and solution did they discover?
Why did it matter?
While at the Homebrew Computer Club together, Woz saw a MITS Altair computer, a build-it-yourself computer for hobbyists. He was inspired to create something more simple and add functional components so every day people could work on their own computers. He produced the first personal computer with both a keyboard and ability to connect to a regular TV as a screen, later named the Apple I. With this prototype Jobs was able to secure an initial order of 50 of the personal computers at a local computer store, going on to sell 200 total.
Act 3 - The end?:
In this section, you bring the story to an initial resolution and paint the picture of the potential future that your prospective recruit, investor, or customer can join you on. Here is where you establish your new goal as a cliffhanger.
What is the problem with the status quo?
What is the new goal you are trying to achieve?
Why does it matter?
How will you do it?
Every home would benefit from a personal computer, but computers today are still often only used in offices or by hobbyists due to their unsightly design and technical requirements. In 1977, Apple will launch the Apple II with an attractive design which looks great in the home and accessible colour high-resolution display and built-in BASIC programming which will bring ‘Personal Computers’ into every home.
Delivering your story:
Firstly, write it down.
You need to be ready to deliver your story across formats and environments, and they can be (really) roughly boiled down to 3 versions of your story. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so even though this is your origin story you have to bring the listener/reader along on the journey in all three versions - so make sure you ask them some questions first.
1. The ‘Elevator pitch’ - This is for when you’ve met someone fortuitously rather than being scheduled - conference, as part of someone else’s meeting etc. You have no more than 30 seconds, so you’re hitting the key milestones and making it snappy.
Steve Jobs and Wozniak worked together on Atari’s Breakout game before creating the Apple I computer which captured attention for its simple design and innovative built-in keyboard and screen connector. The Apple II will bring computers into every home in the US where others have failed with an attractive and simple design which looks great in the home and unique consumer-focused functionality like its high-resolution colour screen.
2. The meeting introduction - You have 1-2 mins, you are able to provide some more context around the key milestones in the story. This is for when someone is in a scheduled meeting with you - interview, investor pitch, customer development etc.
Steve Jobs and Wozniak met through a shared love of technology before working together on Atari’s Breakout game. While at the Homebrew Computer Club, a computer enthusiast group in the heart of Silicon Valley, they built the Apple I computer which captured attention for its simple design and innovative built-in keyboard and screen connector and went on to quickly sell 200 units.
The Apple II, launching in 1977, will be the first computer to be a must-have home appliance which can be bought off the shelves, plugged in, and used straight away in every home in the US. Where others have failed, the built-in BASIC programming, attractive simple design which looks great in the home and consumer-focussed functionality like the high-resolution colour screen will transform the computer from an office machine to a personal appliance.
3. The interested reader - You have captured someone’s attention, this is where you can give them the full story and allow them to pick the parts which are most relevant to them. This is relevant for your website ‘about us’ page, a blog post, or a written press briefing.
Evolving your story:
As your idea/company/movement grows and evolves so should your story. Some consider this ‘revisionist’, however, my belief is as you progress and learn you’re able to look back and better understand what the key milestones which contribute to your story really were. Hindsight is 2020.
At each significant milestone, you should review the origin story, does it include the most important things which led to where you are today and articulate where you are going in the future?
Hopefully, this is helpful as your craft your own origin stories for your next idea, company, movement etc. If you'd like to practice your origin story or would like feedback, feel free to reach out!