If you watched Shark Tank in early August last year, you’d have seen two entrepreneurs hoping the ground would open up and swallow them when pitching their camping tent startup to a group of investors.

You’d have cringed and squirmed (or perhaps reveled in schadenfreude), as the investors asked them some fairly basic questions about their business.

Who are you? What do you do? How is it different? Why do you do it? Why should people care?

Here are the investors faces as the entrepreneurs fail to deliver anything close to meaningful answers:

get a better brand story before fishing for glory

One of the founders says to the other “um, can you help me out Phoebes?” Phoebes has got nothing.

Suffice to say, they don’t get their $200,000.

It’s perfect reality TV – awful and a little bit hilarious. And it’s a high-stakes example of a reality that’s actually very common: When we’re put on the spot, it can be really hard to pitch our business in a compelling and convincing way.

Why telling your story is difficult

As business founders and owners, we have an innate and absolute sense of the value of what we’ve created.

But putting it into words – telling our story – can be confusingly difficult.

I’m often confronted with startup founders or small business owners who become skeptical when they hear words like ‘brand’ and ‘story’ thrown around. They associate those words with marketing, with ad campaigns, with the nebulous grail of creating ‘an emotional connection’ – things that seem either irrelevant at their stage of business, someone else’s job, or just plain snake oil peddled by marketing consultants and agencies.

Those entrepreneurs are engaged in the important work of creating and delivering a product that meets an actual market demand.

If they do that effectively, they’ve got a solid business. Maybe a ‘brand’ or some ‘storytelling’ would help sell a bit more of it. Maybe.

It’s a blessing that we have people who are wired this way. No one wants another Theranos or Fyre Festival. None of us need another sketchy product that some all too marketing-led company is baselessly dazzling us with.

Story in the absence of product substance is a have. Let’s agree on that.

But let’s assume you do have the substance. You’re delivering something of genuine value.

I don’t believe you need a big marketing campaign. Or a slogan. Or some fiction made up about your product that you spend money you don’t have on broadcasting to the world. That stuff isn’t what I mean when I say ‘brand story’.

What I do believe is that all of us entrepreneurs need a way of pitching our business clearly and compellingly.

To our staff, to potential business partners, to the media, to the interested Dad at the barbecue. And yeah, to customers too.

Who are we? What do we do? How is it different? Why do we do it? Why should people care?

A great brand story makes everything easier

Successful businesses not only develop a product or service of value – they also have a way of explaining it that makes others ‘get it’ and see as much value in it as they do.

They can tell others, quickly and in plain language, why they started their business, what problem they solve for their customers, how they solve it in a unique way, and what the ambition of their business is.

They can get people to understand what they’re doing in a way that makes them want to be a part of it too. That’s what I mean when I say ‘brand story’. Is that marketing? Maybe. It’s definitely common sense. And it’s strangely difficult.

In New Zealand, we’ve earned the reputation of being people who are brilliant at inventing things, and then pretty un-brilliant at telling people about them. Some draw lines to our cultural humility. Our tall poppy syndrome.

But in my experience, it doesn’t matter where an entrepreneur comes from – they all have the same challenge of knowing so much about their business and product that choosing the right things to put in their elevator pitch (and the right things to leave out) has become an intractable undertaking.

(Yes, everyone is just like you.)

But when you crack it, it makes everything easier. Attracting the best staff. Creating the best partnerships. Convincing investors. Getting written about in the media. Winning customers.

And the cool thing is, your story is already there. Sure, it’s so surrounded by all kinds of mental clutter that it’s barely visible. But it is there.

Developing a brand story isn’t about making up a story. It’s about clearing away all that mental clutter to reveal three really simple things:

  • The problem and inspiration that led you to create your business in the first place.
  • The product (or service, or experience) you created and how it’s different.
  • Your ambition for how that product will make the world (or at least the world of your customers) a better place.

We’re usually pretty good at the middle bit. Because it’s easy to see why explaining our product benefit is useful.

So why bother with the rest? Because great stories don’t just explain a product – they contextualise a product in a way that makes people want it.

Emotion spurs motivation

When you tell people why you started your business in the first place, their reaction is “Oh, this was created by someone who actually really cares about solving the problem.”

When you tell people about your ambition, their reaction is “Hey, by buying this product, or joining this company, I can help create a future that’s more like the one I want to live in.”

And yeah, that’s emotional stuff. But it’s not fluffy, irrational emotional stuff. It’s speaking to two very rational emotions – trust and hope.

Trust in you that you’re genuinely motivated to make your product as good as it can be, and hope that with you they can be part of making their life and others’ better.

There’s nobody who doesn’t want those things. And you’ve got those things.

I created Storytech because every startup and small business has got those things. They just need a process for revealing exactly what they are, and articulating them simply and clearly. That’s what I mean when I say ‘brand story’.

And why I believe we could all do with a great one.


James Hurman is founder and CEO at Storytech. Save 10% on your story at Storytech here and raise funds for #nzentrepreneur at the same time using the code STNZENTRE