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Storytelling and Listening Are Keys to Startup Success

Startup success depends upon strong storytelling that captures the future of a company in ways that inspire employees, customers, and investors

Reading time: 4 min.

Bloomberg Línea Ideas — Every chance he gets, Carlos Garcia tells his startup story. Whether it’s a potential employee, client or investor, the CEO and founder of used-car sales startup Kavak never misses a chance to create expectations about Mexico’s first unicorn, which was recently valued at nearly $9 billion.

If you’ve ever met a well-funded startup CEO, you have met a great storyteller, but there’s more to that skill than meets the eye. The best founders I’ve met can galvanize teams and investors with vision while also looking into the future and charting a path to success.

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“Think of yourself like you’re a movie director and have a full view of the picture,” Garcia says. Steven Spielberg sees the movie in his head, long before shooting begins. Similarly, startup founders must know that manifesting the future is up to them.

Crazy for growth and purpose

The first phase of storytelling is when everyone thinks the founder is crazy. Founders must explain their ambition in ways that inspire and compel early partners to join them. “If you don’t have the capacity to think about it deeply and tell that story, it’s a killer,” Garcia warns.

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Sharing one’s ambition means showing investors how their money and talent will help a founder scale to provide the world with a new product or service it needs. Great founders have the special ability to imagine a world that doesn’t yet exist – to see into the future, much like a filmmaker, but they can also define the strategy for getting there. That means having a vision for the first week, first month and second year from the start, even if it changes along the way.

Attracting a talented team requires vision, but Garcia says early recruits will often become more attached to your purpose – to the story of why you’re building what you’re building. Brynne McNulty Rojas, CEO of Habi, agrees. “People want a purpose and to build something bigger than themselves,” she says.

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Buser Co-founder and CEO Marcelo Abritta notes how Earnest Shackleton recruited men for his Antarctic expedition, deterring them from the “constant danger” and “bitter cold” with the chance for “honor and recognition in case of success.” Founders, Abritta says, need to think of employees as heroes of their own stories, making space for their employees’ stories within their own. “That’s leadership,” he says.

It’s all about the strategy

Dreaming and doing are two different things, of course, and founders need to recognize the gap between their vision and the execution needed to bring it to life. The most important thing any startup team can do is simply get started, testing and adjusting as needed. The goal isn’t to reach 10,000 customers in the first week but instead to reach 100 and have a solid plan for scaling to a million in the future.

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Building a roadmap and strategizing how to grow exponentially will help you see that “scale is everything,” as Garcia says. It will also show you what you need to get there, and what you don’t.

Only by being a part of the execution can founders build upon their vision and retain their storytelling ability. “Storytelling never stops,” Garcia says. “I’m constantly trying to close that gap [between vision and execution] and be better at every single step.” An important part of that process is getting consistent feedback and putting it to use.

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Listen, listen, listen

Even the greatest storytellers must listen to their audience and make adjustments. Startups need to listen to customers, incorporating their demands into what defines the company’s present and future.

Cesar Carvalho, founder and CEO of Gympass, for example, had a successful model for providing affordable fitness options in gyms… until COVID hit. His team could have waited for the pandemic to end and restart. But it became evident early on that people needed access to fitness options during the lockdown, and his clients (fitness providers), some of whom were finding ways to offer solutions via social apps, needed ways to monetize. So instead of waiting, they accelerated the release of a digital platform for users to book and pay for access to fitness classes and provided digital solutions spanning from nutrition to therapy. By listening to his users’ needs, Carvalho and his company were able to pivot and provide wellbeing services throughout Covid, forever reshaping Gympass.

“No matter how big you are, you can’t stop listening to users,” Carvalho says. Doing so, he says, changed their business model and “turned us into a unicorn.”

If you look at any successful startup today, you’ll find a founder committed to strong storytelling who can predict the future and chart a roadmap for getting there. Great leadership, however, also demands the ability to listen to clients’ needs and pivot as needed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial boards of Bloomberg Línea, Falic Media or Bloomberg LP and their owners.

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