How Good is your story?

In a frenzied and competitive environment, startups can improve their narratives by focusing on the audience, the experience they provide and their human side. At a recent panel discussion that I had a chance to host, the audience of about 400 listened quietly as one of the three entrepreneurs in the group described his startup and his journey at length. At the end of his monologue, a few members of the audience slowly raised their hands. They wanted to know the name of his venture and exactly what it was all about.

The incident highlighted a problem that I believe is endemic to India’s entrepreneurial scene. This is a landscape filled with smart and capable individuals who have procured funding for their compelling ideas. But when it comes to articulating these ideas, they sometimes lose the plot. The other aspect they often overlook is the nature of the audience. An audience looking for life lessons at a spiritual retreat in Bangalore is different from a gathering of CMOs at a South Mumbai conference. This, in turn, is different from a group of engineers mulling over architecture issues at a tech meetup in Pune. The story has to be modified in order to relevant for each of these groups. This is a basic tenet of communication but many of us lose sight of this in the rush to be heard.

Another charge that is leveled against today’s entrepreneurs is that they are somehow short-term in their orientation and are not out to build enduring businesses. However, this is an oversimplification, in my view.

The reality is that we are living in a world that thrives on immediacy and quick results. With most VC investment horizons spread over ten years at most, this money is not being pumped in to build the next Coca Cola or Tata. The dialogue around startups today revolves around activity and turnaround – who has raised a lot of money, who is spending, who has a lot of customers, and so on. It is hard for entrepreneurs to swim against these currents. Still, many of them are trying to make a dent by building serious businesses and are displaying incredible persistence and perseverance in the process. There may be a few who begin with the primary goal of exiting but this mix has probably existed in all entrepreneurial eras, including the dotcom period of the late 90s.

India is a tough market to do business in, mainly because it is so competitive. Any viable business idea or model is sure to spawn a large number of clones trying to chase or copy it. It is in our blood to be doggedly competitive. The intensity around competitive entrance examinations such as IIT and IIM is a perfect example of this national trait. How can a startup rise above the crowd in this environment? While product, service, engineering and technology can be viewed as hygiene factors, what will really prove to be a differentiator is the experience provided to customers. And if that experience is backed by clear and consistent communication, then it can make all the difference in the world. I believe there is a tremendous opportunity here for companies in India. For example, Flipkart’s road to profitability is now a favorite discussion topic across the country. However, it was only seven to eight years ago that they first entered mainstream conversation with their promise of speedy home delivery in a country that was not used to this experience. In this context, Flipkart and other startups have a huge opportunity to shift the narrative focus back on experience and other topics that really matter to their target audience.

There are plenty of tools for them to effectively do this. If there is one thing that sets today’s startups apart from those of a previous era, it would have to be the crazy and powerful influence of social media. With everything being online, companies are now exposed on a 24X7 basis. If employees are unhappy, for example, there is no dearth of platforms on which they can vent. And so companies have to be on constant alert and ready to respond, swiftly and appropriately.

The upside of all this exposure is that companies now have an opportunity to be real and genuine in their communication and win both consumer mindshare and goodwill in the process. Since there is nowhere to hide, startups have to be ready to open up and share more. It works as long as the brand personas that develop as a result are consistent across the many platforms out there.

In Bollywood movies of the 70s and 80s, the heroes were largely macho men who were ready to jump in to save everything from the world to the honour of the women in their lives. Times have changed. A movie like ‘Tamasha’ today shows Ranbir Kapoor in pain and willing to wear this on his sleeve. And the audience laps it all up – his tears, his flaws and his vulnerability.

The same trend is playing out in the startup world. If you reveal your vulnerability as a company, display your battle scars, and talk about the mistakes you have made, people are likely to respond positively. This may take some recalibration on our part since we are conditioned, in India, to hide our pain rather than talk about it.

– As communicated to Viewpoint

It essentially boils down to telling a story – one that is cohesive and that rings true. By being more open and authentic in their storytelling, startups can show the world that they are more than the sum of their technology, products and funding. They are also human at the core.