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Entrepreneurship for Engineers: How Do You Tell Your Story?

Potential customers and investors don't care about all the cool features your product has. Learn how to craft the story of why your innovation matters.
Apr 2nd, 2022 8:00am by
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Entrepreneurship for Engineers is a monthly column by longtime New Stack contributor Emily Omier that explores the concerns of developers who want to build tools for other developers — and build a business around their innovations. We welcome your feedback, and ideas for future columns.

It’s easy for engineers and product folks to get really focused on features, really excited about the table that has a bunch of green checkmarks and red Xs showing how their product compares to the competition.

Ultimately, though, these features by themselves are not particularly meaningful to anyone — from potential investors to potential users of an open source project to potential hires to potential paying customers.

People don’t care about the green checkmarks, but they do really care about the outcome or value they might get out of the features those checkmarks represent.

Storytelling is how founders bridge the gap between a list of features and something that appeals to humans. Because no matter how technical your audience is, they are still human. A list of features is asking them to put in all of the effort to connect your product or project to the outcome they want.

“It’s the center of their business,” said Kiersten Gaffney, chief marketing officer at Codefresh and a startup advisor, about the importance of founders’ being able to tell a story.

“If they don’t have a story that is focused on the customer, focused on the ecosystem, focused on what’s changing in the world to get to the reason they’re building this software, they’re going to have a very difficult time recruiting, raising their next series and keeping the company aligned.”

Storytelling is critical to business and critical to open source. So how can technical founders get better at it?

Ask: Why Should Anyone Care?

“Ultimately, storytelling is about the purpose of the thing. Why should anyone care about what you made?” said Betty Junod, senior director of product marketing at VMware.

Getting at the purpose often requires probing, repeatedly asking “Why?” or “Why does this matter?” until you’re able to a deeper explanation of why the product or project and its features are relevant to the potential user.

For most technical founders, there’s a personal experience behind the project. Often, founders come from one of the bleeding-edge tech companies and either worked on an open source project there or ran into a particularly gnarly frustration, and wanted to spend more time solving that problem for everyone.

Move Beyond Lists of Features

The first step in crafting your story is to realize you might need to work at it. When Gaffney talks to founders about improving their story, “a lot of times, they think that they’re already telling a story, through their features,” she said. As she probes, founders will usually realize that they hadn’t given storytelling much thought at all.

The questions Gaffney generally asks as part of uncovering the story behind the company are all about why, taken to deeper and deeper levels:

  • Why did you decide to create this product?
  • Why are you the right person to build this product and bring it to market?
  • Why is the ecosystem ready for this product now?
  • Why should anyone else care about this product?

Answers to these deeper questions start to tease out the narrative and the purpose behind the project or product, and the founding team — giving them the beginnings of a story that they can tell.

“Especially for technical founders, the messaging you’re doing is like the origin story for why your company exists,” Junod said.

Make It Personal

It’s important, as the founder or a member of the founding team, to get comfortable speaking in the first person about your personal experiences and reasons for building the company.

When you start a company, everyone — from investors to open source users to initial customers — will be interested in knowing why you are the right person to bring this technology into the world. You’re asking them all to trust not just the technology, but you personally, particularly when you have just a very small team.

So at the very beginning, speaking in the first person and sharing parts of your personal journey is an important way to build trust and credibility.

“It helps people understand your why,” Gaffney said, about including your personal motivation in the story, especially at the beginning.

“I can think of a number of companies that have done that. Chronosphere is one, the founders were from Uber and were solving a hard problem at Uber, and they realized that they needed observability and everyone needed observability. They just got valued as a unicorn.”

The personal journey is part of the story you’ll be telling investors, part of the story that you need to tell at the beginning. As the company grows the story will quickly become less personal, more about building a company brand, but at the very beginning, there has to be a first-person element.

Understand the Audience

Good storytelling has to be grounded in an understanding of who your audience is. “Are you talking to the buyer first, or the user first? Because sometimes those are different,” Junod said. “Then thinking about, what kind of company is going to be our first customer?”

You’ll tell investors one story, tell a different story in a conference talk to open source enthusiasts, and yet another in the boardroom of an enterprise customer. This doesn’t mean that you’re being two-faced — it’s about tailoring the same core version of the story to the different needs, values and assumptions of each of those audiences.

The information you include or leave out in any telling of your story has to be curated so that you’re speaking to that particular audience’s needs, pain points and interests. Open source enthusiasts don’t care about your total addressable market, for example.

At the core, good storytelling for any product has to be focused on the customer or user, not the product. A list of features is product-centric; a list of pain points the product addresses and your vision for how the product will make users’ life easier is customer-centric.

“At the end of the day, you’re trying to make someone’s life better,” Junod said. The way you communicate that is with your story.

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