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.

Posted on
April 20, 2022
Laura Gaviria Halaby

Storytelling and Listening Are Keys to Startup Success

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

Every chance he gets, Carlos Garcia tells his startup story. Whether it’s a potentialemployee, client or investor, the CEO and founder of used-car sales startupKavak never misses a chance to create expectations about Mexico’s firstunicorn, 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 metcan galvanize teams and investors with vision while also looking into thefuture and charting a path to success.

“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 shootingbegins.  Similarly, startup founders mustknow that manifesting the future is up to them.

Crazy for Growth & 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 earlypartners to join them. “If you don’t have the capacity to think about it deeplyand tell that story, it’s a killer,” Garcia warns.

Sharing one’s ambition means showing investors how their money and talent will help afounder 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 yetexist – to see into the future, much like a filmmaker, but they can also definethe 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 oftenbecome more attached to your purpose – to the story of why you’re building whatyou’re building. Brynne McNulty Rojas, CEO of Habi, agrees. “People want apurpose and to build something bigger than themselves,” she says.

Buser Co-founder and CEO Marcelo Abritta notes how Earnest Shackleton recruited menfor 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 ownstories, making space for their employees’ stories within their own. “That’sleadership,” he says.

It’s All About the Strategy

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

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 toget there, and what you don’t.

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

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 whatdefines the company’s present and future.

Cesar Carvalho, founder and CEO of Gympass, for example, had a successful model forproviding affordable fitness options in gyms … until COVID hit. His team couldhave waited for the pandemic to end and restart. But it became evident early onthat people needed access to fitness options during the lockdown, and hisclients (fitness providers), some of whom were finding ways to offer solutionsvia social apps, needed ways to monetize. So instead of waiting, theyaccelerated the release of a digital platform for users to book and pay foraccess to fitness classes and provided digital solutions spanning fromnutrition to therapy. By listening to his users’ needs, Carvalho and hiscompany 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 tostrong storytelling who can predict the future and chart a roadmap for gettingthere. Great leadership, however, also demands the ability to listen toclients’ needs and pivot as needed.

Laura Gaviria Halaby
Head of Knowledge, Strategic Partnerships and Crypto Value Creation, SoftBank Latin America Fund