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From the Trenches

Trash the Elevator Pitch: Finding Your Unique Company Story

Mike Sweeney | January 11, 2018

What’s your story? If you are a company leader or owner, your story should roll right off your tongue. But for many leaders, it doesn’t. It can sound something like this: “Our story? Um, well, our mission is to make the best cookies in the Mid-Atlantic.”

Dude, I didn’t ask about your mission. Don’t feed me that canned elevator pitch crap. Your company’s story is not the mission, or the vision, or the core values. Your story is about where you have been, how your company got to where it is today, why you are doing what you’re doing, and how it’s different from all those other cookie makers. And it includes the scars that came along with it, if you’re really going to be authentic.

Maybe you started in a bar with an idea on a cocktail napkin. You celebrated your idea with a few too many, accidentally washed it in your jeans, and had to piece it together the next day. But a critical piece of the napkin was missing, so you returned to the bar as soon as it opened the following day to dig through the trash and find those seven words scribbled on a napkin.

You’ve used that napkin roadmap for 10 years and more than 4 million in revenue, despite a recession, the advent of that disruptive cookie-making technology that forced you to alter the plan, and that competitor that kept trying to tell people THEIR way was better. But you knew it wasn’t, and you told people WHY. Now you make the best cookies in the Mid-Atlantic, cookies that are ultra-natural and probably should taste like sawdust, but actually taste phenomenal. And you have the awards and growth numbers to prove it.

That’s a story. You believe it; your employees know it, believe it, and repeat it; and it shapes your business. Every business has one of these, but many companies just haven’t figured out how to unearth it.

Your story, once you figure out the nuances and details that make it truly unique, is much more interesting to people than your mission or vision. But getting that story written down usually means digging deeper into who you are as a company and WHY.

If you are lacking a company story, here’s how to get started and nail it.

Expand your thinking behind mission, vision, and values
I’ve seen some companies (including my own) spend days trying to brainstorm, vet, and agree on something like a mission statement. Who am I to pick on the mission statement, something just about every organization in the world maintains? But your mission statement isn’t your story, and as I mentioned, it’s usually not that exciting.

The dilemma with something like a mission statement (or vision statement, or set of company values) is that at best, it serves as a set of carefully crafted words used to ensure your internal team knows exactly what the company is about. At worst, it serves as a check-the-box external communications tactic, often constructed because the world tells you that you need one.

Your mission is important, and your mission statement (or its essence) can be worked into your story without being cheesy, but just because you have a mission statement doesn’t mean you have a story.

Use the Valvano approach
In Jim Valvano’s famous 1993 ESPYs speech, he talks about the importance of three things: where you started, where you are, and where you’re going to be. Often, when considering an organization’s story, leaders spend the bulk of their time on where they want to go (vision), a bit of time on where they are, and almost no time on where they started. This is natural for the “get better every day” types, including myself.

But you have to celebrate and be inspired by how and where you got started. If you can’t, you’ll never embrace the progress you’ve made and will make in the future. Use Jimmy V’s three big points to map out the core parts of your story, not just the vision for where you’re going.

Embrace the macro and micro trends that led to your company history
The typical “about us” or company history page on a website reads like this: We started in 1985 in a small warehouse in Tuscaloosa, have since produced 55,148 things, currently employ 4,786 people, and have achieved all of these cool milestones along the way.

Your story needs color and perspective. What happened in the world while you were building this great company? What about market trends? If you’re in the health and fitness industry, did the birth of the weekend warrior impact your business, and how? If you’re in retail, did the rise of the connected, mobile consumer play a part in your growth?

The point: You may be in business because the market presented an opportunity that you decided to take advantage of — acknowledge that, and weave it into your story.

Name your enemy, and take a stand against it
On the surface, this may seem to go against my advice to dig deeper and create your own unique story by exploring who you are as an organization. That being said, if you can identify a larger trend, set of people, or even a group of competitors who represent an approach that stands opposite to what you believe in, then don’t be afraid to name it.

Don’t stop there, though. Make sure your employees and customers know what differentiates your company and its enemies. When you are out doing business development and a prospect asks about the competition, don’t be afraid to show passion about why the enemy’s approach is unacceptable to you. But take a delicate approach — there is a fine line between believing in your approach with conviction and seeming obsessed with your enemy’s weak-ass approach. (OK, those last words were not so delicate. Do as I say, not as I do.)

For example, Right Source Marketing’s enemy is bad marketers and bad marketing. As Will Davis outlined in his recent post, we’re not out to get the bad marketers, but we won’t work with them or embrace their low standards.

Consider whether your story is authentic to your true (company) self
Imagine if an individual built his or her entire persona around attracting a particular person, getting a particular job, and presenting a particular image to the world. You might judge that person to be inauthentic, right?

Why, then, is it OK for companies to do that? Too many companies today are built for business suitors — VC firms and potential acquirers primarily. If you’re building a company to appeal to a particular Prince Charming who may or may not show up with your glass slipper instead of building it for the reasons you jotted down on that cocktail napkin, then you’re being inauthentic. I can’t fault you for targeting that VC money (some would argue that businesses are designed exploit advantages and make money), but that approach will make it very difficult to find a real corporate personality and identity.

Ask why
If you’re stuck on which parts of your company story are unique, use the “but why” method, honed over time by toddlers around the globe. Ask “But why?” or “So what?” as you start to work on your story and you will find yourself digging far deeper than you ever anticipated. You’ll get to the real, interesting pieces of who you are, where you’ve been, and what differentiates your company from the next guy’s.

Your brand does, in fact, have a unique story to tell. You just need to unearth it.

If you’re interested in a conversation on how to discover and tell your company’s story in a more authentic way, so that the right people will stand up and listen, email me directly.

Related Resources

About Mike Sweeney:

As Right Source’s co-founder and CEO, Mike Sweeney creates, plans, and implements our vision, mission, culture, and strategic direction as well as serving as an advisor to our clients. Mike received a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a major in marketing from the University of Notre Dame and has more than 20 years of experience in B2B marketing strategy, including digital, content, and marketing technology. You can find Mike on LinkedIn.