Learning Through Stories
Editor’s note: The 2015 Lean Startup Conference is just around the corner (it’s from November 16-19th in San Francisco, and there’s still time to get your ticket!). We have dozens of excellent speakers and mentors who are eager to share their product development, entrepreneurship, and innovation stories–you’ll never see these experts in one place ever again. Learn more about them in our ‘Lean Startup Speakers’ series.
Next up is James Warren, who is the Founder and CEO of Share More Stories. He’ll be giving a talk on The Startup Storyteller: Using Stories to Learn at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference. Learn more about him here.
Officially, I started Share More Stories on June 30, 2014. But the journey began about two months earlier when I made the decision to become an entrepreneur.
Now when I embarked on this journey, I had the benefit of years of Fortune 500 brand building, new product and new business experience. But that was an altogether different journey. Sure, I knew I would leverage some of the skills I had gained during my corporate career, but I could sense that the experience of building a new company would be quite different. Fortunately, a wise friend told me to read the Lean Startup before I did anything else. And so that’s exactly what I did. For two weeks, during my initial decision-making phase, I read (or listened to) the Lean Startup. It totally resonated with me, inspired me and encouraged me to leap.
So I developed a preliminary strategy and plan, I filed for incorporation, I assembled a team of advisors and helpers, and we began talking to a lot of people. Thanks to my natural curiosity and passion for stories, I really wanted to listen to and learn from those who had stories to share, and see what we might glean from their experiences.
The first few months were fantastic. Although I felt the pressure of hitting milestones, my personal runway was still intact and we were learning at an incredible rate. So we continued on, confident in the future and focused on engaging many more potential customers and partners, listening to their stories, and honing our strategy and approach.
And boy, we heard a lot of stories.
Stories about wanting to connect with others.
Stories about the frustrations of not being heard or wanting a bigger audience.
Stories about what’s wrong with social media, and publishing.
And as I listened to these stories, I felt that we had definitely identified a need to help people get their stories out on their own terms. And I thought we had a unique approach in mind to meet that need.
So we started doing rounds of concept testing using platforms like QuickMVP and Unbounce, and it was all EXTREMELY helpful. But as we all know, without an actual product, there’s only so much one can learn from customers and users. It was finally time to get our MVP up and out.
There was a slight problem with that next step, however.
I wasn’t a developer. And we didn’t have one (yet) on the team. I couldn’t code. And I didn’t want to, either.
So I started looking for partners who could help me develop our alpha site, on what I called “startup-friendly” terms. And fortunately, I found an amazing partner who was willing to get involved. At the time, my expectation was a really minimum viable product that would almost function like a demo. Looking back, I almost sacrificed “viable” in favor of “minimum.” Fortunately, however, my development partner saw it differently, and invested an insane amount of time to provide us a fully functional prototype right at the outset.
When we launched on November 5th, 2014, I felt like a new man, a man on a mission. It was truly amazing, and being the big softy that I am, I cried. I felt a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment, and I was so grateful to my team who really made that day happen. The beautiful thing was that we had built it so collaboratively, and it truly represented our own shared story, a story about people who simply wanted to be heard, and wanted to connect with others through shared experiences.
I know, I know. Sounds great. But how would it make money?
Well, I believed that the product we launched was just the start. Based on all the stories people told us, the data we amassed and all the insight we gleaned, I wanted to plan ahead, to anticipate building the beta just a few short months later. And I just knew that revenue had to be a ways off, because I made the assumption that meaningful revenue was dependent on scale, and we couldn’t get scale without a more robust product, and we couldn’t get that without funding.
That’s what I thought (or more accurately, assumed; and you know what they say about assumptions).
So, no sooner did I have a fully functional prototype – in fact, a totally awesome MVP that we could learn tons from – did I take my eye off the ball and started looking at crowdfunding.
And barely two weeks after our product launch, I also launched a crowdfunding campaign, since I thought that’d be the best way to raise capital to fund further development.
And after we launched the campaign, another wise friend told me that things would not turn out the way I expected, but that we would learn a lot along the way. How right she was (and still is).
See, the crowdfunding campaign didn’t really go as planned. In fact, you could sort of say it bombed. But the reason why was very interesting.
We asked people to tell us why they didn’t want to support it.
Based on the feedback we got, we identified some executional opportunities, as well a lack of clarity around our value proposition. But probably the most interesting story came from one of my team members, who was having dinner with her family and trying to get some insight into why they hadn’t supported us yet. And their answer shocked us.
“Why do you need to raise more money?” Was the reply. “What you have looks pretty good to me.”
But, but, but… what we had wasn’t what we envisioned, so how could it be good enough?
Well, I guess that was Lesson One.
And that wasn’t even the half of it.
We also started hearing different stories, totally unexpected stories. These were stories from people in the marketing world, either on the business side or the nonprofit side. And these stories were nothing like the ones we heard months before.
These stories were about organizations’ needs to have deeper engagement with their communities. They were about the desire to have stronger connections with their audiences of customers, supporters and employees.
In their own way, they were also about wanting to be more connected, and wanting to be heard.
So, which type of company were we trying to be?
This is fundamentally a leadership question. And as the leader, I struggled mightily with it. I was stuck on what I thought we were supposed to be, and even though my team had likely arrived at the conclusion that a pivot was in order, I couldn’t see it.
I wanted to combine everything.
And their response?
“So, James, what does that look like? It sounds like two very different business models.”
And what they were really asking was, “What’s the vision? What’s the new roadmap?”
By the way (I might have forgotten to mention this), around this time, I had run out of personal runway. Talk about a crisis of confidence. This was nothing like the way I felt the previous summer.
Even in the midst of these new stories, our own story seemingly unraveled.
Traction on the platform slowed considerably, I started looking for work, and the team lacked direction. I still mustered the energy to force a couple of experiments, perhaps more out of pride than anything. But to call us aimless would’ve been an understatement. Paradoxically, by this point, the potential opportunity for brands and organizations was becoming quite clear, thanks to a growing number of inquiries into how we could help them. But I still couldn’t quite figure out what to do about it, or how to do it.
Truth be told, I probably knew what had to be done, but I just couldn’t get comfortable with the idea of changing direction.
And then a funny thing happened.
In my search for meaningful work to take care of my family and extend my runway, one of my mentors put me in touch with the CEO of a marketing firm. And the message was plain: “James, you need to do this. And it might also be good for Share More Stories.”
Things will not turn out the way you expect, but you’re gonna learn a lot.
So true, so true.
So I dutifully went to meet with the CEO of this firm, mustering up what courage I could, attempting to convey some semblance of that same future full of people sharing stories that we had imagined earlier.
And what was supposed to be a fifteen minute conversation turned into a three-hour dialogue. At the end of it, I had a partnership opportunity on the table, which would provide Share More Stories the opportunity to grow – to exist, in fact – while also giving me some much needed personal cash flow.
So, I consulted with my team and my advisors, and without much delay, we arrived at the obvious conclusion that bringing this firm on as an investor and partner made ALL the sense in the world.
So that’s what we did.
But that’s still not where it ends.
I still had to reconcile myself to the fact that the business was shifting. I had to get comfortable turning my gaze.
And finally, I did. I yielded.
I yielded to the insights that were staring me in the face. I heeded the stories people were sharing on the platform and sharing with my team and with me in person.
I reflected on what we had learned about what people wanted to share… and what they didn’t. I explored what connection and community might mean if seen through a broader lens. And I finally paid attention to the fact that personally, this was probably meant to be, since I had spent the vast majority of my career in brand management and communications. (Oh, did I forget to mention that?)
I let our shared narrative go in the direction it needed to go. And I also surrendered the notion that the platform had to be a certain way in order for me to feel like I was fulfilling my purpose.
And with that realization, we began to pivot. And this is when things got really exciting.
Very, very quickly, everything started to fall into place.
With a partner and investor, we were able to focus on the future, not just on the present.
Our value proposition got much, much clearer.
We identified a new customer base and we went after it.
And the response to our new proposition has been nothing short of amazing. Over the past several months, we’ve been approached by a number of customers, large and small, both brands and nonprofits, all of whom are really interested to find out how they can grow by connecting with their consumers or supporters through their stories.
And you know what? I couldn’t be happier. Because I’m still accomplishing my personal vision, and the overall mission for Share More Stories hasn’t changed all that much, even though the value proposition has changed considerably.
So that’s where we’re at. We’re focused on building, measuring and learning as much as we can, as quickly as we can, with this new kind of customer. We’re excited because have several pilots in development, each of which is another experiment.
But the best part about what we’re focused on now? Nothing we learned through our previous experience was wasted. We didn’t know it at the time, but our own journey was really a model of how to use stories to generate insights and apply those insights to grow. And as it turns out, there is some interest in that.
So the journey continues. And a journey like this – like yours – is full of moments of wonder, excitement, humiliation, detour, progress, and realization. It’s an experience, and it is chock full of stories. The only question that remains is: what will you learn from them.