Conflict in storytelling

It's a common maxim that the best founders are master storytellers. They can articulate a compelling vision of the future that convinces investors to part with their money, employees to leave stable jobs, and customers to risk their reputations by signing up for a new product.

One of the core elements of a compelling narrative is conflict. Conflict adds drama to a story, drawing the audience in as the protagonist struggles to overcome the obstacles ahead. The easier it is for the protagonist to triumph, the less value there is in the drama.

By positioning your startup against an opposing force, you answer the "Why Now?" question from investors, inspire employees to fight as underdogs for a worthy cause and differentiate yourself in a crowded market when selling to customers.

The idea struck me this week as the Basecamp founders once again proved themselves the champions of using conflict in positioning. In many ways you can only define Basecamp in terms of what they're against - they're against VC, they're against big tech, they're against working long hours. And last week they used conflict masterfully to bring attention to the launch of Hey.com by vocally opposing the anti-competitive practices of the Apple app store.

But they're not the only company to use conflict to great effect when establishing their product in the market:

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Salesforce championed “The End of Software” in Feb 2000, staging a mock protest outside Siebel Systems' user conference. By positioning itself in conflict with traditional on-prem software, Salesforce established itself as the underdog fighting to establish a new way of delivering software online.

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Drift replicated this model when they advocated for "conversational marketing" and "against forms". Drift highlighted how the established practice of using forms on websites to score MQLs, which are then passed onto SDRs who get in touch days later, is a terrible experience for customers. By exposing how poor the current experience is for customers, they opened up the opportunity for a new way of marketing to customers — revealing how chatbots could eliminate steps by asking website visitors qualification questions and delivering the highest quality leads to salespeople in real-time.

By saying what you're against, you highlight the values you represent and reveal why a change is necessary.

Which is why positioning statements include conflict at the core:

Your product is for (TARGET CUSTOMER) who needs (PROBLEM TO BE SOLVED) and feel (FEELINGS) while they do it. (PRODUCT NAME) is a (PRODUCT CATEGORY) that (STATEMENT OF KEY BENEFIT). Unlike (COMPETING ALTERNATIVE), (PRODUCT NAME) (STATEMENT OF PRIMARY DIFFERENTIATION)

So when crafting your narrative to pitch to investors, customers, and future employees, think through not just what you can offer customers, but what you can replace.

What I’m reading

Personal History by Katharine Graham

Many business autobiographies have a standard structure: my childhood - my business - my philanthropy, recounting success after success with a sprinkling of faux-failure. Katharine Graham, on the other hand, tells her story through the lens of continual insecurity:

I didn’t understand the immensity of what lay before me, how frightened I would be by much of it, how tough it was going to be, and how many anxious hours and days I would spend for a long, long time.

It was a difficult and lonely process. I made endless unnecessary mistakes and died over them. There was nothing to do but feel my way.

By exposing her insecurity, she normalises it. If Katharine Graham felt that level of imposter syndrome for decades as she stewarded the Washington Post to years of journalistic integrity and business success, then maybe this fear I’m feeling as I push myself in my career is normal.

Alongside her personal story, this book recounts the evolution of the feminist movement in America, the world of press and politics in the 20th Century, and the role of labour unions in the 1970s. I highly recommend.

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