5 ways a Start-up can use history

Storytelling about the past is a powerful tool for companies. But what if your company is a start-up, does that mean that you can’t use the power of stories? Of course you can, and here are five ways to do it.


History can be a great asset to companies. You can use it to prove your track record, to create trust and to inspire. It is often an important part of building a strong brand. When we use our own history we take advantage of an asset our competitors don’t have.

But if you are a start-up or a young company you may feel that you don’t have access to this advantage. After all, a start-up has no past, only a future. So you will have to do without this advantage. You have to wait until you’ve been around for a while, and have some kind of history to show, right?

Wrong. You might not have the kind of history that older companies can point to, but there is certainly a lot of history around that you can use to create that trust and to inspire others. What you want to do is to tap into that pool of shared experiences and feelings that storytelling is so good at accessing. And you can use history to do precisely that.

Here are five ways you can use history and storytelling as a start-up.

1. Tell the story of what you are doing right now

When we think about history, especially for companies, we relate it to events that happened a long time ago. What happens today, on the other hand, we don’t consider in this context. But it is history – and more importantly it is the history of your company. What you did yesterday, what you’re doing today and what you plan on doing tomorrow is the ”Once upon a time” phase of your company’s history – the stuff that legends will be made from in the future. If you are successful and build a big company the things you’re doing right now will be what your future employees will hear all about and wish they had been part of when it happened. You’re Hewlett and Packard working away in their garage, or Jobs and Wozniak creating the first Apple computer.
The key thing for you to do is to share the important moments of your aspiring company – the first contract, or the first order, the offices you rented or the collaboration site you created to work on your game. I’m not telling you to reveal any secrets or sensitive information – just to share as much as you can about the events taking place, and most importantly – how they make you feel.

2. Use your surroundings

I once worked in an office building that was a converted factory. And when I had a bit of time I did some research and found out what had been manufactured there. From that I got a great story to tell customers during the obligatory ”show Mr/Ms VIP around the office”-time. The entrepreneur behind the factory turned out to be quite a character – much better at coming up with new ideas than running a company. But he was very good at inventing stuff, and I could use that as an entry point into talking about innovation, and more specifically – to find out what the VIP’s company needed.
My point is this – you are surrounded by history. It can be the office you work in, the city you live in or the region it lies in. Learn more about what has happened there, and pick stories that you feel resonates with you and the company you’re trying to build. And then use those stories both when you talk to customers and on your website.

3. Use the industry you belong to

Almost every company belongs to an industry, and very often that industry has a history that can be explored and used. You can do this in a couple of ways: The most obvious one is of course to connect your company to an industry leader, be it a person or a company, and show that you share the same values, drives, views of development etc. On the other hand, if you want to challenge the existing order, you can use that industry leader as someone whose ideals you don’t share. And talk about how you want to bring change to the whole industry. A third way, somewhere in between the first two, is to say that the industry is ripe for transformation, and then point to a company or a person in another industry who has created that change. You then connect your own company and story to that scenario.

4. Make use of your heroes

Having heroes is a great thing. And they can come from all walks of life. Sport, movies, explorations, politics, science and many others. Take a moment to think about who your heroes are, and if there is something that they have said or done that you can connect to what you’re trying to do with your own company. Do you want to be the David Bowie of software development or the Dian Fossey of medical research? How about the Isabel Allende of B2B marketing or the Derek Jeter of beekeeping? If you can see the connection, chances are that you can build a story around it.

Just one piece of advice – Unless you have a very strong and original take on being the Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or Bill Gates of your particular industry I would suggest staying away from that connection. Great and inspirational they are, but it’s been done.

5. Connect with historical events

If you can’t find someone or something in your chosen industry, and your personal heroes can’t be used, there is a multitude of historical events to seek inspiration from. The great adventures of explorers throughout times, the scholars, the scientists, philosophers, politicians and leaders. Those who have defended a way of life, those that have stood against injustice and those who have forced us to redefine how we view the world and its inhabitants. You can portray your company as rebellious, trustworthy, dedicated to learning, strategic or caring. There are so many options and great stories that you can use – and by doing so connect both with the people that already know about the event and the people who have never heard of it.

There you have it – five ways that your newly born start-up can make use of the advantage history and storytelling offers. And when you do it, make sure it’s not just limited to one off occasions when you’re meeting a potential backer or customer. Sharing stories, in all the channels you decide to use, creates a bond between your company and potential customers, employees and others. A bond that you can build upon as your company grows stronger and has been more stories to share.

A couple of years ago Dave Birss, a very talented creative director, made this film about great Scottish Innovators and what we can learn from them. This is a great example of putting history to good use in a new context:

Over to you

Do you have any suggestions for stories start-ups can use to connect with their target groups? Share them in the comments below.

Image credit: Pascal Genius Explored Flickr

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