Musings #28: Storytelling

Feb 27, 2021 4 MIN

Musings #28: Storytelling

The One

It was a dull afternoon in Bangalore in 2011, and I was a little tired. I grabbed a tea to pump me up and settled in at my desk. I was getting ready to chat with an entrepreneur over a landline phone call (yes, does sound like medieval times). This was quite an unusual call since the introduction was from a founder of a niche angel group. I didn’t know what to expect since this was the first intro from this person. But, like every call with an entrepreneur, as an investor, I was hoping this was ‘The One.’ Every VC hopes to find that one investment that can become an iconic company – think a Google, a Facebook, or a Flipkart. Imagine when those companies were nothing but an idea, and you have to figure out if that was ‘The One.’

I got on the call and was pleasantly surprised by the voice on the other side. It was a raspy voice that reminded me of a favorite movie director. We hit it off quite well, even in the first few minutes. And then this founder started sharing his journey. How he had come from a very unconventional background, worked for a startup that took him to the US, and then, after a successful stint there, relocated back to India. But, on his return journey to India, the shipper broke one of his valuable items. Despite several phone calls and twenty-plus email messages, the issue went unresolved. That is when he decided to post about it in a popular online forum. Which surprisingly led to his issue getting resolved immediately. Around the same time, he was on an online developer forum where people were upset with an incumbent software they were using and were crying out for an alternate solution. As fate would have it, both these incidents collided to birth his startup. His whole pitch did not take more than 45 minutes, but he managed to convey everything and with impactful anecdotes. We ended up spending more time with this founder over the next few weeks, and one of my senior partners commented on the founder “He conveys the most amount of information with the least amount of words.”

I’m glad that I made that call that afternoon, and I’m grateful to that angel-group founder, Naval Ravikant (Angellist), for making the connection. We ended up seeding Girish Mathrabootham in his groundbreaking journey with Freshdesk (now FreshWorks). Freshworks just crossed $300M in revenue. Girish is now an icon in the startup world. He is also a master storyteller. We will hear him share his story today, starting with this 2-minute clip about him pitching at a startup competition.

I believe storytelling is a superpower for any founder. I want to use this podcast with Girish as a case study (for maximum impact, I would request you to listen to these 2-minute podcast clips as you read the relevant section). We will dive into some of the reasons why storytelling skills are critical for a founder and discuss some techniques for getting better.

“Data is your enemy, Story is your friend” – Girish

Girish articulates how he uses storytelling to attract talent to join his company and fundraising in this 2-min clip. At work, I have the good fortune of partnering with founders from their very early stages.

For most founders, the journey starts with a spark (in this case, Girish with the Customer Support software idea). But, they have to first sell this idea to a co-founder. Next comes selling the vision to the first few hires. At this point, it is just the vision and the passion of the founder that the co-founders and early team members are following – it is like stepping out for a battle without any weapons.

The next step is getting your armor – fundraising. And I can’t stress enough how important storytelling is for this as well. There are many brilliant founders with great products. Still, they never see the light of day without the ability to articulate their story succinctly and win over financial backers – be it friends, family, angels, or VC investors.

“The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.” — Steve Jobs

Next comes building your product and scaling sales. All this involves hiring more top talent and inspiring them and creating a culture that thrives. Girish does all that through stories as well. For example, listen to this one on how he figures out the right employees to hire for the right stage – “Which cow, Which Ditch.” Look at how beautifully he weaves in an analogy and applies that to his startup situation.

“I like to dream in installments” – Girish

Let’s close this case-study section with another of Girish’s mini clips on “dreaming in installments.” It talks about the importance of setting tangible and achievable goals for your startup and hitting those milestones and celebrating those victories.

Hope the above was helpful. But, if you are like me, you probably want to learn more about developing these skills. You can start with two books that can help grow your storytelling skills (written and verbal).

  • The Storyteller’s Secret by Carmine Gallo – You can start with this easy-to-read book that captures the use of storytelling by leaders across various industries and professions with some tangible applications for improving our skills.
  • Storyworthy by Mathew Dicks is a book worth studying more closely by an author who is a professional storyteller. He divides the book into three parts – finding your story, crafting your story, and telling your story. Each section has some gems and is very practical. I used some of the book’s techniques (from the ‘crafting the story’ section) in the first portion of today’s Musings.

Studying the above books has been a gratifying journey for me. If we hone our storytelling skills, I’m sure we can be better founders, managers, teachers, and parents. I am sure each one of us has some great stories to share. I hope we can harvest those stories and share them with the world. To inspire, to educate, and to change the world.

(Here is an Airtable with all the Musings organized by topic/sub-topic for easy reference. Also, please subscribe/share Musings using this link.)