The most important thing you'll ever do for your startup

Because it is both the best of times and the worst of times to be starting up

One

In a side-street in old Delhi, outside Gate 1 of the Jama Masjid, stands a hotel called Karim’s. It’s quite small, but its reputation is astonishing. It has been written about in publications across the world, it shows up all the time on food and travel shows.
Its food is celebrated as something not to be missed if you are visiting the Indian capital, and the place is now no less than a landmark, and deservedly so. I can vouch.

If you do find yourself there at some point, ask for something called Badam Pasanda, and get roomali rotis to scoop it up with. The curry is mutton slow cooked in almonds, and every mouthful is a festival.

But I digress.

A few years ago, I was in the city around this time, so I took the yellow line to Chandni Chowk for lunch at Karim’s. Alas, it was closed: I had forgotten it was the month of Ramzan. But I was there, so I went into the neighbouring restaurant, Al-Jawahar, which was open. Another Mughlai establishment, it is usually invisible: Karim’s aura making it a place people don’t notice or acknowledge. I only went there because I was so hungry. The food arrived, and it surprised me no end: It was even better than Karim’s, if not as good.

But, and this was what astonished me: Why were there no lines to get into this place? Why were even people who were disappointed that Karim’s was closed not coming to eat here, right next door, and with the same amazing smells wafting out? This was great food, and it was right in front of them.

What was happening?

My first thought was that perhaps I was just a naive South Indian who did not know Mughlai food, and was making assumptions about Al-Jawahar’s quality. So I asked the locals. But they confirmed my conclusion: Al-Jawahar indeed had better food, and the locals, more often than not, preferred to eat there. And what’s more, they told me that Al-Jawahar too, like Karim’s, had been set up by laid-off cooks to Mughal nobility at the time of the empire’s collapse. Which meant that both of them were as authentic as could be, with the third or fourth generations of the same family still owning and running these places.

Then why, I asked them, was Karim’s more famous? Why were Al-Jawahar, and similar other restaurants, with just amazing food, not celebrated with as much fanfare as Karim’s is?

They shrugged, they did not know.

It took me time to understand why.

You see, what Karim’s had done, and the rest of them had not, was very simple.

Karim’s had told a story.

All through the decades after independence, Karim’s had played themselves up, telling everyone their origins, the way they made their food, and the mystery of their recipes. This was why, they said, their food was the best. They said the same thing, over and over again. A couple of newspaper articles appeared, a foreign correspondent turned up, then two. The story was repeated, and repeated again. The story stuck, and after a while became so powerful and so resounding that everyone knew it, believed it.

No wonder Al-Jawahar is just another good eatery, while Karim’s is the pride of old Delhi.

Two

A couple of years ago Jason Toff, then GM of Vine, explained in a short post on Medium why telling a story was everything. I saved that little essay. One of the things he wrote was about repetition: It’s not enough that the story exists. It has to be told over and over and over again. Until it sticks. Until it becomes more than the story, until it becomes ingrained in culture, until it becomes belief.

For an early stage startup today, nothing may be more important.

Because it is both the best of times and the worst of times to be starting up. The best of times, because of the opportunity out there, which we are all aware of. And the worst of times, because it is going to get more and more difficult to survive and thrive.

I have written about this before, but let me paraphrase — CACs are rising, there are a lot of new players fighting for chunks of the same pie. At the same time, everyone knows the SaaS acquisition playbook; you do too. And so it’s getting more and more difficult to attract, and hold attention.

And for an early stage startup today, this attention is important, life-and-death important.

Three

In 2011, Sumanth Raghavendra (Founder of Deck, co-Founder of The Ken) was representing his startup at the Microsoft BizSpark India Startup Challenge. The prize money was significant, and the recognition would mean a lot for the company and for the team. Sumanth and his team thought they had a good product and a killer presentation, and stood a good chance of winning.

Until, as he writes, another founder came to present.

Here’s Sumanth (I’ve lightly edited the passage for effect) on what followed:

I had seen his website earlier when we were preparing for the finals and to my eyes, there was nothing particularly exciting about his company or his product. Until he started to talk. He started off by saying how he left his well-paying corporate job and plunged into entrepreneurship despite having a family with two small kids to support. He spoke about how a casual comment on HackerNews had sparked off an urge to do something of his own. I was standing on the sidelines and watching his performance — I took a look at the judges table and saw it immediately!

The judges were hooked and were like putty in his hands! While they had observed other pitches rather impassively until that point, their body language indicated that they were really taken in by his story — hanging on to his every word, empathising with his situation, almost rooting for him!

Now this was the most interesting thing about his pitch — he didn’t follow any of the guidelines laid down as judging criteria. He didn’t talk about how his product was different or compelling or about his business model would work. In fact, he never actually showed a single screen of his product even though that was supposedly a key judging criterion.

Even before they were formally announced, I knew who would win.

If it wasn’t evident enough, I’ll tell you now: the founder Sumanth is talking about was Girish Mathrubootham, and the company was Freshworks.

I joined the company as employee 8 about two months after these events.

Four

If you are a young startup trying to make your way in a crowded space, this, then, is the question you should answer first: What’s your story?

It can be the story of how the startup came to be, it can be the story of the founder’s struggle, it can be the story of the problem you are trying to solve. It can be any of these, really.

But if you want to differentiate your startup, then the first step should be to figure out what the story is.
The next step would be to frame it in a way that is relevant, repeatable, and most importantly, memorable.

Girish’s framing of the Freshworks story was all of these, and that story remains the bedrock, even today, of Freshworks culture — prioritising the customer above everything. This didn’t happen overnight. The story was told over and over again, repeated in newspaper reports and magazine articles, people at Freshworks talked about it at events and roadshows, until bit by bit, the story became something else: It became something all of Freshworks believed in.

Five

All of the above comes back to this question again, then: What’s your story? Get that down first. On paper, in your head, wherever. Tell it once, tell it again. You’ll perfect it as you keep telling it.

For an early stage startup, that story, if it’s really good, can get you the most valuable thing right now — attention. If the story’s good and you’ve found a way to tell it well, this will be your differentiator. It’ll help you with your positioning, it can be your advantage at a time when you don’t have any other.

And if it’s a great story, and if it is truly relevant, repeatable, and memorable, it can become what you are known for, your moat, your identity, your brand.

So go ahead, write your story down.

It may be the most important thing you’ll ever do for your startup.


Note - This essay is possibly my most influential. I published it on Medium this time last year, and it blew up immediately, with texts from CEOs, messages from industry folks, and a ton of activity and discussions on LinkedIn.

I’m republishing it here because one, I now have an audience here that may not have read it, and two, I’m working on a trilogy of essays on storytelling and startups, and want to gauge interest before spending hours researching and writing.

I would love it if you let me know on LinkedIn or on Twitter if this is something you’d be interested in.