You as an individual have a founding story and so does the business that you’re a part of. It’s not unusual for these stories of origin to morph over time as you or your firm evolves.
Your founding stories
Your stories of origin are those moments in your life that made a huge difference in who you are today. Although these significant milestones may be separated by time, they’re interconnected because they all define “you” as a person.
In the 2005 commencement address that Steve Jobs gave at Stanford, he shared three stories: one about connecting the dots, a second about love and loss, and a third about death. His love and loss story is about how he got let go from Apple by the board of directors at age 30. He talks about feeling like a “beginner” after this significant turning point.
How did he go about finding himself in the midst of this difficult situation? He stayed grounded by doing what he loved. His work defined him. Being fired allowed him to be rebirthed when he began working for NeXT and Pixar and falling in love with the woman who eventually became his wife.
What can you do to uncover these sorts of milestones or turning points in your life that encapsulate your founding stories? Ponder these story prompts:
An event surrounding your birth may be of huge significance. Enlighten me about a time like this.
Share with me a memory about an early childhood situation that defines you to this day.
Tell me about an event that has profoundly shaped you as a person.
Tell me about that moment when you just knew you needed to pursue the career or business you have today.
Your challenge when you use any kind of personal story at work is to demonstrate its relationship to the business situation and/or topic at hand.
Any time you interview for a new job or assignment, the interviewer may be interested in knowing these things about you. When you’re building a relationship with business prospects, they may want to hear one of these stories. In one-on-one conversations, it may be valuable to share a founding story of yours as a way of forging deeper bonds with others.
The organization’s founding story
Whether it’s an entrepreneurial venture or a large corporation, the beginnings of most organizations are typically humble. A humble origins story can have great power, as illustrated by Geil Browning in a blog post for Inc.com titled "Tell Stories & You’ll Boost Sales (Because of How Human Brains Are Wired)".
Browning reflects on people at a networking event asking her what she does at Emergenetics International. She could say, “I own a human capital consulting firm that provides assessments for employee development, recruitment, and retention.” But she doesn’t. Instead, she tells about how she grew up at her family’s kitchen table, listening to her mother and grandmother trade tales about their classroom experiences as teachers.
These stories inspired her to become a teacher, where she quickly built up her own repertoire of stories.
One boy, 11-year-old Randy, was a handful — and often boisterous. Because at the time she was a teacher, schools weren’t designed to help kids like Randy, working with him made her want to discover how students learned, so she left to pursue her doctorate. She studied left-brain/right-brain thinking, an area where she felt she could make a difference.
Before she returned to teaching, she met the CEO of a large bank who wanted help getting his dysfunctional team to perform better. She says, “A lightbulb went off! I discovered a calling to both learning and business. It encouraged me to create a way for people to clearly see who they are, and how they think, behave, and communicate — and what all that means at work.”
Geil’s personal story is the founding story of her company, Emergenetics — the story reveals its reason for being. Where and when could Geil use this story? To promote her firm, in proposals and proposal presentations, when going for funding, and when asked how she got into this line of work. The same is true for you if you’re an entrepreneur or small business owner.
Here are ways to identify founding stories about some aspect of the business:
Ask the founder(s): Tell me about that moment in time that motivated you to start the organization. Or about a problem that you couldn’t solve that led you to start this organization. Or about an experience that compelled you to conceive this organization.
If it’s your own company: Tell me about that moment when you clearly knew you had to open your own business. Or about an experience you had earlier in life that led you to create this organization.
If your organization has been around for a long time: If no one recalls how it started, dig into archives and old newspaper clippings.
If you work for a government agency: The founding story may be buried in legislative materials or the creation of a law. Go find that stuff and piece together the story. If you can, interview those who may have been involved at the time.
If the company has completely reinvented itself: One vivid example is when the Joban Coal Mining Company in Japan became the Spa Resort Hawaiian. To capture this rebirth, consider asking, “Tell me about the event or situation that was a key turning point in the organization.”
For existing products and services: Figure out who was responsible for their creation and (if possible) ask them: “Tell me about the situation, or series of situations, that caused you to invent XYZ.”
If you’re working on a new offering or innovation: Keep track of what sparked the effort. Then craft a story about it.