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Good Startups Need Good Stories

Compelling yarns can help small businesses introduce change and capture the hearts and minds of investors, employees and customers

By Martha Groves

Editor’s note: This article is part of Navigating Change, a Next Avenue initiative made possible by the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation and EIX, the Entrepreneur Innovation Exchange.

Will Wiseman, at the young-ish age of 27, has stories to tell about cataclysmic climate-related events. They're compelling enough that he has parlayed them into a mobile app-based startup called Climatize that enables people to make small investments in solar projects.

A young man holding up a climate activism related sign at a protest. Next Avenue, startups
Will Wiseman at a protest in Stockholm  |  Credit: Photo by Claudia Mann/Courtesy of Will Wiseman

For Wiseman, climate change is personal. Last year, his hometown, Santa Cruz, California, was evacuated several times because of extraordinarily heavy rains dumped on the coastal city by atmospheric rivers. He also recalls that in 2018 the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection cut a fire line about 25 yards from his family's backyard.

"Between fires and flooding, we're seeing these climate impacts here and now," Wiseman says.

Since 2019, when Wiseman and his Climatize co-founder, Alba Forns, joined global climate strikes in Barcelona, Spain, and Stockholm, Sweden, he has been telling the company's story and building a following. In April, Forbes included the entrepreneurs in its 30 Under 30 list as leading figures in "social impact" in Europe.

Elevated Elevator Pitch

By using the origin story of Climatize, Wiseman engages in the time-honored tradition of using a good tale well told to get people excited about investing in or working for his company. Consider it an elevated elevator pitch.

The storytelling exemplar just might be Steve Jobs, the late, legendary co-founder of Apple.

"The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller."

"The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller," he said in a Rolling Stone interview in 1994, when he was the chief executive of Pixar between his Apple tours of duty. He spent years developing a storytelling framework that proved enormously successful at hooking an audience.

When it comes to corporate storytelling, it would be hard to top his 2007 iPhone product launch. Clad in his trademark black mock turtleneck and blue jeans, he held the Macworld audience in San Francisco in thrall as he spooled out the tale of a "revolutionary and magical product that is literally five years ahead of any other mobile phone."

He reminded the rapt attendees that the 1984 introduction of the Macintosh had "changed the whole computer industry" and that, in 2001, the iPod had changed the music industry. Then he really revved up the crowd.

"Well, today, we're introducing three revolutionary products. . . . The first is a widescreen iPod with touch controls [robust applause]. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone [rapturous applause]. And the third is a breakthrough internet communications device. An iPod, a phone and an internet communicator. Are you getting it?"

Yes, they were getting it.

"These are not three separate devices," he added, hitting his punch line. "This is one device. And we are calling it iPhone."

Technology for the Tongue-Tied

Sophie Thompson, a London-based entrepreneur, was so afraid of speaking in public that she couldn't even order food at a restaurant. In 2016, she co-founded VirtualSpeech, an online training program that uses virtual reality and artificial intelligence to help people improve their communications skills.

"The best stories evoke emotional reactions."

As Thompson sees it, entrepreneurs typically create a product or service to solve a problem they have experienced themselves. By telling the back story in a highly personal way, they can connect with potential customers, employees and investors.

"The best stories evoke emotional reactions," Thompson says on the company's website. "People genuinely relate and connect with these stories and they believe in the company and what it stands for. . . . Today, it's difficult to find a successful brand that does not have a compelling story behind it. Stories provide meaning, create context and evoke a sense of purpose."

Story Lab for Startups

TED Talks — online lectures, some of which receive millions of views — have helped to demonstrate the power of storytelling. With studies showing the value of storytelling in business, universities are intervening to train students who fear public speaking or need coaching to develop an irresistible narrative.

At the University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business, students wishing to improve their skills can sign on for the extracurricular Story Lab. One of the program's aims is to help entrepreneur wannabes prepare for the day when they'll need to bring in investors. Story Lab had its inaugural semester a year ago; the current semester has 42 participants.


The program uses, among other resources, "How to Tell a Story," a book by The Moth, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling.

"Telling your own story is a foundational skill when it comes to leadership," says Nick Westergaard, a lecturer in business communication at the University of Iowa and faculty director at Story Lab, which teaches people to write and deliver compelling stories. "It's an important building block in work and life."

A young man and woman holding signs at a climate change protest. Next Avenue, startups
Will Wiseman in Barcelona  |  Credit: Courtesy of Will Wiseman

Westergaard heaps praise on the storytelling skills of three female executives: Sara Blakely, the self-made billionaire who founded the Spanx shapewear company; Melanie Perkins, the Australian founder of Canva, an online graphic design tool; and Thasunda Brown Duckett, president and CEO of TIAA, the financial services giant. She connects with people by sharing the vulnerability she felt about being the only Black girl on her soccer team and not being invited to a teammate's birthday party.

In a recent article for Harvard Business Review, Westergaard described five types of narratives: "Vision stories, which inspired a shared one; values stories that model the way; action stories that spark progress and change; teaching stories that transmit knowledge and skills to others; and trust stories that help people understand, connect with and believe in you."

With the Climatize app for iPhones, which launched in May, Wiseman seized on a variety of storytelling strategies. (An Android version of the app is in development.)

Every Startup Has a Story

He uses Instagram posts and podcast interviews about his own climate anxiety to help developers of renewable energy projects raise funds, especially in underrepresented communities.

The startup has some backing from angel investors and venture capital firms, but it mostly attracts funds from small investors who buy the company's fixed-interest "crowdfunding" debt notes. Interest on the debt is paid by cash flow generated by the sale of electricity from, say, a solar project to the surrounding community.

The average investor account at the moment is $1,450. Project developers pay Climatize's fees (5% of funds raised and 0.5% per year of funds raised over the lifetime of the offering).

"Climatize helps the public to become active stakeholders in the energy transition," Wiseman says. "It gives power to the people." With climate change inducing anxiety around the globe, he said he plans to keep telling the Climatize story for years to come.

Martha Groves
Martha Groves was a staff member of the Los Angeles Times for 34 years, during which she was a business editor, business writer and metro reporter. A native Hoosier, she previously worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the late, lamented Chicago Daily News. Her freelance writing and editing business is Martha Groves Writing & More. Read More
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