Emergence Capital’s Doug Landis explains how to identify (and tell) your startup story

How do you go beyond the names and numbers with your startup pitch deck? For Doug Landis, the answer is one simple compound gerund: storytelling. It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot of late in Silicon Valley, but it’s one that could legitimately help your startup stand out from the pack amid the pile of pitches.

Landis knows a fair bit about the concept. Following stints at Salesforce and Google, he served as the “chief storyteller” at Box. These days, Landis is the growth partner at Emergence Capital, where he helps tell the stories of the firm’s portfolio companies.

Landis joined us on the first day of TechCrunch Early Stage: Marketing and Fundraising event to offer a presentation about the value of storytelling for startups, whittling down the standard two-hour conversation to a 30-minute version. Though he still managed to rewind things pretty far, opening with, “400,000 years ago, men and women used to sit around the fire pit and tell stories about their day, about their hunt, about the one that got away.”

Connect the dots

More often than not, decks include a series of numbers and charts. The job of a story pitch is weaving a good narrative around these figures.

If you think about storytelling, and you think about the physiological and psychological elements — what’s happening between the storytelling and the listener — we’re actually looking for the patterns. If you think about it, it’s why those jingles and commercials get stuck in our head, and we can’t forget it, even though we don’t even know much about the product. But we remember the jingle, remember the commercial, we remember the brand. Because as humans, we’re looking for the patterns in our communication. Our job is to connect the facts and fill in the holes. And from those connections, we create a story. We create a story in our brain, because our brain actually processes information through story form. (Timestamp 3:20)

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Get to the point

They don’t call it an elevator pitch for nothing. And sometimes even the best storytellers have a habit of rambling. Here’s an exercise for cutting away some of the excess when attempting to get your story in front of VCs.

When you tell the story at work, ask your peers or the listener to share back with you in one sentence what the point of that story was. Get immediate feedback, and you can then identify whether or not your story was on target or not. The story needs to be relevant to the audience who’s there, but the reality is, you need to be very clear about the point you’re trying to make with a story. (Timestamp 6:33)

Focus on the “why”

Another thing that often gets lost along the way is your motivation for doing what you do. In other words, what is the “why” behind your product?

[T]ake a step back and think about how often … you spend talking about the “what” you do and the “how” you do it. I want you to spend more time focusing on the “why.” Why are you going after this market? Why did you start this company? Why did you partner with your co-founder? Why, why, why. We don’t spend enough time talking about why. Why are your customers in love with your product? Why do they keep using it? Why do they keep buying more? Why did you choose that pricing model, or that go-to-market model? (Timestamp 11:06)

Share customer stories

Landis points to customers as a great source for good stories outside of the original founding group. After all, there’s a reason these people are using your product instead of the competition. Let them help tell that story.

Here’s the challenge for most pitches or decks or presentations: Unfortunately, what happens is often you go out and you build a deck to go raise money, you take that deck, you pull out some of the financials and some of the gobbledygook and you give it to a sales rep. You’re like, “Here’s our pitch, go sell our product,” because as the founder or CEO, you did it to generate about a million in revenue. So, off you go. That’s all backward. The problem is most of the time, that’s all about you. And I’m going to challenge you and say you need to start telling the story all about your customers. (Timestamp 11:35)

“You’ve got to tell your own personal story.”

But what about when you don’t have customers yet? This is an early-stage event, after all (it’s right there in the name). Who should be telling stories when you’re mostly working to get off the ground?

You’ve got to tell your own personal story. Why are you going up this market? Why this technology? Why do you think this is going to be the next big iconic software company? … In the early days, when you’re pre-seed or seed, you don’t have as much about the what and how. So you got to rely much more on the why. (Timestamp 31:46)

The first question I’d ask: “Why do you think you could do a better?” If you think you can build a better mousetrap, that’s fantastic. Here’s the thing that I’ve learned about the world of venture capital: We’re not in the technology business, and we’re not in the finance business. We’re in the people business. … We invest in people that we think are going to change the future of work. And so, at the end of the day, we’re making a bet on you. So I want to know, why do you think there’s a better way to try and tackle this problem or deliver value to a particular audience? (Timestamp 36:38)

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