Why entrepreneurs' stories are important

Aspiring entrepreneurs could gain as much from listening to other entrepreneurs’ stories as from sitting through lectures, according to one business professor.

Bill Gartner, professor of entrepreneurship and the art of innovation at the Copenhagen Business School, is looking into entrepreneurial behaviour and the rhetoric of entrepreneurial practice. He says that he has identified a paradox of entrepreneurial storytelling.

“If I would ask any of my students about what they learn the most from in the classes I teach, they would say: ‘Entrepreneurs talking in class about what they do.’” He says. “I wondered what it was about entrepreneurs telling the story about their start-up, compared to me as a professor providing a framework, offering lectures, books, articles etc – why are stories more powerful?”

The realisation he reached was that stories are generally important for human beings when learning something new. “It’s one thing for me to talk to students about how a person can become successful, but it’s much more valuable to see the person who actually started a business. The personal stories show that entrepreneurship is possible. When an entrepreneur shares a story, a student is more likely to say, ‘if she or he can do it, so can I,’” Professor Gartner says.

However, what is it that makes these stories so powerful? Gartner admits that it’s hard to analyse what entrepreneurs have to say about what they do. “It’s hard to pay attention to pick up knowledge of what behaviours are undertaken, how entrepreneurs make decision, and how they deal with problems. So, getting students to have better ‘tools and skills’ at analysing stories is really important,” he explains.

For this reason, Professor Gartner is currently analysing videos of 300 entrepreneurs’ stories from Stanford University and is working to establish a theoretical core based on the entrepreneurs’ real-life experiences.

And while Gartner is only looking at storytelling for academic purposes, entrepreneurs – and small businesses in particular – have found that storytelling is also a key tool for marketing. 

Barnaby Lashbrooke, founder of Time etc., says: “The most successful brands have a knockout story. Some, like Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano, or Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, have been fictionalised for the silver screen. What both these examples have in common is the founders are likeable yet fallible and colossal mistakes are made. Interestingly, it’s the failures that resonate with the audience, as much as the happy endings.

“This is why I decided to tell a room full of people, and the internet, all about how I descended from a rule-breaking 17-year-old who sold a successful business for millions of pounds to a 'do it by the book’ manager who couldn't even get his second business off the ground.

“My business exploits over the past 17 years framed a TEDx talk on why everyone should tear up the rulebook and do things their own way. I could have simply told people they must break the rules and suggest how, but no one wants to be preached to, especially not by a person they’ve never heard of before. They want to be entertained, and to learn – and storytelling delivers both.”

And he’s not the only one using his story to boost his business – Richard Branson has been doing it for decades. “It’s easier to be a storytelling entrepreneur now than at any other time in history,” the Virgin Group founder says. “Thanks to technology platforms and social media, there are so many more ways to connect to people. I used to rely on creating a splash and making the front pages to launch our companies and promotions. Now, while they the written press is still important, there are a multitude of other methods for reaching potential customers.

“Storytelling is a great way to get your views across, highlight how you and your company are different to your competitors, and also to work out new ideas. I often find a subject I’m pondering becomes a lot clearer once it is down on paper.”

For more on all things storytelling, check out our in focus theme for inspiration and advice from some of the world’s best storytellers.

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