At the heart of what people love about small businesses, is the feeling of connection. People love to know where their money is going. They love to feel like they know a business owner. They love to feel a connection to a place or product.
What people are connecting with is a small business’ story. The elements of story are hard wired in our brains, and have been for centuries.
“Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.”
That’s a quote by the guru of all things “story”, a man named Robert McKee, who wrote an authoritative book on the subject appropriately titled “Story”. You may recognize him from Brian Cox’s caricature performance of one of McKee’s intense screenwriting workshops in the 2002 movie “Adaptation”.
The Value of an Origin Story
This “currency” of storytelling is something that succesful businesses utilize all the time. Oftentimes it comes in the form of an Origin Story, or the story of how and why a business came into being. Some of the more famous Origin Stories in business are:
Virgin Airlines – From Richard Branson, “In ’79, when Joan, my fiancee and I were on a holiday in the British Virgin Islands, we were trying to catch a flight to Puerto Rico; but the local Puerto Rican scheduled flight was cancelled. The airport terminal was full of stranded passengers. I made a few calls to charter companies and agreed to charter a plane for $2000 to Puerto Rico. Cheekily leaving out Joan’s and my name, I divided the price by the remaining number of passengers, borrowed a blackboard and wrote: VIRGIN AIRWAYS: $39 for a single flight to Puerto Rico.”
Clif Bar – In 1990, Gary Erickson set off on a one-day, 175-mile bicycle ride with his buddy Jay. As usual, he packed six energy bars for the ride—using the only bar on the market at the time. Halfway through the ride, exhausted and hungry, Gary realized he just couldn’t eat another unappetizing, sticky, hard-to-digest bar. Then and there, in a moment he now calls “the epiphany,” the inspiration for the CLIF® Bar was born. Gary took his idea to the best baker he knew, his mom, and for the next few months the two experimented with ingredients and recipes—mixing, baking and tossing out bars that weren’t good enough. Finally, Gary settled on the right recipe—a better tasting bar made with nutritious, wholesome ingredients to sustain energy. He named his creation CLIF Bar in honor of his father, Clifford, the man who introduced him to wilderness adventures and encouraged him to follow his passions in life.
Patagonia – Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s founder, got his start as a climber in 1953 as a 14-year-old member of the Southern California Falconry Club, which trained hawks and falcons for hunting.
The only pitons available at that time were made of soft iron, placed once, then left in the rock. But in Yosemite, multiday ascents required hundreds of placements. Chouinard, after meeting John Salathé, a Swiss climber and Swedenborgian mystic who had once made hard-iron pitons out of Model A axles, decided to make his own reusable hardware. In 1957, he went to a junkyard and bought a used coal-fired forge, a 138-pound anvil, some tongs and hammers, and started teaching himself how to blacksmith.
Chouinard made his first pitons from an old harvester blade and tried them out with T.M. Herbert on early ascents of the Lost Arrow Chimney and the North Face of Sentinel Rock in Yosemite. The word spread and soon friends had to have Chouinard’s chrome-molybdenum steel pitons. Before he knew it he was in business. He could forge two of his in an hour, and sold them for $1.50 each.
Chouinard built a small shop in his parents’ backyard in Burbank. Most of his tools were portable, so he could load up his car and travel the California coast from Big Sur to San Diego, surfing. After a session, he would haul his anvil down to the beach and cut out angle pitons with a cold chisel and hammer before moving on.
For the next few years, Chouinard forged pitons during the winter months, spent April to July on the walls of Yosemite, then headed out of the heat of summer for the high mountains of Wyoming, Canada, or the Alps, and then back to Yosemite in the fall until the snow fell in November. He supported himself selling gear from the back of his car. The profits were slim, though. For weeks at a time, he’d live on fifty cents to a dollar a day. Before leaving for the Rockies one summer he bought two cases of dented, canned cat tuna from a damaged-can outlet in San Francisco. This food supply was supplemented by oatmeal, potatoes, and poached ground squirrel and porcupines.
In Yosemite, Chouinard and his friends were called the Valley Cong. They had to hide out from the rangers in the boulders above Camp 4 after they overstayed the 2-week camping limit. They took pride in the fact that climbing rocks and icefalls had no economic value, that they were rebels. Their heroes were Muir, Thoreau, Emerson, Gaston Rebuffat, Ricardo Cassin, and Herman Buhl.
Great origin stories don’t always directly sell products, but they do help people to connect with your company. Some small business owners may think that they don’t have a good origin story, or that there origin story is basically just “I needed to make money. So, I started a business”.
But, the beautiful thing about story telling is that it is endless. We will never run out of stories, because even though certain themes may get repeated over and over, each story is filled with unique details. By mining those details, a business can come up with a really beautiful story that can connect customers with who they are, what they believe in, and of course what they are selling.
Finding Your Origin Story
As a primer to get you started with finding your origin story, it’s a good idea to look at the traditional story arc.
Great stories are ones that clearly show change, and the beginning of that change starts with the Inciting Incident. Robert McKee refers to the Inciting Incident as the moment in life when things are thrown out of balance. Virgin, Clif Bar, and Patagonia all have very clear Inciting Incidents in there origin stories. They were going about their lives as usual, and then bam! they had a very clear experience with a Pain Point in the business world, and this threw their life out of balance. This Pain Point is something that interrupts the relative stasis in their lives, and by attempting to correct this balance they start on a journey of change; to change the way airlines work, to change the way energy bars taste, and to change the way outdoor clothing is made.
Sharing a very clear Inciting Incident immediately helps us to identify with why their companies exist, and as they have continued along the story arc through many different obstacles, we are invited to join their story as it nears the climax.
To continue with the story arc analogy, I would think that the climax in a business’ story is only achieved when they are able to complete the mission of their business. So, for most businesses we won’t see the climax achieved, because it is an ongoing struggle. Of course, there can be mini climaxes within the story arc of successes and achievements, but a true climax will never be achieved until a company decides that they have completed everything they set out to achieve and don’t have the obstacles that were started in the Inciting Incident.
Finding Your Inciting Incident
So, how do you find your Inciting Incident? Start with these questions as a way to dig deep into your origin story.
- What inspired you to start your business?
- Was there a Pain Point that you recognized in the business world? What was that moment like?
- What problem are you helping your customers solve?
- Why did you choose to try and solve that specific problem?
- Was there anything in your childhood, past, or business training that led you to try and solve that problem?
- Were there any big obstacles that you had to try and overcome to start your business?
After answering these questions, you can start crafting your origin story. Remember to give a clear Inciting Incident, and show the obstacles that your business has been journeying through in its mission to solve the Pain Point. It’s always great to feature your Origin Story in the “About” section of your business’ website, but it’s even more powerful as a video. Customers love to hear directly from business owners.
Here is a great Origin Story video from a popular non-profit called Charity Water.
If you are ready to begin crafting the perfect origin story, feel free to get in touch with Flour Mill Media. Our mission is to help small businesses grow in a digital world, and we feel very strongly about the power of Origin Stories. If you need help fine tuning your story, digging deeper into what makes your business unique, or if you are ready to make a powerful video, let us know.