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The Missing Piece in the Journey of CEE Startups: Storytelling and Product Positioning

startup storytelling
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“Storytelling has always been a significant cultural and social activity. The more we connect with a story, the more we can remember it and share it with others. I wouldn’t call myself a startup storytelling expert, but as a former journalist turned into a PR specialist, I’ve seen the power of storytelling as a tool to shape how a brand is perceived by different audiences – customers, employees, investors,” Bianca Dorobantu, PR and Communications Specialist working with startups and technology companies, points outs. 

Startup storytelling, a.k.a creating a narrative around a product or service, is an important tool for many reasons. For starters, it makes the startup stand out from the competition, be noticed by potential customers, connect with them on an emotional level and attract investors. 

Ultimately, telling stories is also a powerful tool for attracting and retaining talent and making existing employees feel part of a greater mission. “Stories create authentic connections and inspire others,” Bianca says. 

Hearing and telling the stories of many regional startups, I recognized one recurring narrative – CEE founders do not recognize the anchoring importance of nailing their product positioning, creating a strong brand, and tailoring their product messaging. To delve deeper into this hunch, I reached out to the startup storytelling experts Bianca Dorobantu and Adriana Spulber, Head of Communications of Underline Ventures, a €20M fund for early-stage Eastern European startups.

“You can’t cover a lack of founder-market fit or product-market fit later on with stories. No amount of storytelling can help or cover a bad product or a bad business. Not even being a good storyteller. And here I’m not talking about FTX, Theranos, or WeWork-like cases, but the everyday startup stories. I see lists and promises, but only a few are really walking the talk. Startup founders, tell stories only if you have what to tell! Then show, don’t just tell!

Read on to find out what are the most common startup storytelling mistakes that CEE founders make, which are the key elements that build a great startup story, and how to tailor product messaging for investors, and consumers. 

Are CEE founders investing enough in storytelling and product positioning?

Adriana shares that when it comes to product positioning, many CEE founders do not know how to explain what their product is or does. “It can be just as simple as starting with why and then going from there. You shouldn’t think of storytelling without positioning. This can tamper your growth and even tamper with your product-market fit. Then you fail. Having all those things above clear from the get-go is mandatory to survive, not succeed,” she highlights, adding that the books of the product positioning expert April Dunford are a great resource for early-stage founders. 

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Likewise, Bianca says that neglecting storytelling and product messaging can make it harder for startups to differentiate themselves from the competition and can end up confusing potential customers. Making it harder to attract investors is another important risk.

"Funny thing, most CEE founders neglect brand storytelling, but not their own personal brand storytelling. I think it should be the other way around. Your product should be your business card. Talk about your product and what you’re building, not about who you met at some conference or what you think about some random stuff on the internet."

Fixing the most common startup storytelling mistakes 

Bianca says that most often she recognizes that founders don’t have a clear and straightforward message, or they’re too technical. “The story should be about the problem the startup is solving and how it’s doing it. Using technical terms is impersonal for the audience. I recommend explaining complex concepts in simple terms that are easy to understand,” she explains. 

Here are the startup storytelling mistakes that Adriana outlines as being at a great disadvantage for founders and the tech ecosystem in general.

Fakeness

A fake story “begs” for a backlash. Also, there is no such thing as faking it until you make it. People do find out and can see through your fabrications, even if they are exaggerated or partial truths. Lots of founders and PR people are making numbers look pretty to get the attention of potential clients, partners, or even investors. Prepare to fundraise or get into meetings with important clients by actually improving your numbers. Then go to the press or your targeted audience.

 

Jargon-filled communication

You can use keywords to define your product category, market, or ideal customer, but do not use words only technical people might understand. You have to be very clear about what you want people to know about you and your product. And the best way to be clear about that is to speak in plain language, using words your targeted audience can understand without putting them into context or looking them up.

 

Impersonal messages

You have to talk with your customers, not to your customers. Lots of startups are engaging in monologues, no dialogues. Listening before you speak needs to be applied to startup storytelling too. Customers need to feel listened to in order to need your product. Be open about you and your product and let the users know they can trust you with their problems. And do anything you can to show empathy. The product you build is not yours, but your users’.

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The key element of a startup story

“Authenticity. Authenticity. Authenticity,” Adriana concisely summarizes.

Regardless of a startup’s product or service, there are some key elements that should be included in any story that will make it compelling, starting with the “why” and “how” behind the startup. This means explaining the problem you’re solving (the pain points your audience faces), followed by the solution (how your product or service solves the problem), and your unique vision, as a founder.

“Another key element is the people who are behind the start-up, and why they make a good team. Finally, because we will always relate to other people’s struggles, challenges, and failures, sharing your experience as a founder will make it easier for the audience to relate to you from a human perspective,” Bianca adds. 

Different messages for investors and customers 

Adriana explains that it is nearly impossible to craft a story that can resonate with both investors and customers at the same time because they are different audiences, with different needs. 

“My advice will be to see what each audience needs to hear from you and go from there. For example, your customers will need to read how they can use your product to make their lives better, and your investors will need to read that you have a good and sustainable business, with potential for growth. Always craft your message with your audience in mind. This is effective communication,” she recommends. 

According to Bianca, some key differences in the messaging for the two audiences include: 

  • The objectives. Investors will look at your startup from a business perspective, whereas your customers want a solution to their problems. 
  • The level of expertise. Investors have more technical knowledge. 
  • The business metrics considered. Investors will want to see key performance indicators such as growth or revenue, whereas customers will be interested in testimonials and reviews from other users. 

Great story, great team?

Storytelling plays an essential role in attracting the right people and building a strong team. “As I mentioned at the beginning, a great story will help founders attract and retain employees by creating a sense of purpose and making them feel part of a greater mission. Founders can use storytelling to define the company’s mission, explain why it matters, and share the journey so far. Encouraging team members to share their own stories and experiences can also help create powerful connections within the team,” Bianca explains. 

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Adriana points out that everyone talks about employer branding, but unfortunately, few CEE founders succeed in conveying their team culture and values to potential hires. The majority of CEE founders still think that announcing an investment and their growth plans is enough when it actually isn’t. 

“My advice to founders will be to talk very openly and transparently about what they are building and how they plan to do that. This is how you get the right team that loves the product and has the same values as you. Poor communication creates more work. That is why being a good communicator inside your team, and a good storyteller outside your team, is crucial for your startup’s success. I recommend founders to read Jason Fried’s book Rework, or just 37signals,” she says.

Creating a “buzz” around your brand

Adrina advises founders that creating a “buzz” happens only by doing customer research first and speaking about customer needs and their problems. “Talk about the problem out in the open, ask lots of questions, and try to get to the solution with your customers, not with your team. In this world full of noise, where everyone is everywhere and tries to get their brand ahead, you need customer engagement that lasts, not flickering attention coming from excitement and trends. Be as unbiased as you can and always change the questions you ask. Your customers’ needs can evolve faster than you think and you need to stay ahead of the curve. A good founder is a curious founder, not someone that is a know-it-all,” she brings up.

Similarly, Bianca concludes that the most powerful way to create a buzz is to talk about how the problem affects the target audience and how the startup’s solution addresses it. “So, create testimonials, customer stories, case studies, or other creative content pieces that allow people to see the impact, and then use the power of social media to amplify the effect,” she encourages. 

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Elena is an Innovation Reporter at The Recursive, an online media dedicated to the emerging tech and startup ecosystems in Southeast Europe. She is keen on sharing the innovation stories that shape the regional ecosystem and has a great interest in fintech, IoT, and biotech startups. Elena is currently finishing her Bachelor's Degree in Business Administration and Political Science at the American University in Bulgaria.