Storytelling lessons from Flipboard, Nest, Beyond Meat, and Dropbox

I love listening to great startup pitches from founders. The very best of them don’t just talk about unmet needs and giant market opportunities. They also combine data, facts, and strategy with a memorable personal journey that’s shaped their worldview. It’s business storytelling at its highest form.

One of the very best entrepreneurs I’ve ever witnessed at startup pitches is Flipboard co-founder Mike McCue, who I had the privilege of working with for several years. Mike’s had noteworthy success at starting, financing, building, and exiting multiple companies, a rare entrepreneurial feat aided not just by his terrific product instincts, but also by his ability to tell a truly great business story. I still remember Mike’s pitch for Flipboard vividly, a decade after I first heard it (paraphrased below):

Remember the last time you wrote an important document or email but then accidentally deleted it and had to rewrite the whole thing? Sure it was painful but as you got going, the doc came out better than the first time because you already had the experience of doing it once before. You knew what to say, what points made sense, and what ideas needed to be made clearer.

Now, what if we hit delete on all websites and wrote them all over again from scratch? How could we reimagine websites and web browsing to make the experience better for everyone — publishers, readers, and advertisers alike — especially as mobile devices become the dominant way to consume the web instead of desktop browsers? For two decades now, I’ve worked at the very forefront of web rendering at my startup Paper Software and then later Netscape. All that time, I’ve been trying to make digital storytelling as visual, thoughtful, and beautiful as print storytelling is, but never got there. Until now.

You can curl up on the couch with a good book or magazine. With Flipboard, we’re making it possible to curl up with a good website.

Flipboard: turning the web into your ultimate personal magazine

Inspiring and captivating stuff that grabbed a lot of attention at the time, like this gem of a review: “It’s like we have been eating our content raw, and Flipboard is the fire that cooked it for us for the first time”.

Even after so many years, reminiscing about Mike telling his founder journey at Flipboard still makes me sit up straight with my eyes wide and my imagination spinning. That’s the magic that happens at the intersection of a great storyteller and their great pitch. Compelling business stories don’t just make you excited. They make you think.

The story behind the business story

Flipboard wasn’t just a great idea. It was a great articulation of a great idea. And we can break down Mike’s articulation into 3 parts:

  1. Framing: describing the business opportunity in a way that feels natural bordering on obvious
  2. Proximity: demonstrating that the founder / storyteller has a unique relationship with the opportunity that makes them ideally suited to tackle it
  3. Relatability: making the opportunity feel relevant to the audience

For Framing the Flipboard story, Mike used a concept often referred to as zero basing, where you remove the incumbent solution and figure out how to solve the problem all over again from scratch. By posing the hypothetical of zero basing the web, Mike allowed the listener to ignore all the legacy, complications, dependencies, and compromises that websites have been forced to make over the years. Your mind is now free to think only about WHAT the benefits would be to have web content as well designed as print content, and ignore HOW you would go about doing it.

For Proximity to the Flipboard opportunity, Mike referenced his impressive experience pioneering web content rendering at Paper Software and Netscape. His credentials conveyed a deep level of understanding and credibility about the problem space that immediately inspired confidence that he could figure out the right solution. And then throughout his storytelling, Mike made the Flipboard story Relatable to the audience by referencing actions we’ve all taken and can identify with: accidentally deleting an email, or curling up on the couch with a good magazine.

Add it all up, and you have a business idea communicated in a way that’s still provocative to this day.

As Steve Jobs once famously said: “The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller”. Mike McCue is a great storyteller. And I’ve had the pleasure of seeing other amazing founder storytellers in action throughout the years. In each case, they expertly used parts of Framing, Proximity, and Relatability to articulate their idea in a way that made people want to follow them on their journey to this day.

Framing of Nest

When co-founders Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers unveiled Nest, there were many different ways to tell the story behind their startup. They were building a cleantech company to improve energy efficiency. They were creating an Internet connected device for home automation. They were making high tech wall art that would spark conversation. But here’s the way they told their story when I first heard Matt and Tony pitch in 2011: “We reinvent unloved home products to create simple, beautiful, thoughtful things.”

My favorite part of Nest’s business framing of reinventing the unloved is how it makes the opportunity seem so obvious. Matt and Tony weren’t targeting unknown or unimportant products. They were instead going after commonly used and universally depended upon products that were for some reason still widely neglected. The framing made you think not “what is Nest” or “why is there a Nest”, but rather “why hasn’t there been a Nest until now when it seems like such an obvious need”?

Their story framing made you not just believe in Nest, but believe that Nest was inevitable.

Proximity of Ethan Brown

I first met Ethan Brown ten years ago when he was raising capital for his startup Savage River Farms, which would later go on to incredible success under a different name: Beyond Meat. Ethan’s story for his company at that time was as clear as it was ambitious:

We provide a near-perfect replication of meat through a platform that can drive pricing below that of meat, and in doing so have the potential to make meaningful contributions to greenhouse gas emission reduction, efficient global resource use, human health, and animal welfare.

Meat, climate, and healthcare are market opportunities that aren’t thought about in billions of dollars, but rather each in trillions of dollars. And here was Ethan telling a story about how a tiny bootstrapped startup with barely any sales to date was somehow going to impact all 3. Yet despite the daunting challenge, the Beyond Meat pitch was believable because Ethan was believable. Here was a founder who worked in clean energy both in the government and private sectors, invested in restaurants, and also ran a food distributor business all before starting Beyond Meat. And by the way, he’s also vegan.

Just like Beyond Meat was invented in a lab in service of a specific mission, I sometimes think Ethan Brown was too because there’s almost no one who could be more proximate to the market opportunity than him. And that proximity resulted in a great story.

Relatability of Drew Houston

Many of us have heard the story of how Drew Houston came up with the idea for Dropbox before: as a college student, he kept forgetting or misplacing his USB drive that had his class work on it and thought why can’t these files be stored online somewhere instead of on a physical device I keep losing? Dropbox was born and just over a decade later, it’s now a $10 billion dollar public company with more than 600 million users who have uploaded a half trillion files to their servers.

Many of us can relate to that story because it’s also happened to us too. Well, not the $10 billion dollar public company part, but the part about losing physical media like a USB drive and wishing it could instead be stored digitally in the cloud. I remember feeling that relatability when I first heard Drew pitch Dropbox, and thinking this was a service I wish I had too. That relatability made Dropbox not only more desirable, but most importantly more understandable because of how relevant the solution is to the audience.

According to Drew: “It is easy for me to explain the idea [of Dropbox]”. The relatability of Drew’s story has a lot to do with that.

Framing, Proximity, and Relatability. 3 potent ingredients to articulating an idea, a mission, a company, a business in a way that’s obvious, credible, and relevant to the listener. And when those ingredients come together, you have an articulation that’s hard to forget even a decade after hearing the pitch for the first time.

Now that’s a business story I’d like to curl up on the couch with.

Leading Commerce Incubations at $FB. Was co-founder at Packagd (acq.), GP at Kleiner Perkins, and writing messy code at Hulu, Flipboard, Erly (acq.), and $MSFT.