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Don’t Fall Into The Numbers Trap: Why Startups That Tell Stories Succeed

Operations & Management

Isadora Teich wrote this article


Startups need to attract the perfect storm of investors, users, customers, and other businesses to succeed. However, doing this is not a straightforward process.

If it was easy, absolutely everyone would release a groundbreaking popular app that changes the game every day.

So, what separates successful apps from less successful ones? This too is a complicated question to tackle. Some may even say that the largest contributing factor is luck. If you create the right thing at the right time, all of your problems are solved, right?

I would argue that the majority of what appears to be luck often comes down to strategy. Can a company create a compelling narrative, take control of it, and use it to grow their brand and business?

In this blog post we will take a look at how some of the world’s biggest startups have harnessed the power of narrative and how all startups can do it.

What Is The Numbers Trap?

Before we get into this, please keep in mind that I am not saying that numbers don’t matter.

In fact, especially if you are looking to court investors or work with other businesses, numbers are critical. You should always know your own metrics, as well as those of anyone you are considering working with.

Any company that does not have a handle on its metrics is sending out massive red flags. Think about it, would you want to work with someone who seems to have no plans and no idea whether their ventures are profitable or not?

In fact, if you want to get a closer look at some important metrics you should have ready for your next investor meeting, check out our blog post on the subject.

While knowing your numbers is critical, it is not the end of the work you need to do. Especially if a startup does something incredibly complicated that everyday people would struggle to understand in terms of sheer numbers, just presenting statistics to people is unlikely to get them on board.

Without a compelling narrative that runs consistently throughout all of your materials, whether they are geared for investors or customers, you will struggle to connect with people.

Bottom line: startups that want to do big things can’t afford to fall into the numbers trap, and stop only at presenting data.

Why Narratives Matter

Nextdoor’s head of marketing Maryam Banikarim told Fast Company:

“Humans need narrative and they need a way to be able to connect with each other, and stories will play that role.”

Stories are how we connect with and understand each other.

They are how we organize and contextualize information.

Essentially, stories have always been a way that we make sense out of chaos and put the world around us in order. Academic institutions have been working for years on exploring why exactly stories work so well when it comes to inspiring, moving, convincing, and teaching people.

As a startup, you of course understand exactly what you want to do, how you do it, and why. However, outsiders will have no idea about any of this, and you will have to teach them in an engaging way.

People Learn Better Via Story

The best way to teach is via story, because it appeals to so many kinds of learners. Paul Smith, in “Leader as Storyteller: 10 Reasons It Makes a Better Business Connection”, wrote:

In any group, roughly 40 percent will be predominantly visual learners who learn best from videos, diagrams, or illustrations. Another 40 percent will be auditory, learning best through lectures and discussions.

The remaining 20 percent are kinesthetic learners, who learn best by doing, experiencing, or feeling. Storytelling has aspects that work for all three types.

Visual learners appreciate the mental pictures storytelling evokes. Auditory learners focus on the words and the storyteller’s voice. Kinesthetic learners remember the emotional connections and feelings from the story.

In short, storytelling appeals to all of the diverse ways that people learn best. That is likely a big part of the reason why some psychologists say that we are over 20 times more likely to remember information when it is presented as part of a narrative.

The Basic Narrative

I want to explore a quick breakdown of a basic narrative structure you will commonly see amongst businesses of all kinds.  Then I will show you how it can be used in the real world.

Everyone knows about the basic story structure of beginning, middle, and end. Since most people think of stories in this manner, they might be a little lost when it comes to utilizing this for marketing. After all, most people creating businesses aren’t already planning for the end of them, right?

The key is to get more specific. Most successful startups address some kind of problem. So, let’s fit problem solving into a simple narrative structure.

Beginning: Notice problem

Middle: Create something positive in response to problem

End: Service is available that solves problem

Brand And Narrative

So, most satisfying narratives have a beginning, middle, and end right? The other thing that all stories have is characters. When we read a book or watch a film, it is the characters that we root for, relate to, love, hate, and remember.

They are who we connect to. Branding is how you make your business a character in your narrative. It is how you make data and ideas something that people can relate to.

This is key.

While many people like to think of humans as intellectual and rational beings, most of us simply are not. Studies show that 90% of all human decision making comes from an emotional place. If you want to succeed, you need to appeal to human emotion and the deepest human needs.

One of our core needs is relationship building and connection.

When it comes to creating a personality for a business, or a brand to complement a narrative, the J. Aker model of brand personality is the most commonly used. They identified these five personality dimensions:

Sincerity: Down-to-earth, honest, wholesome, cheerful

Excitement: Daring, spirited, imaginative

Competence: Reliable, intelligent, successful

Sophistication: Upper-class, charming

Ruggedness: Outdoorsy, tough, strong

An Example Of A Company With A Powerful Story

What exactly does all of this theory look like in practice? I think Airbnb is an incredible example.

You, and probably almost everyone you know has used Airbnb at one point or another. Airbnb, which has changed travel accommodation and even rental markets the world over, began because two guys living in San Francisco in 2007 were having trouble making rent.

They noticed that during large events, hotels would book up almost instantly and people would be unable to find accommodation. They provided a solution by renting out air mattresses to travelers on the floor of their home.

Now, it is a 3 billion dollar publicly traded company with a presence all over the world. You can rent everything from a cheap room in a family home to a castle or personal bungalow.

Dissecting the Airbnb Brand Narrative

Here is the dry and logical story structure of this company, with no brand personality injected:

Beginning: Founders notice a problem with the scarcity of travel accommodation. They also think that many people would probably like to make an income by renting out space.

Middle: They create Airbnb to solve these problems.

End: Airbnb solves the problem.

However, we all know that much more has been attached to the idea of Airbnb than that.

Through branding and storytelling, they promote that you can do more than simply travel with them.

You can live like a local. You can pursue authentic experiences and connection by booking spaces with them and attending events you find through their app.

The Airbnb Brand Character and Story

While logically, you do use their app to just book accommodation, emotionally you can do far more than that. There is a powerful idea that when you book a hotel room, you are just a tourist. When you book an Airbnb or attend one of their experiences, you are pursuing connection.

You are going deeper.

Essentially, they have branded themselves as more than a way to book travel accommodation. They are facilitators of connection.

You could say that they capitalize on sincerity and authenticity to create a brand character. This character exists within a narrative of helping people meet their needs for connection and relationships.

This brand exists regardless of what Airbnb actually is or does.

Via Airbnb, you can rent a private space and never even see your host in person. You may end up sleeping in a closet, a kitchen in a boarding house that you didn’t know was a boarding house, or even a tent in someone’s backyard.

Maybe your hosts manage 50 properties they never go to, yours is roach infested, and they have no idea. You could potentially spend the night in anything from a yurt to a penthouse to a palace.

Regardless, a strong and consistent brand story has helped Airbnb become a powerful global presence.

Final Thoughts

The bottom line is that people connect with stories more so than dry facts.

Stories are how we learn about the world, contextualize information, and relate to others. This is a fundamental part of human psychology.

We lead with emotions and connection is a fundamental need.

You need to understand this and fully embrace it in order to create something that truly captures investors, users, customers, and a community.

About Since 2009, we have helped create 350+ next-generation apps for startups, Fortune 500s, growing businesses, and non-profits from around the globe. Think Partner, Not Agency.


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