Small business advice: How to tell your company’s story (tips from SXSW)


Michael Dell (Dell Inc), Steve Kaufer (TripAdvisor), Jeffrey Housenbold (Shutterfly) and Carley Roney (Knot Inc.), shared their stories during SXSW. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

Lyn Graft has his own entrepreneurial story to tell, in which he moves from electrical engineer to skiing instructor to sports equipment seller to video producer.

But he would much rather tell everyone else’s.

Graft, the founder of LG Pictures, has spent the past six years interviewing and filming hundreds of the country’s most celebrated entrepreneurs, including the founders of Starbucks, Dell, LinkedIn, Whole Foods and Harley Davidson. His videos have appeared in television series, advertising campaigns and political projects.

Drawing from that experience, he has learned a number of lessons about how to (and how not to) convey a the backstory behind any given company, and he shared several tips this week with entrepreneurs, filmmakers and music producers (and one journalist) at a small gathering in Austin during South by Southwest.

“We all have great stories to tell,” he said during the event. “One of the most fascinating things I’ve found in interviewing entrepreneurs is that many don’t believe they have a great story, when really, they just don’t know how to tell it.”

Here are some of his pointers for business owners who want to more effectively convey their story to potential customers, investors and business partners.

1. Be authentic

“If you want to be a great storyteller, here’s one principle — authenticity,” Graft said. “If you have ever heard Gary Vaynerchuk speak, the founder of Wine Library TV, or if you have ever heard Howard Schultz speak, the founder of Starbucks, these people are as authentic as it gets.”

Vaynerchuk, he said, has “no filter,” which tells audiences that “what you see is what you get” from him and his company. Schultz, meanwhile, tells a very personal story about his travels in Italy when asked about the idea behind Starbucks.

2. Get to the point quickly

“Be fast, be really fast,” Graft said. “Keep in mind the one-minute elevator pitch concept. You have to be quick.”

Graft noted that he once raised $100,000 during a two-mile cab ride in San Antonio. He says he “got very lucky, sure, but I said the right thing at the right time to the right person, and I was able to do it quickly.”

3. Borrow credibility

“One of the things entrepreneurs don’t do enough is leverage brand names,” Graft said, later encouraging entrepreneurs to “borrow credibility” by describing their companies as, say, “the AirBnB of” or “the Twitter for” a certain industry.

“Don’t hesitate to name drop like that,” he said.

4. Share real-life experiences

“One of the keys that I believe is the essence of storytelling is sharing an experience,” Graft said. “Don’t just tell facts, and don’t just tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. Share a tangible, anecdotal experience that people can relate to and get excited about.”

In thinking about your company’s story, he added, identify the moments when you felt most passionate about the work you are doing or the impact that your product is having.

5. Get feedback from small groups

“Small groups are really great for pitching your story or your idea and getting constructive feedback,” Graft said.

When you pitch to too large a group, it’s difficult to get each person’s unique response to your story, he said. On the other hand, when you share your concept or idea with one person individually, people tend to be overly polite, saying “oh yeah, yeah, I would buy that,” even if they wouldn’t, Graft added.

To follow our ongoing coverage of start-ups, entrepreneurs and technology at South by Southwest 2014, click here.

Follow J.D. Harrison and On Small Business on Twitter.

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he manages the Post's On Small Business blog.
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