The art of startup storytelling with Julian Shapiro
Although he’s coming from a numbers-driven background, growth expert Julian Shapiro focuses on the emotional power of storytelling these days.
“I like to think of successful brand-building as creating a company that customers would be upset to separate from their identity,” he says in an interview below. “For example, they’d cease to be the man with Slack stickers all over his laptop. Or the woman who no longer wears Nike shoes every day. And that bugs them.”
A prolific Twitter user, writer and now podcaster, he advises startups to “just blow your own mind” to best explain the value of what you are offering. Don’t overthink it. Your own excitement will take your audience on a journey with you in ways that paid acquisition can’t.
He’s informed by years working with hundreds of startups as the cofounder of Demand Curve (growth training courses) and Bell Curve (a growth agency), but also as a repeat startup founder, angel investor and open-source web developer (Velocity.js).
In the discussion below, he tells us more about the path he’s taken through the startup world, how companies are changing their public communication and what he’s most excited about.
What has led you from web development and startups to growth marketing in recent years, and most recently to your own personal writing for the public on Twitter, etc.? Many people in your position would be more comfortable just founding new tech companies, or investing in crypto or what-have-you.
I try to avoid being contained by momentum. If something’s going well in one field (engineering) but I’ve found something more fulfilling (like growth strategy), then I’ll switch. I don’t switch for the sake of switching, but I will keep switching until I find something I love. That eventually brought me to writing, which I will never stop doing.
Trying a little bit of a lot of things gives you exposure to learn what else you could (and should) be doing. To break out of a local maximum, you need to always remain curious: What else don’t I know about?
What I ultimately stick with is whatever process I enjoy (not just enjoy the outcome). This usually means the process is fun, educational, adventurous and helps me meet like-minded people. Writing is a bat signal for like-minded people.
You’re focused on the art of storytelling right now — what are the key things that the startups you work with continue to get wrong here?
The story of a startup is essentially their (1) investor pitch and (2) customer-facing brand.
I like to think of successful brand-building as creating a company that customers would be upset to separate from their identity. For example, they’d cease to be the man with Slack stickers all over his laptop. Or the woman who no longer wears Nike shoes every day. And that bugs them.
To get to that point, you need a mix of goodwill, what-we-stand-for ideology, social prestige and customer delight—among other affinity-building ingredients.
How do you see companies changing the way they talk about themselves to the public in the future, given larger societal trends? Fewer press releases full of canned legalese, more public engagement on social media from the CEO?
Employees with audiences who broadcast corporate messages on a human-to-human level. Plus company social media accounts gaining personality and acting more like their employees.
It’s really hard to grab attention otherwise, especially with the explosion of content creators who are very good at hogging attention and optimizing content for the platforms. Corporate blogs haven’t been competing with them. I’m not sure they could. So much of this is personality-driven, to my point in the previous paragraph.
I’m also hoping, but not expecting, companies to dial back frequency of content production and increase quality of content production. Signal is more important than frequency in an era where we’re overloaded with content.
Given how many startups you work with across YC, etc., and since you are also an angel investor, what are key industry trends that have you most excited?
I’m interested in businesses with product-led growth, brand affinity moats and who get harder to compete with the larger they get. In other words, customers do the selling, customers fall in love and defensibility is in their design.
This is in part a reaction to not wanting startups to be so reliant on paid acquisition. And it’s also a reflection of how I want startups to be thinking more about not just providing transactional value to customers but also making customers truly delighted.
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