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The 22 rules of Startup storytelling

Rails/Angular developer, Entrepreneur & YC alum. Previously built and sold Now O(only)TO at and part time partner at Entrepreneur First.

I just finished reading the excellent 22 rules of storytelling as described by Pixar storyboard artist, Emma Coats. They’re brilliant and give a glimpse of what feeds the magic of Pixar.


I’ve occasionally ruminated that just as persuading folks to join or invest in a startup requires storytelling, so the corollary is that startup-building means story-writing. Thinking about writing a good story is a surprisingly helpful tool to ensure you tell one.

A good startup should therefore be a good story. It made me laugh to see that the converse may also be true - a good story makes a good startup. With the exception of the first one, Emma’s points were remarkably salient.

Emmas guide to storytelling and its startup-building corollaries:

1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

Unfortunately this might be the one point that doesn’t ring true. Buzz will always attract more press and capital than Woody. Woody will probably ultimately make more money (and lose less of other people’s) but Buzz got his name for a reason. The point to (maybe) take from this is that you’ll get more press from success but more success from trying.

2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.


2. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

You’ll only really discover what your product is after you release it.

4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

Once upon a time there were 100,000 potential customers. Every day they used to do X. One day 1,000 of them clicked through to us from a link at Y. Because of Z, 100 of them signed up. Because we’re wonderful they were able to do X better/quicker/cheaper/more pleasurably. Until finally 3 paid us.

5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

You already know what this means

6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

Do something you love and that fits you. But don’t put off the stuff you don’t like but which has to be done. Don’t just code or design, get out, cold-sell and obsessively talk to customers and users. If you only do the stuff you like you’ll die.

7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

Vision. Real, tangible vision. No “we’re going to own X-market ” fluff, that’s easy and meaningless. Something people can get behind.

8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

Release yo.

9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

What would a large company do?

10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

Figure out companies and leaders you admire and identify with (not Steve). When you get stuck think “What would Larry/Drew/Mark do”?

11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

Talk to people incessantly and try to prove yourself wrong. Come back and write code after you’ve worked and reworked your ideas so much it appears the new ones may actually be right. Talk to customers, peers, strangers, competitors. Not just your girlfriend.

12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

Do something different but delightful. It’s hard to inspire people with an also-ran.

13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likeable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

Make your brand and your company stand for something. Be Louise Thornton to your Matt Santos. Smart and cute is better than dumb and fat but not as good as Hope.

14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

What she said.

15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

Tell the truth and ideally the whole truth to customers, employees and investors. They will respect you more for it.

16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

Do something Big, Hairy and Audacious but believable. Also, someone’s going to want to see that your money and career are on the line before they stake theirs. 

17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on - it’ll come back around to be useful later.

Never stop moving. Always better to be doing something, discovering something, talking to people. Always build value but don’t chase diminishing returns..

18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

You’re still not Steve. Release. See what people like. Cut the rest, expand the best (see also Jim Collins)

19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

The world will expect you to have a Pez-dispenser story explaining why you started your company. Pez dispensers won’t make you money though. For that you’ll need power sellers. Who are your power sellers?

20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

Take a product/service people already use and pay for and make it better (also try to always map  your service into an existing budget category. It’s far easier to get people to re-allocate an existing budget than to have them pay for something new)

21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?


22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Larry! Fancy meeting you over this brief and confined journey….

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