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How I Came to Be Compared to Mark Zuckerberg

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Hint: it is not the curly fro, nor is it our common mastery of writing code (proof) .

Coca-Cola Has Nothing To Do With Your Startup

Nowadays a growing number of brands are recognizing the importance of associating brand with positive emotions. Providing an emotional context in marketing campaigns makes advertisements more engaging and more impactful.

Storytelling is key. People relate to life stories, much more so than content that features or promotes a product. For example, when it comes to online video advertisements, which people have a choice to view or skip, they would rather be told a story they can relate to than have products pushed at them -- push marketing versus pull marketing. You want to be a puller.

Brands like Coca-Cola are architecting their content strategy around "happiness" so much that, arguably, they may come to "own" that emotion in the minds of consumers (probably not in my mind, though, because I have not drunk soda since I was in the sixth grade).

Should brands, like Coca-Cola, be putting emotional storytelling at the center of their content strategy? Actually, do not answer that... It does not matter to me. I, for one, do not give a crap about big brands like Coca-Cola. Assuming exactly zero big brands read my articles, the real question is: should you be putting emotional storytelling at the center of your content strategy?

My point in writing this article is not to talk about big brands with big budgets. It is to talk about tiny, unknown brands with no budget -- startups, like, for example, for whom monetary currency is scarce and for whom the question of "how to accomplish a lot with a little?" is as fundamental and mundane as "how to pee in the middle of a cold, winter night without getting out of bed?" It is a downright dilemma. But here is how I, as a serial boot-strapper, have gone about solving it.

Here is a Currency That Grows on Trees -- at Least Where I am From

As founder of several early-stage, bootstrapped startups, I have used emotional storytelling quite effectively (I think). In fact, I would say that it might have been my biggest currency for connecting with customers and buying the attention of investors, partners, and media. As I've said, people relate to real life stories, and there is nothing more real-life than the constant risk of failure and the emotional weight that entails.

For example, last year I used this technique to raise $100K from 500 Startups, one of the top startup accelerators in the world:

  1. We set the plot in motion with this story.
  2. That plot was picked up and commentated on by David Ogden in this op-ed.
  3. We allowed the rising action to build for a few weeks, and then we signaled the imminence of the climax with this story.
  4. We continued with this story, which resolved the story's conflict by concluding this "will CellBreaker survive" plot.

Deconstructing The Technique

Notice the frequent use of human considerations -- mouths to feed, passion versus risk tolerance, sabotage, reflection out loud. This level of transparency is as gripping as it is, for many people, uncomfortable. But it's gripping.

Yes, people like stories. But more specifically, people like plot and will follow it through conflict in pursuit of resolution, some kind of closure.

The interesting thing is that most people don't like enduring their own conflict. Yet they can't help but follow someone else's (i.e. car wreck rubber-necking). As a marketer, recognize this and capitalize on it. The emotions you harness need not be only positive. Negative emotions are probably more addictive in the short-term than positive, and when you're a struggling startup, that's probably most of what you have to share.

Take a Break From Marketing to Just Practice Emotional Storytelling

For example, here's a piece I wrote for the New York Observer about a pickup basketball game with Stuart Scott. Other than a brief, one-sentence bio about me, the piece has zero business objectives. It was truly an "I remember when" piece inspired by the life and death of the widely-loved Stuart Scott. It's a true story about me and Stuart, but it's dripping with human fragility and emotion. This is what reader's crave, no matter the purpose of a given piece.

Catch 22, If You Do Not Like People Looking At or Thinking About You

If you are a wallflower, then I should warn you, you might not prefer emotional storytelling.

Why? Because it is too damn effective to guarantee your anonymity. That is, you cannot be good at emotional storytelling without people knowing who you are and what you are up to. Like it or not, effective emotional storytelling will force readers to remember you and to crave your next move.

It is this cycle of conflict, rise, and resolution that forces people to think about why they cannot help but follow your stories, why they even care.

This is how personal brands are created, about you not by you, by people whom you have never met. Since the only data points that people who do not know you personally have to process come from your carefully crafted stories, their impressions and ideas of you become your brand (in their minds).

If your story is personal, then it is your personal brand; if it is business, then it is your business's brand.

Honestly, this is the only explanation I could offer for how I came to be compared with Mark Zuckerberg in terms of boldness (source is the No. 2 piece above by David Ogden):

Trying to build a business valued in the billions is not for everyone. The chances of success are basically zero, so you have to be pretty crazy to try it. And ideas that can change the world almost always seem ludicrous in the beginning, so that's another reason for people to think you're crazy.

To make it happen, you have to have courage. I love the story of 22 year old Mark Zuckerberg turning down Yahoo!'s $1 Billion offer to acquire Facebook. Fellow board member, Peter Thiel, recalled:

"Zuckerberg started the meeting like, 'This is kind of a formality, just a quick board meeting, it shouldn't take more than 10 minutes. We're obviously not going to sell here'."

Seriously. The only other person I can imagine making that move is Jon Colgan.

The Me-Zuckerberg Comparison

Well, there you go. What better proof could I offer you that emotional storytelling can be powerful currency? Zuckerberg may be worth billions, but I am good at telling stories that pique emotion, and after that comparison, I suppose I have no choice but to ignore the advice of my bank statements and conspicuously consume more stuff, more often.

Someone, somewhere (in this case, that someone was probably sitting at David Ogden's desk) developed an idea of who I am and who my business is by association. True or not, this is exactly how brands are born from the telling of tales.


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