How did a wedding invitation create a multi-million dollar brand? It all started one Thanksgiving break when Jenn Hyman watched her sister model a dress she had bought for a wedding. While she felt amazing in the dress, it had also sent her into thousands of dollars of credit card debt. Jenn wondered: Why wasn't there a way for people to rent dresses instead of buying them to wear them a handful of times (at best)? And so she co-founded Rent the Runway, an accessible solution for women to showcase their style without breaking the bank or filling the landfills.
By the time I heard Jenn’s origin story, I had been in 13 weddings and attended dozens. I was so stressed every time I shelled out money to participate; her story about the expense of attending weddings was one that I connected to immediately. I was also enraptured with her tale about how hard it was for her to get investor meetings as a female founder, how tenacious she had to be to get the attention of customers, and how committed she is to environmental sustainability as fashion is one of the largest contributors of landfills. She earned my trust – and subsequently turned me into a 10-year loyalist (and monthly subscriber).
Today, company founders like Jenn Hyman are increasingly recognizing the importance of storytelling as a fundamental, affordable marketing tactic. Stories are being used as tools for building brand identity, connecting with audiences, landing sales, and driving growth. One particularly popular type of business story is a founder’s origin story, which companies of any size can tell – from now-behemoth Rent the Runway to one-person shops.
Rent The Runway's origin story
This type of story is so popular that Guy Raz’s How I Built This podcast – a show that exclusively focuses on telling founders’ stories – is one of the most popular business podcasts in the U.S. and Great Britain. In 2018, two years after it was launched, it averaged 19.2 million downloads each month. (You can download Jenn Hyman’s story here.)
It’s no surprise that founders’ stories are a popular marketing tool, and that How I Built This has such an incredible audience. Storytelling is an essential aspect of human communication, and it has been a part of our culture for more than 30,000 years. Science has confirmed that human brains are hardwired for stories. They help us understand, trust, remember, and connect.
What Is an Origin Story?
We humans also love a “behind-the-scenes” look (queue our collective love of reality TV and my love for the queen of all reality TV, Selling Sunset). And that's essentially what a founder’s origin story is. It’s a peek behind the curtain into why the company exists — what drove the founder to create it and what they’ve gone through to make it stick. And most importantly, it’s a story that conveys passion about the business idea. The listener or reader can feel emotion about why the founder feels so deeply committed to the company’s difference in the world.
Spanx's origin story
Why Are Origin Stories Important?
Origin stories are particularly important for start-ups because it’s a founder’s chance to promote a company’s identity, values, and purpose. In such a crowded marketplace, a founder’s story has the power to:
1. Emotionally connect.
Founder stories have the power to evoke emotions in people you want to connect with – from early supporters and partners to prospective investors and customers. This type of story can bring us together as we feel empathy for the founder and a greater ability to relate to them.
2. Build trust.
When a founder shares your story, you are providing a personal insight into your motivation and vision. This humanizes the brand and helps people see your genuine intentions for building your company in the first place.
3. Attract investors.
Investors often look for more than just a good business idea; they want to see the founder's commitment, creativity, and resilience. Sharing an origin story can demonstrate these qualities, making it more likely that investors will be willing to support the business idea. David Cohen, co-founder of Techstars, said in an interview with Inc. magazine that he wants to understand why founders care so much about their companies because that is what will sustain them during hard times.
4. Attract customers.
Research shows that 55% of customers are likely to buy from a company if they emotionally connect to their brand (or origin) story, and 71% of clients make purchases from value-driven businesses.
5. Set you apart from your competition.
The origin story can be a unique selling point, providing a backstory that explains the company's mission and values and gives customers a reason to choose one company over another. Patagonia is one example of a company that has mastered this – another company to which I’m a loyalist.
6. Attract values-aligned employees.
People want to work for good people, inspiring people. The louder and better you can articulate the passion for and values behind your business, the more likely you are to attract candidates who also believe in what you do. Building out your origin story can be an important step in your larger employer branding strategy.
7. Support your company culture as it grows.
An origin story is often the first story a company tells. It's one upon which all future stories are based, serving as a North Star for your current employees, as well as for new employees as your business matures over time.
8. Inspire others.
A founder’s origin story is an inspiring account of overcoming challenges and pursuing a dream, which will motivate others to also take risks and pursue their passions. The more people in an entrepreneurship community, the more support we have for one another.
How Do I Write My Origin Story?
Your founder (or founders) should take the first stab at articulating the origin story – after all, the founder is the compelling character of the story. Then, you should seek colleagues’ and friends’ opinions about what’s resonating or not. A professional can help a founder to structure it, tease out particularly compelling components, and bring it to life across marketing assets, collateral, and channels.
Burt's Bees origin story
You can use Joseph Campbell’s framework, The Hero’s Journey – used by Hollywood directors and famous authors – to craft your value-driven origin story. To outline the stages in the most simple terms, you’ll want your story to include:
The beginning. Start off strong by building an emotional connection with whoever will read or hear your story. Articulate “your why.” What problem did you identify and set out to solve? Why does solving that problem matter to you? Don’t be afraid to infuse the start of your story with passion.
The tough stuff. Whomp whomp. (Don’t worry, we’ll end on a high note.) This is your chance to explain your creativity and resiliency. What have you overcome to get where you are today? What were your lowest points, and how did you keep charging forward?
The return. This is the high note I just promised you. You’re still standing! What’s your business or product look like now that you’ve brought it to the marketplace and gotten through a lot of tough stuff?
Use this framework to write from the heart and see where it takes you – my hunch is it will be the start of establishing emotional connections through the creation of trust in the business you’ve worked so hard to build.
About Laura O'Connor
Originally from Richmond, Virginia, Laura O’Connor has been calling Ann Arbor home since 2017. Laura has spent her 20+-year career primarily in Washington, DC — leading marketing teams; designing new organizational initiatives; and spearheading national public relations, storytelling, and marketing campaigns for businesses, foundations, and nonprofit organizations. Today, leads marketing for Culturebie and is a co-founder of Unfurl, a storytelling and marketing strategy agency. She launched Unfurl in January because of love for all things Midwest and her desire to help local start-ups and small businesses succeed through the power of storytelling. Laura listens to How I Built This every week, and if you see her out and about, she’s likely wearing something from Rent the Runway. Get in touch with Laura at firstname.lastname@example.org.