Why You Should Tell Your Origin Story and How to Do It

November 12, 2017

Origin Story

This guest post was contributed by Josh Ritchie, CEO of Column Five.

In a world where people have a lot of choices, the story may be the deciding factor. — Nick Morgan, author of How to Tell Great Business Stories

I’m a sucker for a good story.

When it comes to deciding what company to give my money to, whether for a pair of shoes or a new piece of software for my company, I always try to learn as much about the brands I do business with—and the people behind them—before pulling the trigger.

I want to understand why a business exists, what problems the founders wanted to solve, and how they’ve worked to solve them. Basically, I want to know its origin story. That story influences how I evaluate a brand’s product or service and whether I want to join their vision—and, by default, their community.

What is an origin story?

An origin story is a story about how your company came to be. It includes details like why it was started, when it was started, how it was started, who started it, where it was started, etc.

Essentially, an origin story is a brand’s most precious story, the one upon which all future stories and events are based.

What an origin story is not

An origin story is not the brief bio on your About page. For example:

“In 2008, Ross Crooks, Jason Lankow, and Josh Ritchie founded Column Five in a now-defunct coffee shop in Costa Mesa, California. Today, our two-office team consists of about 50 intelligent, diverse, and creative individuals who come together each day to produce beautiful and results-driven creative work.”

This blurb on our company site is just an overview, not an origin story. An origin story is also not an opportunity for you to tell the world how great and smart you think you are. It’s how you came to be, not what you want people to think you are.

Why write an origin story?

Your origin story helps frame who you are and why you do what you do for people outside of your company’s walls. It’s more than just introducing yourself; sharing your origin story is an exercise in being vulnerable, which is an opportunity to establish a connection through the creation of trust—what every business strives for. This is why telling your brand’s origin story is so important.

At the very least, it gives people a sense of who you are. And at most, it’s the determining factor in whether people will buy what you’re selling, take a job with you, or invest in your idea. It goes back to Nick Morgan's quote at the top of this post: In a buying decision, "The story may be the deciding factor.”

When you’re competing with others for business, talent, or investor money, this is how you stand out. No one else has your story. No one has your unique perspective. No one went through the exact thing you went through, in the exact way you did.

Your story can attract people to your business, make them say yes and immediately forget about everyone else. (I’ve seen this play out time and again in my own experience and with the thousands of brands I’ve worked with. It’s why my company’s tagline is “Best Story Wins.”)

Granted, an origin story alone doesn’t guarantee that people will automatically become fanatical about what you’re selling in the way that I’m fiercely loyal about, say, Nike. (I wouldn’t even consider buying Adidas or Puma soccer cleats or running shoes.) However, if you don’t articulate or put your origin story into the world at all, you are foregoing that potential connection.

Who should write your origin story?

This writing process should be driven by a founder. If there are multiple founders, then all the founders should be involved in some capacity.

It’s also a good idea to have other team members act as a sounding board to make sure the founder doesn’t sound ridiculous, and that the story is interesting to someone else.

If you have a good copywriter on your team, pull that person in, too. If you don’t, then find a copywriter you like and do whatever you need to do to get him or her to help you write your story.

The only thing worse than no origin story is a bad origin story.

What should you include in your origin story?

There are a few simple rules to keep in mind.

1. Set the tone. No matter your tone, be humble, sincere, and authentic.

2. Be honest. Don’t act like you had it all figured out back then. Be honest about the fact that you had no idea what you were doing when you started out, which is most likely true (unless you’re a serial entrepreneur with a ton of successful exits under your belt).

3. Talk about your failures. Don’t dwell on them, but do tell your audience that your path wasn’t a bed of roses.

4. Write in the first-person voice. There’s no need to talk about yourself in third-person style. (You’ll come across as a reporter covering a news story.)

5. Keep it succinct. This doesn’t mean short. You want to provide enough detail so that people connect with the journey, including the ups and downs. On the other hand, you don’t need to publish a novel.

6. Make it interesting. It shouldn’t just be a list of facts and dates. If you need some inspiration, try using the Hero’s Journey to tell your story. The Hero’s Journey has three universal stages every person (or hero) goes through at some point in his or her life:

  • Stage 1. The beginning: You saw an opportunity to solve a problem. You set out to solve that problem with all the hope and excitement of someone just starting out.
  • Stage 2. The battle: You solved the problem by working through solution (and failing along the way), ultimately developing the minimum viable service or product that made your customers’ lives better. In this section of the origin story, some brands include anecdotes about naysayers or supporters who helped them along the way. In any event, this is where you highlight your persistence and hard work. (Note: Launching a business is always hard. If you make it sound easy, people will see right through it.)
  • Stage 3. The return. Once you solved the problem and launched a prototype/started a new service, you brought it to the marketplace to help others solve their problems.

For more information on the Hero’s Journey, check out The Hero’s Journey – Mythic Structure of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth or The Hero’s Journey Outline.  

Where do you publish your origin story?

You can decide to publish your origin story via a blog post, video, podcast—really, any way you want. Where you publish your story is totally your call, just make sure to put it in a place where people can access it easily. Also pick a format that you think works well for the people you’re trying to reach.

What are some good examples of origin stories?

Remember: You Can Always Start Small

The thing people care most about is the content of your story, so don’t get overwhelmed in trying to craft an epic tale. Simple, straightforward authenticity always wins, and that’s what your origin story is about anyway: welcoming people into your journey and helping them get to know you. If you want a little more guidance on this topic, The Story Factor, The Springboard, and All Marketers Are Liars Tell Stories are great places to start.

Just remember: Best story wins.

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Photo: Felicia