In 1666, Newton was strolling in a garden in Lincolnshire when he saw an apple drop from a tree. The fruit fell straight to the earth as if tugged by an invisible force. (Subsequent versions of this story had the apple striking Newton on the head.)
That mundane observation seemingly led Newton to conceive the notion of universal gravitation, which explained everything from the falling apple to the moon’s orbit. Whether it was true or not, the apple episode probably motivated Newton. But, indeed, he did not arrive at his theory of gravity at that single moment, as is commonly believed.
Most Origin Stories Make a Good Yarn
Fast-forward three and a half centuries, from England to California. Today, the “Eureka Moment” narrative is a Silicon Valley staple.
Most founding stories would rather you believe that brilliant entrepreneurs came about the outstanding idea for their startups in an almost Moses-like manner. In reality, though, that’s not the real story of how some of our iconic companies began.
When eBay launched, it gained loads of fanfare by proclaiming that Pierre Omidyar and his fiancée built the “Auction Web” to buy and collect Pez candy dispensers on the nascent internet. According to Adam Cohen’s The Perfect Store: Inside eBay (2002,) eBay’s public relations manager Mary Lou Song fabricated that founding story in 1997 to interest the media.
Netflix supposedly stemmed when co-founder Reed Hastings racked up a $40 fine with a Blockbuster store for his overdue copy of the movie Apolo 13. Netflix co-founder Marc Randolph’s That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea (2019) debunks that origin myth. Although Hastings’s $40 fine inspired the process, it wasn’t the single “spark of imagination” that cooked up Netflix.
YouTube supposedly began when founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen could not share videos of a 2005 dinner party in Chen’s San Francisco apartment. Everybody accepted the story until it was refuted by the third co-founder, Jawed Karim (who had been sidelined by Hurley and Chen.) Karim produced a prototype of YouTube inspired by HOTorNOT, a dating site that nudged users to upload photos and others to rate the looks of potential companions. Karim was particularly inspired by the concept of user-generated content versus website owners supplying the content. He set out to make a version of HOTorNOT with video. Chen later admitted that he embellished the dinner party story, which was “probably very strengthened by marketing ideas around creating a story that was very digestible.”
Facebook, first called FaceMash, was also inspired by HOTorNOT. Mark Zuckerberg and his dorm buddies created a website to post pairs of pictures from Harvard’s student community, asking users to rate the “hotter” individual.
Many Good Founding Stories are Just That—They’re Good Stories.
No company is ever founded in a single moment. Ideas evolve after assimilation and experimentation over several months, even years. It’s less interesting to say that things just develop, one idea building upon another. You won’t get as much publicity for rendering a normal-but-boring founding story.
If these mythic creation stories prove anything, it’s that people prefer a good story. People like a storyteller who’s more articulate than one who is accurate. Good stories move. Good stories lead audiences on a journey of the imagination.
Telling a Good Story is a Rehearsed Performance
Human beings are not transformed as much by statistics and facts as we are by stories. In All Marketers are Liars—The Power of Telling Authentic Stories in a Low-trust World (2005,) marketing guru Seth Godin says successful marketers don’t discuss features or benefits. They tell stories. Stories that readers want to read. And believe.
If humans were rational, we’d make judgments based on facts and statistics. But we’re not rational; we’re more convinced to act on stories, especially with emotional content. So the ability to tell a story well is a beneficial tool to add to your toolkit.
Idea for Impact: Those who can create and tell entertaining and exciting stories will have a marked advantage over others regarding persuasion. Learn to tell clear, commanding stories that make a good metaphor. Stories that appeal to emotion. Stories that relate. Stories that hold people’s attention. Stories that travel fast.