The initial days of building a company are messy and complicated. Often more of a tactical exercise than a strategic one. Rather than trying to boil the ocean, the pragmatic move is to focus on a single wedge into a market, defining a use case that you can solve better than competitors. At this phase of building many aspects of a company are still being defined. One of these that is too often overlooked is defining the core concepts of your approach—crafting a narrative of the basic buildings that your products and operations are built upon.
It's worth drawing a distinction between a narrative of product/operational concepts and one crafted by the marketing team. While both important, the latter is much easier to change and not the focus of this post.
Generally, narratives get a bad rap. In large part due to VCs (myself included) distilling companies down to the elements they share with notable unicorns. [Insert business] is the Uber for [insert market]... Founders often push back when hearing these simplifications as having little practical use. Clearly, a narrative description of a business glosses over many of the nuances and subtleties that exist. But it is because narratives strip away details that they are easy to remember and highly transmissible. And it is precisely these factors that make them worthy of founders’ attention.
Whether you focus on them or not, narratives naturally form around companies and products. And as a product gains users, it is the interactions with the product itself—rather than marketing efforts—that determine how users think about a company. Twitter could spend millions on a marketing refresh, but without a coinciding product overhaul, it likely wouldn't change how people think about the company. In the minds of users, product experience trumps marketing.
It is the power of the product to define a company that makes employees—the people actually building the product—the most important audience for a clearly defined set of core concepts. When there is a poor understanding of these inside an organization, like a game of telephone, even small deviations can manifest as decisions sub-optimally aligned with a companies vision. Over time, these small discrepancies build up and calcify, turning into a meaningful problem—narrative debt expressed as unwanted feature creep.
The process of examining a business and finding the highest-fidelity simplification of a companies approach is not the job of outsiders. Only with a complete understanding of the problem, full context for the product, and its journey to date, can an accurate distillation be made. It’s essential for founders, and companies themselves, to regularly do this type of house cleaning.
In the past, founders might only have done this type of self-evaluation when an external event—starting to fundraise or entering a new market—caused them to. But the best companies are starting to internalize the value, and cost, of a crisply defined operational narrative. As more work is done by distributed teams the value of these totems will only increase. An assessment of internal narratives is a key aspect of emerging best practices for founders and should be a more common exercise for companies.