Once Upon a Time…
Nike was… a waffle iron and a college athletic coach.
CharityWater was… a nightclub promoter who decided to throw a kickass birthday party.
Google was… two Stanford nerds in a dorm room with pizza and an algorithm.
Before these epic brands became household names, they each had a humble origin story for how they came to be.
We love the underdog. We’re hard-wired for it. And we want to know how it all began.
We also want to know where stuff comes from. In the healthy foods aisle of the supermarket, you’ll see most brands tell their origin story right on the box. One of my favorite old examples is Tom and Tom of Nantucket Nectars:
One cold winter night, Tom and Tom began mixing juices in a blender. The following summer they sold it off their boat [in Nantucket]. People loved it!
Just two dudes, on a boat, making smoothies. That’s how Nantucket Nectars was born.
If you think about it, most big iconic brands have a mythic origins story.
Why The Back Story Matters
By definition, an innovator is doing something that is new, different, or hasn’t existed before. As an innovator, the biggest challenge you’ll face is the doubt in other people’s minds—about who you are and what you’re selling. Why even trust you?
Picture this: You go up in front of a room of investors or potential customers to pitch your idea. The question in everybody’s mind is, what the #$@# are you talking about?
Or worse, they may be thinking…
“Are you for real…?”
“Whoa, this idea is out there. WTF…?”
“Who are you to create another XYZ company/product?
Disbelief. Skepticism. Cynicism. Doubt. These are the dragons you have to slay if you want people to receive and embrace the gift of your truth.
Remember that part of what you’re selling is the dream of possibility. Don’t just ask someone to take a big leap of faith on your crazy idea: Ground it in what’s real, what they already know to be true. People want that safety and security. Tell them what’s true for you. Look back at your past circumstances, and offer them the perfect frame and foil for people to say:
“I get why you’re doing this.”
“I hear why you’ve got something to say on this.”
“I can see how you’re going to be bad ass at this.”
When you don’t know where you come from, it makes it stupidly hard to show up with presence or be seen by other people.
That’s why it’s important to share your origin story. Your origin story is your place of true credibility. It’s also a way to reveal your motivations—why it is you do what you do.
Why is this relevant to innovation?
Again, when you’re doing anything that’s new and different, you have to anchor it in the familiar. People first need to know where you’re coming from before they even think about trusting you, believing in you, or buying from you.
Find Your Inner Superhero
I know from experience this isn’t always easy.
After all, the very nature of being an innovator or change-maker is to focus on the future. If you’re anything like me, your instinct is to move away from your past. You’re acting in response to something that was lacking or missing in the world in the first place. So to go back and look at your origins may defy your natural instinct.
This is the personal ass-kicker part about telling your story.
By definition, a change-maker at some point is forced to leave or reject their culture of origin. You’re basically saying, the status quo isn’t good enough. Which naturally makes you a heretic, a rabble-rouser, and troublemaker in some people’s minds. Who would want to deal with that painful past?
Yet the greatest source of power is the part of your story that is unreconciled.
That’s why I’m asking you to go back in, look closely at where you came from, and reclaim the parts of your story you may have previously dismissed as not holding value.
I often use superheroes as a metaphor for explaining the power of origin stories. Think of your favorite superhero (it’s okay to let out your inner geek here). Let’s take Batman, for example. There are few if any superheroes who were born superheroes. They all have an epic superhero story based on circumstances they met, and the choices they made in the face of those circumstances.
Bruce Wayne wasn’t born Batman. As a small child, he witnessed the murder of his parents in a dark alley. This led him to devote his life using his family fortune to rebalance the hands of justice. This oath wasn’t enough, though. He then had to go on a path of initiation, physically, intellectually, and spiritually, before he could don his first bat costume and turn to a secret life of fighting crime.
What is it that happened to you (or someone in your family) that led to your superhero sense of drive, commitment or resolve? What’s the riddle you’re trying to solve?
My Own Personal Origin Story
When I think of superheroes, I can’t help thinking of my dad.
You may have heard me share before that I’m the child of an inventor and mad scientist, along with my mother, a teacher, artist and toymaker. There’s obviously a lot more to the story. Let me tell you a little more about my dad. For starters, he has 30+ patents under his name, and led the team in Switzerland that invented the natural way to decaffeinate coffee, which became a global standard (yeah…you’re welcome).
He’s created products and solutions in wine, fast food, medical devices, cacao—you name it (yes, you read that right, even chocolate…the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree). He’s always been curious about solving big problems, and finding an elegant solution to something that’s really complicated.
I’m not telling you this to brag in a “my dad is cooler than your dad” kind of way. In fact, he had about one of the most humble beginnings of anyone I know. Born and raised in the bush of Africa, in the eastern highlands of Rhodesia (today, Zimbabwe), no running water until the age of 6… sent off to boarding school, because you couldn’t get much of an education out in the bush… yeah, that kind of childhood.
Like me, my dad was a chubby kid. In his forties, he got obsessed with healthy foods. And having worked for Nestle for 20 years before going off to invent on his own, he believed there had to be a way to make comfort foods healthy without compromising on taste or texture. Recently, my dad’s quest to redefine the category of healthy foods has gone to the next level with his company GoFit Foods. So far, he and his co-founders have created the Holy Grail of veggie burgers. It’s 100% natural yet it actually has the same taste, texture, and pleasure of a real beef burger—instead of the cardboard crap you usually get. It’s so good, that some vegans actually freak out when they take a bite, thinking they’ve been duped into eating beef.
This has been one of his many successes. Yet, for every success, my dad has had five times as many inventions that never received the welcome they deserved. The legend goes that Thomas Edison had to try 1,600 different materials before he came up with the right carbon filament to power a light bulb. My dad has the same dogged determination.
Like many visionaries, some of his inventions and breakthroughs were ahead of their time.
His biggest struggle—still to this day—is getting people to see what he sees.
In my own origin story, it’s no mistake I learned that ideas live and grow only when others can see what you see. You can have all the world-changing ideas you want, and no one is going to give a crap unless they get it themselves, and they get you. This is the power of story, and taking something to scale. And it all starts with your origin.
How to Build Your Origin Story
The good news is that when it comes to telling your origin story, you have some choices.
It doesn’t have to be about how you founded the business, necessarily; it could also be about how you formulated your idea, product, or path. Your grandfather was an immigrant who sailed across the Atlantic, and now you’re in the travel industry. Or more metaphoric: Your mom and grandmother were seamstresses, and you’re now a psychotherapist, helping people weave together the different aspects of themselves.
The point is this: Find something that’s meaningful about your past, and describe how it legitimizes your future and led you to this present work and mission.
Take 10 minutes to answer the following questions and you’ll start cracking the code:
- What is it in you, your family or your history that led you to create, build or master your business, product, cause or mission? What are your roots—the lineage or path—you come from?
- What are your motivations for why you do what you do? Are your motivations genuine, and pure? How can you prove it? (Think empathy and vulnerability.)
- What are you willing to fight for? And why is this personal to you? (The secret is you are doing this so others don’t have to struggle with the same pain.)
- Who exactly are your doing this for? Why will they give a shit?
- What is it about your life experience that gave you the wisdom and perspective to know you can come up with something different or better?
Despite bringing a message of transformation, you must anchor your message in the past, with something familiar, that we can all identify with and relate to.
Your origins are the foundation for any innovation story. Your roots. Your strength. Your core credibility. Make sure you’re choosing fertile soil for your story to grow and ripen.
What’s your origin story? How do you tell it?
Would love to hear how you tell your brand’s origin story in the comments below. How do you establish authority and reveal your pure intentions?