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Founding Story

This lesson is a part of an audio course 15 Sales Stories That Work by Paul Andrew Smith

Nobody ever quit their job and started their own company for a boring reason.

And that’s why one story every salesperson should have in their arsenal is their company’s founding story. It introduces the prospect to the person who started your company and helps them see and feel why it was started in the first place.

Understanding the passion that the founder was pursuing helps the prospect see your company not just as an impersonal corporate machine, but as a collection of human beings on a mission. And that’s a company your prospect is much more likely to want to do business with.

Here’s an example:

In the late 1980s, Gary Erickson was living in San Francisco trying to hold down two jobs. During the day, he was managing a bicycle seat manufacturing company. But at night, he was pursuing his real passion—running his own bakery: Kali’s Sweets & Savories. He’d named the bakery after his grandmother who, along with his mother, had taught him to bake when he was just a kid.

Another passion he’d developed early was a love of the outdoors that he’d gotten largely from his father, Clifford. Rock climbing and bicycle racing had become two of his regular hobbies.

Well, then one day in 1990, he was out for a 175-mile, day-long bike ride around the Bay Area with a friend. And as most bikers do, he’d brought half a dozen energy bars with him to refuel along the route. At the time there was really only one energy bar on the market. So that’s all he was eating.

When they got to the top of Mount Hamilton, east of San Jose, they took a break. Gary had already eaten five of his six bars but was still famished, and had fifty miles left to go. He looked at the sixth one in his hand and thought, “No way. I can’t do one more. I’d rather starve than eat another one of these.”

Now, if you’re familiar with some of those early energy bars, you understand why. They were hard and sticky and took a while to digest. Eat too many of them and they could sit in your stomach like a rock. Plus, they weren’t very tasty.

Anyway, as he was coasting back down the mountain on an empty stomach, Gary was thinking to himself that he had a bakery, and everything they made tasted great. So, why did these energy bars—that just about every cyclist and the runner were eating—have to be like a bitter pill you had to swallow just to perform? That’s when Gary had an epiphany. He turned to his friend and said, “You know what. I can make a better energy bar than that.”

The next day he called his mom and started working on a formula in her kitchen. He wanted to make something that tasted good, and with the texture of a cookie, but with healthy, all-natural ingredients instead of the highly processed bars on the market at the time. And after six months of trial and error they’d found just the right recipe—with whole oats and real fruit, but no oil, butter, or added sugar.

And since he’d already named his bakery after a woman in his family, he thought maybe he should name his new energy bar after his father, Clifford, who’d given him his love of the outdoors and adventures in the first place. So, he did. And that’s when the CLIF Bar was born.

Now, to understand why this story works as a founding story, compare it to how most founding stories read. Something like this: “Our founder started the company in 1936 in her basement with $500 and two employees. Today we have over 20,000 employees, offices all over the world, and last year made the Fortune 500 list for the first time…”

Sure, those are big numbers. But, so what? It’s missing the story. The story answers “why” questions, not just “what” questions.

The CLIF Bar story works because it explains why Gary Erickson founded the company in the first place. And that reason was a real, human reason. And that’s why employees, customers, and investors can all see themselves playing a part in the company.

So, here are some tips to help you find your own founding story.

If you’re lucky, somebody’s already documented your company’s founding story. Find it. Check the company archives. Ask the company historian. Ask the HR department. If you’re even luckier, it’s well-crafted already. If so, read it a few times and you’re done.

If your founding story doesn’t already exist, or it’s not very good (like most of them), you’ll have to craft it yourself. If the founder’s still alive, ask for an interview. If not, ask someone else who knows the original story. Ask questions as if you were an investigative journalist. Then keep asking questions until you find yourself wanting to quit your job and start your own company. That’s how you’ll know you’ve got the story right.

Okay, in the next lesson, we’ll tackle a story to help explain how you’re different from your competitors.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith