A Startup CEO’s Job is to Master the Narrative

I grade myself a solid ‘B’ at sales. I can get the job done, but not nearly with the aplomb of many others I know.

Still, one of the biggest mistakes I ever made as a CEO was hiring an ‘A’ seller too early. In doing so, I extracted myself from talking with prospects, at a point when their feedback was key to forming the company narrative.

‘The Narrative’ doesn’t reside exclusively within the 10-slide macro disruption story you’re pitching investors. It starts at a much more basic, tactical level. It is the very core of why your product exists, who it’s helping, and why they should pay money for it. The only way to forge a good narrative with startup speed is to be directly in touch with customers.

Remember the Telephone Game?

The telephone game — where people in a line verbally pass a message, and by the end of the line the message is completely transformed. If you are expecting your sales and support team to feed you intelligence to form the narrative, you’re playing the telephone game.

Direct interactions with customers are full of subtle clues that get lost in translation. You can feel when a prospect gets excited about a feature, or when a pricing objection is a negotiation versus a statement on your value. When a customer asks for a feature, the dialog around the ask might point you to a potentially game-changing differentiator. These key strategic insights can be subtle.

It’s not that sales and support are going to miss the messages. In fact, if they are good at their jobs, they are probably just as good as you at listening and picking up subtleties. Where the messages get lost is in route to you. Language fails in its ability to relay subtext.

It Might be Painful for Introverts

Maybe you find talking to customers and prospects exhausting. Maybe you grade yourself a ‘C’ or even a ‘D’ at sales.

Give yourself permission to be exhausted, or to suck at selling. At the very early stages, whether or not you close the deal is not nearly as important as your mastery of the narrative. The more you stay in front of customers, the faster you’ll master the narrative. The faster you master the narrative, the sooner you’ll be able to extract yourself from the front lines.

You Can’t Skip this Step

First you master the narrative, then you scale. You might see a spark and be tempted to pour gas on it, or your investors might be pushing you to hit aggressive growth targets before the narrative is solid. Don’t do it. Premature scaling, i.e. using equity capital to numb the pain you should feel from a flimsy value proposition, is the number one error that startups make.

The number two error is hiding in the basement and not selling at all. You learn by selling. Don’t confuse waiting to scale with waiting to sell.

Getting the narrative right is a messy and sometimes painful process. But as CEO, it’s one of your most important jobs. To do it right, you need to stay in front of customers until you’ve mastered the narrative.