Every company or organisation has its own backstory: how it began and why; challenges, successes and failures; characters who made important contributions; values that were important at the beginning; values that emerged along the way.
It’s worth finding yours because these stories can provide a powerful source of identity and loyalty for both employees and customers. They help to create a tribe.
Joe Gebbia, one of the founders of Airbnb, gives a beautiful example when he tells The Airbnb Story.
Notice how it starts with two particular people in a particular place and time. They had a problem, and they came up with an idea to solve it, which had some challenges. Along the way they met some other very interesting people, discovered values that became a part of the fabric of the company, dealt with more challenges, emerged transformed, and brought something good into the world. This is a perfect structure for your own backstory.
Here is just a small excerpt from Gebbia’s story to give you the flavour of it. It’s worth watching the video.
“Brian and I both quit our jobs to become entrepreneurs. We let go of the salary and the benefits, and we took the plunge into the unknown. There was a problem. The minute [we did that] our rent went up, and suddenly we found ourselves unable to afford our own apartment. We had to think and we had to think fast.
"It just so happened that same weekend a design conference was coming to San Francisco that was so big all the hotels had sold out in the city…. So we’re sketching away [in our Moleskines] in our living room and we started to think, hmm, we’ve got some extra space here [on the floor and the sofa].
"We started to come up with this idea, what if we were able to blow up an air mattress, put it in our living room, and rent it out to designers who need a place to stay for the conference? We could go so far as to cook them breakfast.
"By the end of that night we had this concept called AirBed and Breakfast. So naturally we wanted to list our airbeds somewhere on the Internet and we made the logical next move. We went and looked at Craig’s List. This makes sense, right? No! These people are going to be sleeping in our living room. We want to know who they are.
"So we decided to make our own site. We made [the first version of Airbed and Breakfast] in 24 hours. We put the site up and we encountered our next problem, which was, how are people going to find out about Airbed and Breakfast?
"So that night before bed, Brian and I emailed the top design bloggers that we could think of. And when we woke up the next morning it felt like Christmas. There we were at the top of some of our favourite blogs. … And suddenly this idea we had 48 hours earlier was now live on the Internet. And we had people start writing us from around the world who wanted to stay in our living room.
"So think for a minute, what type of person do you think would want to sleep on an airbed in somebody’s living room? Probably dudes. Probably pretty young. Strapped for cash, just out of college. That’s what we thought too. We were totally wrong. We had three people stay with us, all over the age of 30. … Together the three of them helped us solve our problem. We made our rent that month. We made $1000. They saved our apartment.
"But they actually did more than that. They shared their stories with us. Amol, a grad student in India, told us about his amazing thesis project. He was doing artificial intelligence. Kat’s a web designer from Boston who gave us tips on how to improve the website. Collectively the three of them inspired us to make Airbed and Breakfast real."
Gebbia goes on to talk about more challenges, failures, and successes along the way. He tells some customer stories. And he finishes by sharing the values that have emerged over time.
"We're actually connecting the world with each other. So what started in our apartment is now this. [Shows connection graph] Every line you see here is an idea that got shared, an experience that got created, a friendship that got made between two people from two different cities. All we did was scale what we did in our apartment.... I can't yet say that Airbnb is going to change the world, but based on this I can tell you that we're changing the way people experience it."
If you had heard this story in 2011 when the talk was filmed, how would it have made you feel about Airbnb--as a potential customer, a potential investor, or a potential employee?
What’s your own company’s backstory?