To Build a More Just Economy, We Must Tell Honest Stories about Entrepreneurship
Have you ever heard an entrepreneur tell the story of how they created their business?
By Sara Hartmann
Have you ever heard an entrepreneur tell the story of how they created their business? Chances are, the plot goes something like this: the story begins with a founder in their everyday life, a setting that is relatively humble and relatable. The founder has a moment of inspiration, which causes them to recognize the need for a new business or product. They follow the call to realize this vision and embark on a journey into the unknown world of entrepreneurship.
Along the way, they face unexpected challenges, receive guidance from mentors, and assemble a cast of allies. At some point in their journey, they confront a particularly demoralizing obstacle, and the fate of the business feels imperiled. Ultimately, they triumph, and the business grows into the brand that consumers know and love today.
If this story sounds familiar, there’s a reason for that. This narrative is also known as The Hero’s Journey, a monomyth that has served as a common storytelling structure for centuries. In the book The Hero With 1000 Faces, Joseph Campbell breaks this plot structure down and identifies its usage in works ranging from the story of Moses in the Torah to James Joyce’s Ulysses. (1) In contemporary culture, we can find this story everywhere: Star Wars, The Matrix, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and just about all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This story structure became dominant in modern Hollywood thanks to the help of Christopher Volger, a writer and development executive who translated Campbell’s work into a popular how-to guide for screenwriters. (2)
According to Campbell, a Hero’s Journey story manifests in three acts. In the first act, “Departure,” the Hero leaves the ordinary world after receiving a call to adventure. This call comes from a character or an object known as the Herald. For instance, Luke Skywalker is visited on Tatooine by R2D2. Harry Potter is summoned by Hagrid while living with his Aunt and Uncle. Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider on a high school field trip. In an entrepreneur’s story, the Herald is the person or object that sparks a business idea. Jen Rubio’s suitcase bursts open in the middle of the airport, inspiring her to create the luggage brand AWAY. Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky’s landlord raises the rent, prompting them to rent out their living room to travelers, which inspires them to found Airbnb.
In the second act, “Initiation,” the Hero is in a strange new world and must face a series of challenges, learn from past mistakes, and receive support from allies and mentors. Katniss Everdeen journeys to the capital to fight in the Hunger Games; Neo takes the Red Pill to see the true world and joins Morpheus in the war against the machines. An entrepreneur’s “Initiation” act focuses on the challenges faced securing the resources necessary to establish a business. Think of Howard Schultz unsuccessfully pitching over 400 investors for the funding to launch Starbucks, or Sarah Blakely getting turned down by factory after factory as she attempted to prototype Spanx. This act culminates in the hero achieving their goal, but only after overcoming an ordeal. In the Lion King, Simba fights his uncle Scar to be restored as King. In the world of entrepreneurship, Mark Zuckerberg survives the Winklevoss lawsuit and Facebook becomes a social media giant.
In the final act, “Return,” the Hero returns to the ordinary world as a force of change, bringing healing to their community. Tony Stark announces himself as a protector by declaring “I am Iron Man” to the world, Moana returns to her island and restores her culture’s voyaging traditions. In an entrepreneur’s story, this is the point where we are invited to reflect upon the impact their venture has had on our world. Could one imagine our lives if Steve Jobs had never brought us the iPhone, or if Elon Musk was not leading the way on electric vehicles?
So what’s the problem with this? After all, everyone loves a good story, and the founding story of a well-known brand makes for an exciting narrative. But the stories we tell help shape the culture that we live in, and the flaws in this story structure condition us to accept the flaws in our economy.
A Narcissist’s Journey
It’s alluring to think of yourself as the star of your own movie, and it’s this tendency that makes a Hero’s Journey enticing. The audience is meant to project themselves onto the hero and envision themselves in the hero’s adventures. But as audiences attach themselves to the Hero, empathy for other characters is reduced. This is by design; in this story structure, side characters are often underdeveloped and exist as plot devices meant only to further the hero’s narrative. Pop culture is rife with examples of Hero stories in which the death and pain of secondary or tertiary characters carry little emotional resonance for the audience. When the President of Nakatomi Corporation is executed in the opening act of Die Hard, the audience doesn’t grieve for his family, they simply cheer for John McClane as he single handedly defeats a small army of criminals. Early in Star Wars we see an entire planet destroyed, but witnessing a genocide does not weigh down the film’s upbeat tone.
When we apply this mode of storytelling to explain the success of entrepreneurs, people become more likely to identify with the founder of a company than with that company’s workers. Consuming stories of entrepreneurship as pop-culture conditions us to see everyone except the founder as an incomplete supporting character, existing only to further the Hero on their journey. It’s no wonder then that the response to growing income inequality and skyrocketing executive compensation has been muted. Many of us have subconsciously adopted a Hero’s Journey narrative that dehumanizes the hourly workers. In this telling of the story, Amazon delivery drivers are the Star Trek-ian red shirts, faceless bodies that exist only to serve Jeff Bezos’s greater mission.
If this sounds like an overstatement, consider this. The ability of the Hero’s Journey to dehumanize secondary characters is so great that ISIS reportedly used the formula in their recruitment videos, inviting western youth to come and star in their own action movie. (3)
The Meritocracy Myth
It’s important to note that, in general, entrepreneurs do not use this structure with the intent of lying about their companies’ origins or emotionally manipulating the public. The monomyth as a story arc for entrepreneurs is at this point so ingrained that it’s easy to inadvertently slip into this pedestrian narrative. But in defaulting to this structure, entrepreneurs may unwittingly present half-truths that reinforce the Meritocracy Myth, the belief that it’s possible to achieve upward mobility through one’s own merits regardless of circumstance or social position.
One area in which this occurs in Act One. A key piece of the Hero’s Journey is that before the Hero leaves the ordinary world to embark on their quest, they start out just like you or me, a regular person unaware that destiny has chosen them for greatness. This implies that an entrepreneur must tell their story in a way that feels as relatable as possible. Mundane details of life before the journey are emphasized. This begins the connection between the audience and the entrepreneur, and it sets the starting point of the journey low so that the ascent feels more dramatic. As a result of this emphasis on presenting the humble origins, a critical piece of the entrepreneur’s stories is omitted – their advantages. In the opening act it’s rare to hear an entrepreneur directly address any advantages they had by way of race, class, gender, connections, or access to family wealth. Some mock Kylie Jenner for being a phony entrepreneur because she was wealthy and famous prior to the launch of Kylie Cosmetics, but this is in fact just a rare case in which the public is aware of the entrepreneur’s prior advantages. Do some digging and you’ll find that it’s not unheard of for an entrepreneur to omit the fact that they had access to significant financial resources from their “How I Built This” interview.
The second act is marked by help received from mentors and allies, but this help is a secondary factor to the inherent specialness of the Hero. While most entrepreneurs do not intentionally downplay the critical role that their mentors, cofounders, and team play in the success of their venture, the founder-centric narrative does minimize the importance of teamwork in venture creation. This undervaluing of contributions fits neatly into the broader mythology of what it means to be American. Entrepreneurship could be the ultimate expression of the American dream. We romanticize the idea that America is a nation of entrepreneurs, men who built something from nothing, and a place where nothing is impossible through the power of hard work. Of course, we know that in reality America wasn’t built from nothing. It was built in part from stolen land, stolen labor, and stolen lives. And we aren’t the bastion of entrepreneurship that we imagine ourselves to be; globally we rank 41st in entrepreneurs per capita, far behind hotbeds of entrepreneurship like Chile, Thailand, and Uganda. (4)
Finally, it’s not until the third act that we consider the impact on a brand’s consumers. In this act, the Hero returns triumphant with a gift to bestow upon the world or their community. But in the real world of entrepreneurship, the entrepreneur would not be victorious in the first place were it not for the support of these very customers. While brand mythology is built on getting the public to empathize with the founder, successful brands are built on the inverse: founders who are able to empathize with the segment of the public that their product serves. Empathy is a critical skill at every stage of a real-world entrepreneurial journey. It takes an empathetic founder to truly understand the needs and desires of the market that they serve. It takes an empathetic designer to create customer-centric products and experiences. It takes empathy to build a strong team and solid network, and it takes empathy to effectively communicate your brand’s value to an audience. While the Hero’s Journey is based upon a flow of empathy from the public to the founder, in real life it is most critical for empathy to flow in the other direction.
Conquering vs. Constructing
There are deeper philosophical conflicts between the values presented in The Hero’s Journey and the values it takes to launch a successful venture. The Hero’s Journey is largely used to tell stories of conquest. While corporate lingo may love to borrow military terms, entrepreneurship is fundamentally an act of constructing, not an act of conquering. It’s harder to build something than it is to destroy something, and the skills necessary for building should be more central to the telling of the story of a business’s success. What does it take for a team to come together and work towards a shared purpose? How are stakeholders outside of the founding team engaged? What resources needed to be assembled for the business to be built – and most critically, how did the characters involved work together to manage challenges? Those closely involved in the entrepreneurship ecosystem understand the importance of these questions. Pop culture may focus on entrepreneurship as a solo feat, but at the end of the day investors prefer to fund a strong team rather than a strong individual. Top accelerators like TechStars and Y Combinator weigh the strength of the founding team highly in their application criteria; only about 10% of the businesses admitted to Y combinator have solo founders. (5)
Reframing the Story
While the Hero’s Journey seems to be everywhere these days, it’s not the only way to tell a story. Stories are a powerful tool for creating emotional resonance with an audience, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with presenting a business’s origin story in an entertaining manner. So let’s consider an alternative story structure: the Heist.
In a classic heist story, success doesn’t rely on the inherent specialness of a single individual – it relies on the ability of a team of individuals with diverse talents and capabilities to come together and achieve an impossible task. Teams in a heist story may have a leader, think Danny Ocean in Ocean’s 11 or Dominc Torretto in Fast Five, but the audience understands that without the contribution of any one team member, the heist is likely to fail. The excitement of a heist story comes from watching a group of underdogs work together to take on a powerful opponent. Rather than an act of strength, the ingenuity and innovation of the team’s approach is presented as the key to victory. Interestingly, the story development in a Heist often closely resembles Tuckman’s Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing framework, a staple in organizational behavior classes at business schools across the country. (6)
Consider the heist-style origin stories of two very different household names: Google and Wu-Tang Clan. Google’s own telling of their founding story heavily emphasizes the development of a collaborative relationship between Sergey Brin and Larry Page. The two met as students during an orientation tour and initially found each other “obnoxious.” (7)
Eventually becoming friends, Brin applied his math prowess to Page’s backlink tracking project and together they created the algorithm that would go on to power Google’s search engine. There’s even a literal element of heist in their early days as they set up makeshift programming centers in their dorm rooms that crash Stanford’s internet. The founders’ respect for each other’s talents and contributions is clear, and sets a tone for acknowledging the importance of collaboration and teamwork in Google’s creation. The contributions of early employees like Craig Silverstein and Susan Wojcicki are often highlighted in stories of Google’s ascendance.
Wu Tang founder RZA also uses the Heist framework to great effect (with 40 million albums sold, Wu Tang Clan is clearly not just a band but an indisputably successful business). Central to their origin story is the 1992 recording and break of their first single Protect Ya Neck. At the time the music industry favored a poppy approach to hip-hop. Grittier, more authentic voices like theirs were unlikely to find mainstream commercial success. RZA describes in detail the unique talents of the nine original members, some of whom initially took convincing to work together. Each contributed a verse to this self-funded first single, and in a make-or-break moment, several of them snuck into Columbia University’s WKCR radio station to convince the program hosts to play them on air. Despite an initial confrontation, the hosts were won over by the track and played it in heavy rotation, other stations followed, and the rest is history. (8)
When telling stories about any true event, we send a message about what the audience should value in the way we choose to frame the story. The moments we describe, the events we present as key turning points, and the people we include as characters don’t just serve to tell an audience what happened, they communicate how we see our place in the world. People gravitate to stories told by entrepreneurs because they want to better understand what it takes to succeed at such a high level. Relying on the Hero’s Journey to tell these stories sends a message that undervalues the critical role that collaboration plays in building a venture and falsely implies that the entrepreneur’s own inherent specialness was a deciding factor in their success. In telling the founding story of a business, entrepreneurs would do well to think of themselves as Dominic Torretto instead of Luke Skywalker. A Heist story can be just as enthralling as a Hero’s Journey, but it will also give a more accurate picture of what it takes to launch a business: the ability to recognize and attract the talents of others, and to work together in pursuit of a shared vision.
Finally, as a culture, we need to develop media literacy skills around entrepreneurship and founder stories. Suppose the average person is better equipped to distinguish mythology from reality, and can read between the lines of a founding story. In that case, we may be more likely to hold business leaders accountable for their actions. And if the contributions of team members are properly valued in the telling of a founding story, we as a culture may be more inclined to ensure that all contributors to a company’s success are properly recognized and compensated for their work.
- Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd ed., New World Library, 2012.
- Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Studio City, CA: M. Wiese Productions, 1998. Print.
From Design Museum Magazine Issue 021
Stages of Team Development
Psychologist Bruce Tuckman outlined the development stages of high performing teams in the 1965 paper “Developmental Sequence of Small Groups.”
In the forming stage team members meet for the first time. At this point a team may feel uncertain about its purpose. Team members may feel reserved, excited, and curious. The focus in this stage is on getting to know each other and understand the work.
In this stage, team members may push back on boundaries, roles, and responsibilities. Points of friction between personalities and preferred ways of working may emerge and need to be addressed.
In this stage points of contention are resolved. Team members begin to understand each other’s strengths and establish productive patterns of working together and sharing constructive feedback.
With working norms established, the team focuses on achieving shared goals. At this stage the team is motivated and knowledgeable, and has established acceptable channels for voicing dissent.