Chitra Ragavan of Goodstory on Tactical Storytelling
The founder on how helping startups tell their tale to investors and customers is the missing piece of many launch strategies.
Tell us the story of Goodstory. Where did the idea of building this company come from?
When I left a very successful career in journalism and joined the tech world a decade ago, I realized I had a skill for strategically positioning companies to help them get traction, and draw investors, customers, and the press. In fact, at first, I didn’t even know there was a fancy word for it: “positioning.” I just was fueled by mostly gut instinct!
About a year ago, I started Goodstory to help cutting-edge startups get from where they are to where they need to be. The right positioning strategy and narrative act like a startup’s booster rocket, shooting it into the right orbit. Without it, even the most promising startup can wind up in a black hole, without visibility, access, or funding.
Tech startups are often headed by brilliant, introverted, and quirky founders. Their best stories are in code. And they have a difficult time communicating their vision both to their external stakeholders and even internally to get buy-in from their executive teams and their employees. They’re also big thinkers and need a catalyst who can come in and literally change the energy of the place and drive complex initiatives to completion. I am that catalyst.
"The right positioning strategy and narrative act like a startup’s booster rocket, shooting it into the right orbit. Without it, even the most promising startup can wind up in a black hole, without visibility, access, or funding."
What do you do to implement tactical storytelling at a startup brand?
Tech founders are results-oriented, non-bureaucratic, rapid decision makers. They want counterintuitive ideas that can generate exponential results and success. The traditional consulting model of high overhead and fuzzy results doesn’t resonate in these cultures. Agile brand studios like Magnet Media that bring energy, culture, and timeboxed creative strategies with clear success metrics will be the winners in this space.
I have a foundational framework called the Six Steps to Strategic Positioning but the tactics are highly tailored to each company. Narrative and storytelling are just two of the many tools to build that overarching framework for a startup's raison d'etre.
I start by asking questions and having a lot of intense conversations. I start looking at their product, team, leadership, culture, core strengths and weaknesses, and their end goals. I deploy a nose to tail strategy. Nothing is wasted. I figure out how to use every brand asset they have in all sorts of creative ways to build a narrative and position them in the market, for investors, for the media, and for their customers. I’ll often have short-term tactics that can immediately be put in place while we are building and executing the long-term strategy.
It's a well-known fact that emotions, not dry facts, sell products. That’s where the narrative comes in. You can see it working both in consumer and in B2B campaigns that use humor, nostalgia, and storytelling in a fun and creative way.
The biggest obstacles are that startup founders often think positioning and narrative are “nice-to-have”, not “must-have” options. Or they think it’s going to be a quick hit. The stone-cold reality is that it is none of those; authentic narratives need time to build and take root and are investments in the future. It’s important to note that these narratives can’t be spun out of whole cloth. You can’t make that stuff up. It’s either there or it isn’t. They have to be extracted from the startup’s and founder’s DNA. That takes time, patience, and expertise.
"The biggest obstacles are that startup founders often think positioning and narrative are “nice-to-have”, not “must-have” options. Or they think it’s going to be a quick hit. The stone-cold reality is that it is none of those; authentic narratives need time to build and take root and are investments in the future."
How has your background (as an immigrant from India, a female CEO, advisor to tech founders, and former journalist) helped you to navigate your career and establish your company?
I’m a first-generation immigrant. And immigrants are scrappy! So I have a deep affinity for scrappy startups. It was a natural segué for me to create Goodstory company to continue to do what I love doing most: I’ve always been a storyteller. Having a multicultural background helps me do that with nuance and sensitivity and to understand how messages can resonate or backfire in various cultures.
It’s important to me that those with different backgrounds or those who are minorities in their workspaces are valued but not commodified. Currently, the same handful of female corporate leaders are flooded with requests to serve on boards and are overcommitted and have to say no. I’d like to help change that equation for myself and for the vast pool of talented senior female executives who can bring immediate value to corporate boards.
"Having a multicultural background helps me do that with nuance and sensitivity and to understand how messages can resonate or backfire in various cultures."
How do you help brands articulate their purpose in a memorable, emotional, repeatable way? What is an example of a startup story you have helped craft?
It’s really hard for people to connect emotionally to big data companies, especially the ones with a sensitive mission and national security clients they can’t talk about. The work that I did with Palantir, a big data analytics company, was directed at this challenge. I helped bring in the first dozen or so projects with some great nonprofits in order to expand their philanthropic endeavors. By focusing on technology-for-good, this narrative gave us a forward-leaning mission, impactful projects, and success stories that we could share with our investors, customers, board, and the press. It also gave us a strong buffer against negative news coverage and a powerful recruiting message that drew many talented, mission-driven engineers. In turn, we gave these partner organizations the technology and expertise to fulfill their missions in a more powerful way.
Unfortunately, mission and purpose have become clichés from overuse. But they are so important, especially in putting together the winning team that’s at the heart and soul of every unicorn. The companies that will draw the top talent will be those that can explain their mission and purpose in a heartfelt and authentic way.
I can usually tell within a few minutes of speaking to a founder or any corporate leader for that matter whether or not I can position their company and create an authentic narrative. All great founders have a vision and voice. They just have to get in touch with their reason for being. I help them do that.
You can see that evolve sometimes on my podcast When It Mattered in dramatic ways, where we have these deep conversations and then my guests suddenly realize that single moment in time that turned them into leaders or pioneers. I’ll hear something that will make my ears perk up, I’ll sometimes get goosebumps, always a great sign, and then I’ll start to smile. And usually, my next comment is, “Wow, that’s a great story!” And we’re off to the races!
"All great founders have a vision and voice. They just have to get in touch with their reason for being."
What are the examples of world-class startup stories, and why are they so unique and effective?
The best startups begin with powerful narratives but build on them with sound business principles. You can’t go from red to green on stories alone.
- Sara Blakely went from selling fax machines door-to-door to launching her SPANX empire with $5,000 in savings and hit $4 million in revenue in her first year.
- John Paul DeJoria overcame two stints of homelessness and co-founded the Paul Mitchell hair products empire with $700, now worth nearly a billion dollars. He also co-founded Patrón tequila.
- David Daneshgar, a former World Series poker champion won $30,000 in a poker tournament on a mere $1,000 stake and launched BloomNation, the online florists’ marketplace.
These narratives practically write themselves. You are rooting for these underdogs every step of the way as they undertake the “hero’s journey.” Not every startup will have such dramatic stories. But the ones with a powerful “why” will have a much easier time getting off the runway.
We tell stories that matter
For over 20 years, Magnet’s mission has been to tell stories that matter so that we live in a more empathetic and just world. We intentionally pursue this mission by:
Having our teams and work represent the broader culture
Choosing projects that have positive societal impacts
Creating a community of thought sharing and leadership
Let us know what you want to know!