“I don’t think of myself as a ‘marketing person.’ I’m a scientist! But marketing matters. Learning to tell the story of Recursion, to share a truthful narrative that highlights the potential of our company, was one of the most important things I could do as CEO.”
Christopher Gibson, co-founder and CEO of Recursion Pharmaceuticals, could teach a master class in storytelling for technical founders. When Recursion first started in 2013, their idea of rapidly accelerating drug discovery through a computational biology-led approach was either ignored or met with fierce skepticism by Pharma, potential investors, and prospective employees of all stripes.
Over six years later, Recursion has one compound in phase two clinical trials, three in phase one (and six in pre-clinical), multiple top-tier Pharma partnerships, a roster of prominent investors, and a clearly established brand as an inclusive employer attracting world-class talent to the Silicon Slopes of Salt Lake City. Without a thoughtful, dedicated, and cross-platform approach to marketing led by a clear purpose, the company may not be where it is today. Chris, in reflection:
“Marketing can have a negative connotation to scientists. There is a sense that it isn’t based in facts. You have to learn how to tell your story and be completely honest, but also to get people excited. It’s like giving a good chalk-talk or lab meeting; you have to make them want to follow the story as you tell it.”
Today, more than ever, we need visionary entrepreneurs to solve the biggest problems of our time. We have also learned, across sectors, that the best ideas don’t necessarily rise to the top without thoughtful communication and truthful storytelling.
We often see founders building category-defining companies at the earliest stages being inclined to focus largely, if not exclusively, on their product or service. While understandable, this approach carries with it a steep opportunity cost and existential risk.
“So many different types of people — industry executives, engineers, VCs, advisors, crossover investors — have to buy into a pretty radical idea to make it successful,” Nan Li tells me. He knows a thing or two about investing in radical ideas, with a roster including Recursion, Zymergen, Planet, DarwinAI, Dexterity, and more. There is one thread that can connect all these audiences with a world-changing startup: marketing. And the story these founders and companies share, across channels, can add up to something bigger.
“These things all go together, creating a ‘net of resonance’ across the industry for your company,” according to Chris.
Below is a playbook for startup founders and teams, informed by multiple category creators within the Obvious portfolio, in three steps:
- Establish Clear Purpose & “Right Story, Right Time” Messaging
- Segment Targets & Map Your Brand Against Them
- Identify Marketing Channels & Go (With Optional Guidelines)
I. Establish Clear Purpose & “Right Story, Right Time” Messaging
What’s the first likely action any potential employee, customer, partner, investor, or journalist will do when they want to learn about you or your company?
They’ll literally google you.
What are your results?
Starting with and stating your purpose succinctly is a necessary step in helping anyone understand your broader vision. This is something that should roll off your tongue in every conversation (and show up first in any search results), to the point where you “repeat yourself so often you get sick of hearing yourself say it.” Here are a few clear purpose statements of note from category-creators:
- Reverse diabetes in 100M people by 2025 (Virta Health)
- Image the entire Earth every day and make global change visible, accessible, + actionable (Planet)
- Help healthcare professionals find + do their best work (Incredible Health)
- Making aquaculture more efficient and sustainable (XpertSea)
The next step can be murky. While audience-dependent (see below), it is helpful to map out a hierarchy of messaging that can be expanded upon based on context — one that you can keep in your metaphorical back pocket at all times, designed for agility:
“As a founder, you have to be agile with [the story]. How scientific? How technical? How much about what we’re doing today, versus in the future? It’s something I think about and do all the time,” says Sami Inkinen of Virta Health.
For technical founders this can be especially challenging, and if you don’t have the in-house talent, it’s worth investing in a contractor or communications/messaging firm to help. Here, I might suggest players like Kate Mason’s Hedgehog & Fox or the team at Rainmaker Communications. Having your story laid out in segments, from simplest to most technical, can prepare you for the times where progressive disclosure of your story matters most. Chris Gibson again:
“To get people excited and across the line, we didn’t have to tell the whole story. We could tell a higher-level overview about drug discovery. We simplified the story the first time, and were ready to peel back the onion as people were more and more interested.”
What this boils down to is the crux of marketing anything and everything: emotional and functional benefits. In practice, it means initially steering clear of wonky, insider jargon while being prepared to dive in with credibility when needed. This higher-level overview can lean in more on the emotional side of the story:
“If you hit an emotional chord with people, it resonates,” says Miyoko’s plant-based dairy founder Miyoko Schinner.
From there, the functional side of the story can take hold.
II. Segment Targets & Map Your Brand Against Them
In order to bring this vision to life, you need talented people on your team, customers in the pipeline, investors with checkbooks + support systems, journalists to cover your field, and likely more. While they may all be intrigued by your vision, the tailored brand you build with each audience may diverge from there. It’s worth noting that this cannot work without each being authentically anchored by your primary brand.
Potential employees are looking for purpose in their jobs now more than ever, and so the story of your raison d’être and credibility to pursue this vision matter equally so. Beyond this, it’s up to you what to prioritize in order to attract top tier talent. Whatever you decide, articulate clearly what you want to be known for with potential employees. You employment brand exists in the world in some form, whether intentionally designed or not.
Investors like Homebrew’s Hunter Walk say it’s never too early to focus on diversity, and if attracting a diverse workforce is important to you (highly recommended!), you must signal this to the market in all forms of communication. Additionally, carefully consider how you show up and on what platforms, be it AngelList, The Muse, or Indeed. Another approach: Hello Alfred CEO Marcela Sapone claims that her employees are her only customer, with the understanding that it “means making decisions and trade-offs that prioritize their experience.” And even if you’re in stealth and can’t speak to specifics of your company, you can still frame up a broader narrative and find others to share your story creatively for you.
Ultimately, this is something to revisit frequently given evolving needs of the business and varying risk profiles of talent as you grow from two to ten to 50, and hopefully more.
Beyond technology development, the toughest challenges you may face will come from (a) the industries you’re looking to upend, and (b) customers’ entrenched behaviors. While repeating the vision of your company is key (across the many channels explored below), another take-home is clear: show, don’t just tell.
Example: while industry mainstays and potential customers initially (and inaccurately) categorized Virta Health as a diabetes treatment program, Sami Inkinen took a “rolling thunder” approach to marketing the difference: “more evidence with clinical trials, more customers, building the case, brick-by-brick, in a nuts and bolts, hand-to-hand combat kind of a way.” When asked how much time he spends talking about their diabetes reversal product, Sami didn’t hesitate:
“It’s massive and close to 50% of my time, in the form of both doing sales myself and thinking about clever ways to break through.”
While her consumer business differs dramatically from the highly-regulated field of healthcare, Miyoko takes the same approach with plant-based dairy:
“No retailers knew that our products were possible. It seemed like all we needed to do what show retailers and investors what we were up to, what the product was. It clicked in their brains the minute they saw it and tasted it.”
Investors (especially venture capitalists) are looking for a story centered on four key factors: market size, differentiated/defensible technology, timing, and the makeup of the team. The high-level vision can act as a unifying force to bind these considerations. Incredible Health’s Iman Abuzeid practically wrote the book on it recently. [If you need help with an investor deck, consider outfits like Breadhouse, 4th & King, MinusPlus, Founders & Co, Pixelmakers, and the long tail of freelancers on Upwork.]
While the pitch process itself will influence their decision most, it would be a mistake to discount how you and your brand show up in the world in the weeks, months, and years prior. They are looking for something massive and inspiring to buy into and be a part of, and a persistence of that narrative in the public record can help.
While you may not want to focus time on what “the media” think of your brand, you will want to hone in on what outlets and specific writers/hosts are most relevant to you. For more on this, see below.
III. Identify Marketing Channels & Go (With Optional Guidelines)
While taking this all forward is as much art as science, the channels for doing so are rather straightforward. Sami again: “Writing, on-stage appearances, and PR — these are all important for credibility building.”
Authored Content (Medium, LI, company blog, op-eds, peer-reviewed pubs)
Writing your own content is a cost-effective way of honing your message, creating a historical record, and driving SEO for your site or yourself as the leader of the company (via LinkedIn or Medium). The good news here is that you need not be beholden to a publishing schedule, and can write when it feels right and direct it appropriately. Chris and Sami, for example, have written extensively over the years on topics like the promise of their technology, the results of their work, and the kind of people they’re hoping to hire. There are a bevy of quality content shops (and individual contractors) that can help you both craft and place your message if you’re not a natural writer yourself (including Atlantic 57, MessageLab, Lighthouse Creative, and Content Writers Group).
Earned Media (aka PR)
Just as your own content matters, so too does third-party writing about or involving you. While you may feel the pressure early to be seen/heard by journalists, here we might suggest taking a longer view by beginning with relationships. You can start as a resource to journalists, helping articulate broader trends and where your company many fit in. Identify a number of writers whom you’d like to see cover your work, across a wide spectrum of outlets. It also makes sense to identify industry-specific/relevant reporters who can cover announcements. Quartz’s Michael J. Coren has crafted an evergreen perspective on how to (and not to) approach a journalist with a story. Lastly, don’t be afraid to engage with a PR firm for a limited engagement, especially around a funding announcement (and remember: how effectively you manage them will determine what you get in return).
Social Media (LinkedIn, Twitter, and possibly FB/Instagram)
The platforms in which you choose to invest are audience- and context-dependent, and identifying what’s important early on will help focus your efforts. Additionally, the more love you show others on these channels through @ mentions and references to their work, the more likely they are to show you some in return. Once in motion, you will find that setting an intentional social media strategy and allocating your valuable time/resources against it is surprisingly critical.
“I’ve been surprised how our continuous focus on social media has been so great for us, especially as an outlet to communicate our mission, culture, and values. I imagined that it would help us hire…but I’ve been surprised [by] influential people in the industry coming up to me and talking about how we’re one of the most innovative startups due to our culture [and other factors you’d find only in our social feeds],” says Chris Gibson.
Conferences, Events, & Meet-Ups (Speaking & Attending)
When you’re unknown or just getting started, getting on stages can be easier than you might imagine — especially virtual stages in the COVID-age. Start by identifying conferences at which you’d ideally like to be on-stage, and find a connection to the conference organizer or content chief (beware the online forms; these often lead nowhere). Additionally, having someone else close to you “pitch” you for the stage or a panel is better than doing it yourself. On smaller scales, events and meet-ups are effective ways to connect with local talent and ecosystems that you will come to rely on as you grow. The more time you spend investing in this long tail, the more you’ll be rewarded over time with both coverage and candidates.
A Note On Guidelines
You should also establish boundaries for what you are and aren’t willing to do in the name of evangelism. One of the original category-creating outdoor apparel companies, Patagonia, has guidelines for their marketing efforts. This is a good sample guide for the promotionally-averse.
- Our charter is to inspire and educate rather than promote.
- We would rather earn credibility than buy it. The best resources for us are the word-of-mouth recommendation from a friend or favorable comments in the press.
- We advertise only as a last resort.
The World Is Ready
Much of this may seem obvious, and ultimately the success of your storytelling boils down to execution. When the wheels are turning, a virtuous flywheel starts kicking in that draws in talent, business, and investors aligned with your vision.
Make sure to tell a truthful, inspiring story as you are building whatever it is that you’re building. And the building matters. “People don’t care about your vision unless you have a great product to go with it,” says Miyoko. “I think people today are looking for heroes. They’re looking for solutions. Don’t be afraid to be a super hero. The world is ready to listen to your message.”