berto

Disney

2024-03-31

I am one of thirteen children. My uncommon family resulted in unique childhood experiences, and one of them is the prolongued exposure to several generations of Disney movies. In a large family like ours there was always a Disney film playing on the TV. To this day I still enjoy a good Disney movie, and I am of the opinion that their quality is holding up [1]. I am a sucker for a good story.

I borrow from this experience a lot. When I think of a business, my brain usually prefers the storytelling path. “How will this idea make the users lives a lot better? What does it look like if we make them the heroes? Why will it work?” The answer to those questions is a narrative that links your product to the maximum value to the user. A good answer is a good strategy. And its in this way that I think that storytelling is a very valuable skill for founders [2].

To expand on that, take the #1 job of the entrepreneur: to grow the business. You start with 0 product and 0 revenue and powerful competitors. To succeed you need clients, a team and often investors. These start out as strangers who are busy and skeptical. They will say yes to features that solve obvious needs. But you don’t want to keep things transactional. You don’t want to be a commodity. No, you want them to go all-in with their attention and money. For that, they will need to desire your vision. And they must believe that you can get there. In other words, you must prove the causality of your efforts. This causality is where a story comes in handy [3].

Crafting good stories requires Disney-like powers. The Mickey Mouse company has mastered storytelling over 100 years, and that makes it a great place to get good ideas from.

The typical Disney plot starts with a character facing a big challenge. The hero does many failed attempts to solve it. Then through persistence and effort there is a breakthrough, a solution that works, and finally success [4]. Despite the standardized plot, the Disney catalogue is very rich and with lots of variety. There are films about princesses, shoe makers, cars, space exploration, dogs, cats, fish, birds, music, and polution. If you look, you will probably find a story related to your business, created by the very best writters. You should mine it for interesting concepts.

A few years ago I stumbled into the one particular Disney movie that has fueled my obsession with storytelling: Ratatouille. If you haven’t watched it, go watch it. Ratatouille is the film-twin of a startup. Just look at the final speech of the character Anton Ego, attributed to writer and director Brad Bird.

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defence of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends… In the past I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto, ‘Anyone can cook’. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.

It instantly clicked with me. At the time I was starting Rows.com, and this story seemed to me to talk about the exact same problem we were trying to solve.

I started quoting the script extensively in our meetings, which I still do, and on other ocasions the movie scenes pop up in my mind in the middle of a work session, like a lightning. They became part of our shared understanding of how we need to behave, they became part of our brand. Take these 3 highlights from the previous quote:

“The average piece of junk”. Users do all sorts of crazy things with spreadsheets. It doesn’t matter what we think of those spreadsheets, they are important to them. We had to fight and ban phrases like “the users fault” or “the user is taking advantage of”. We decided it wasn’t the users fault if they broke a spreadsheet with a crazy formula combo, or even if they took the system down by excessive load. More importantly, our engineering team took on the endless job of enabling every ambitious spreadsheet, even those involving millions of simultaneous tasks. Finally, we built our AI features to help users get results faster and avoid mistakes in formulas [5].

“The new needs friends”. We also created our community of spreadsheets at rows.com/community so that builders have a place to meet. And every time I open one of those public spreadsheets, I swear that “the new needs friends” phrase hits me like a pleasant mantra.

“Anyone can cook”. More fundamentally, the Rows team is fighting for the largest chunk of the underserved market, business users. They have been frustrated for far too long, limited by tools with too many guardrails (analytics) and slow innovation (Excel). We know that they envy engineers and their coding super powers. So we gave them the same powers in a way they can use. We made loading data from cloud services a no-brainer. We built our powerful AI experience. We even implemented easier versions of the scripting powers offered by Microsoft VBA and Google Apps Script, that no longer need to be coded and instead are available in every cell. The Rows team believes that “Anyone can master data.”

Disney movies aren’t just entertainment for children. They’re also a solid inspiration for adults trying to conquer new business kingdoms.

H.

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[1] Coco is a recent success that I love. It’s a beautiful story within a story. It is also a masterpiece on data sufficiency, because the plot supports the fantastic narrative (wish route) while providing enough proof for a rational side (just a dream). I have also grown to enjoy storytelling in many forms, not just movies. Books, blogs and podcasts fill up my personal time, and TV Shows and Movies are some of our family’s favorite pastimes.

[2] The entrepreneur and investor Keith Rabois summarizes how important storytelling is “my view of building a company, building a product is like producing a movie. nobody who produces a movie goes to interviews (…) goes to ten people on the street and ask: what movie do you want to see? you find a script, you have a story, a narrative, then you produce a trailer, you convince people to spend their money and enjoy the movie..”. I thinking building this story is critical. But I am also going on a tangent here and take this opportunity to say that it looks like that there isn’t any one particular skill that is required to be an entrepreneur. Founders come in all shapes and sizes. When you look at the lives and style of the creators of successful products and large organizations, you see that they are very, very unique people. Take some canonical examples: Steve Jobs (Apple), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Larry Page and Sergei Brin (Google), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Linus Torvalds (Linux), Markus Persson (Minecraft), Elon Musk (Paypal, SpaceX), Phil Knight (Nike). In all the cases, there is a super-fit between the company and the founder, so much that we can’t think of the company without thinking about the founder. Now each of those companies built particular products, and creating them required different traits, which the founders already had or pursued. And because the companies created are very different, often with competing views of the world, it stands to reason that their success is built on top of different combos of skill sets. The only commonality really seems to be persistence. Of those mentioned, Steve Jobs is one who has been a storyteller, and it makes sense that he valued the opportunity to get closer to Pixar and later Disney.

[3] And here’s the South Park creators Matt Stone & Trey Parker explaining why causality matters. TL;DR: “But” and “Therefore” are great linking elements for stories, and “And” sucks. Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGUNqq3jVLg.

[4] This looks like the life of a company. The major difference is that Disney classics are quite closed and rarely have great sequels, whereas startups are constantly living new epic stories. There isn’t one happy ending, one final kingdom, because others want to be heroes too. In that sense, entrepreneurship is more fit for a TV Series, or a franchise mashup or multi-verse. There are 2 exceptions to the rule of sequels: Toy Story and The Incredibles, which are terrific movies with sequels to match.

[5] This confirmed to us the finding that 88% of spreadsheets have mistakes. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228662532_What_We_Know_About_Spreadsheet_Errors. That doesn’t make people run away from spreadsheets, much to the contrary.