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When A Man Bites A Dog It’s News [Why Entrepreneurs Must Tell A Story]

I was one of the “journalists”  who paid a visit to Microsoft’s Accelerator in Bangalore last week. So when Mukund Mohan, the chief executive officer of the Accelerator groused that reporters are always asking him for exclusive funding stories, I tried to remember if I had done so. I had not. But I wouldn’t mind asking him that question. Because funding is a key media story. The fallacy, as Mukund rightly pointed out, is when Funding  is treated as the only media story. To assume that it is the only story journalists care about or the only question journalists ask, is also wrong.

I spoke to 4 great companies at the Accelerator. It was great fun talking to them and making an attempt to understand the problems they were solving. My intention was to build a relationship with the companies, their founders and keep the dialogue alive for future coverage. As always, my mindset was that the entrepreneur knows best. I spent about 45 minutes with each company.

They all had great products which were solving some very important problems. At least two of them I spoke to are onto something really big. But as the day progressed, I had a problem of my own to solve. What am I going to write when I go back? Of course our readers will understand if I write about their products because thats one of the reasons they come to NextBigWhat. That makes my problem easier to solve. But imagine being a writer for a business publication. Or a general newspaper.

Journalism 101

Journalists are on the lookout for stories. Because that’s our currency. That’s our bread and butter. Deep inside, every journalist knows that he is only as good as his last story. So what makes a story? To use a cliched sentence: Its not a story when a dog bites a man. But when a man bites a dog, it is a story. Similarly, business as usual is not a story in most cases. Because that’s what companies do.

When a journalist sets out on a beat, the first thing they learn is: what is normal. Anything outside of normal is a story. For instance, if the average industry growth is x % and a company is growing at 2x %, there is a story in it. Get the drift?

For the simple reason that companies don’t get funded every day, its an important story. Sometimes even an excuse to talk about an otherwise uninteresting* company. The right way of doing it would be to talk about funding, and also about why its a fundable idea, the people behind it, the journey of the startup and the details that make the story readable. If you can add some color to the story, nothing like it. Take for instance the story of Summly’s acquisition by Yahoo. You can tell it straight: Summly was acquired by Yahoo for $$. Or you can tell a great story like this: He Has Millions and a New Job at Yahoo. Soon, He’ll Be 18. How a story is treated is important.

Mukund is understandably upset because many journalists treat funding as the only story and everything else as no story.

Entrepreneurs must tell a great storyMegaphoneI have no formal training in journalism. But in my last job, I was taught an important lesson. Every story we write, needs to be justified. Because we respect the readers time, we must constantly try to answer a simple question: why are we writing about this and why should you care to read about this. Print journalists have a bigger problem. Real estate is scarce and expensive. Stories must be crisp and clear. Every line you write, must add value to the story.

While a journalist tries, it isn’t always easy to come up with a great story. This is why entrepreneurs must tell a great story.

Infosys, a company on which much airtime, ink and pixel has been lavished, is a classic example of great storytelling. Seven young guys starting a company from scratch to make it big is one story. Seven young guys on the regular course, taking an off beat path (technology was off beat then) was another story*.  The first Indian company to list on the Nasdaq was a story. Giving stock options to employees and making them rich was a story. The whole Infosys story, is the sum of many smaller stories. Then there is something called color in journalistic parlance. Color is a detail which makes the story interesting. Narayana Murthy pledging Sudha Murthy’s jewellery for initial capital to build a billion dollar empire is gold for a journalist. Nandan Nilekani catching a Mumbai bus to meet Rohini Nilekani everyday at the Times of India office before they married is gold. Walking away from their largest customer to play by their own rules is gold. Murthy and Nilekani on a motorbike, hawking Infosys shares to reluctant buyers at a discount, is gold. All this, makes an amazing story, which people like reading.

The bottom line? Entrepreneurs must tell a great story to make the journalist want to share it with the world.

* Uninteresting to a particular publication’s reader

** This story is being overdone these days

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