Every story is about solving a problem. How to get back to Kansas or how to slay the dragon. From cave paintings to Zoom meetings, we use storytelling to pass on our knowledge and experience. Both explicitly and implicitly, stories can be used as agents of change or to reinforce a prevailing opinion. With some, we recount them in order to commit them to the past, having learnt from them and grown beyond them.
In 1998 Netflix, a company with only 30 employees, started trading as a DVD rental service, entering a market that had been fenced off for the majority of the decade by Blockbuster Video. They had a truly innovative idea. An online subscription service with no late fees that delivered the films to your door overnight. And because they had no physical stores, they were able to offer the much larger catalogue of films that customers were increasingly demanding and that Blockbuster could not match.
A true ‘disruptor business’, Netflix have never stopped learning from their customer base and asking ‘why not?’. Having redefined the established trading model, they have since abandoned physical media to become the first major on-demand streaming service, more recently reinventing themselves as a major content creator. Back in 2000, Blockbuster was offered the opportunity to acquire the company. Netflix’s outgoing CFO recalled: ‘they nearly laughed us out of the office’.
By 2008, coffee chain Starbucks had begun to experience the problems of a ubiquitous high street brand. Social media was unfavourable, competitors were moving in and people appeared to have fallen out of love with the product.
CEO Howard Schultz’s response was unorthodox – to close all stores for half a day to retrain baristas and to fly 10,000 store managers to New Orleans on a bonding exercise to contribute to hurricane relief. Schultz reined the brand back in by closing 900 loss-making stores and solicited opinion from employees and customers and worked to refocus Starbucks core values on its people.
In doing so, it was discovered that the change in customer perception was at least in part due to the adoption of larger, more efficient coffee machines in stores that formed a barrier between barista and customer and reduced the noise and the aromas that customers positively associated with fresh coffee.
First-hand, undiluted experience of an imperfect world can often be strong meat for inspiration. Recently made a life peer, social entrepreneur John Bird’s life has been institutionalised in every sense of the word.
First made homeless at the age of five and consigned to an orphanage, he was excluded from school, sent to borstal and ultimately found himself at the end of a downward spiral of rough-sleeping and petty crime, in prison. While serving one of several stretches, it was adult education that really turned things around for him. He learnt
to read and write, and the basics of printing.
On his release he set up a printing business and co-founded The Big Issue to give people who were going through the same hardships a way to earn money and get back on their feet. Since then The Big Issue business model has been successfully transferred to nine other countries across the world.
Home Depot co-founders Bernard Marcus and Arthur Blank already knew each other from another home improvement business, Handy Dan.
After its parent company slipped into financial difficulties, Sanford Sigoloff, a corporate turnaround expert came to its rescue. Sigoloff referred to himself as ‘Ming the Merciless’ and was notorious for his slash-and-burn approach to company assets and staff. It was an unhappy union and, in due course, Marcus and Blank were unceremoniously fired from their jobs, both on the same day.
United by their poor experience, they set about assembling the partners and capital to start up an alternative to Handy Dan. Their first two Home Depot stores were founded the following year under a considered set of brand values – respect among all people, excellent customer service and giving back to communities and society.