Selling products or life stories? The storytelling of “hero” entrepreneurs

This essay is provided by Hannah Schupfer, student in the master program Organization Studies at University of Innsbruck, and based on her master thesis.

“The worlds most powerful person is the greatest storyteller” – Steve Jobs (1995)

Nowadays, the Silicon Valley is brimming with firms whose CEOs and founders apparently are role models for today’s generation of young entrepreneurs. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page and alike are regarded as geniuses in their areas of expertise. To the wider audience they are especially known for their entrepreneurial success story. How often did we hear the story about Bill Gates and how he made up his way from working in his garage to become the CEO of one of the world’s most famous companies? Or Mark Zuckerberg – do we start thinking about Facebook or do we maybe first think about the lucky college dropout?  

A relatively coherent group of people that share a similar background and hold certain attributes in common can – theoretically – be defined as a social category. In my master thesis, I investigated how the category of today’s “hero” entrepreneurs has been formed. Specifically, I analyzed how the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs “tell their story” which, I argue, influences how the social category of the hero entrepreneur is shaped and understood.

In our society, there are numerous social categories that are constantly developing and evolving. A category can be literally anything – we can either categorize things, such as food and wine, or people, as for example professors and teachers. We, the audience, may associate specific features with that social category but what people rarely reflect about is how these associations come into their minds in the first place. Indeed, we mostly take these assumptions for granted. Within organization studies, there is a vivid literature on social categories, which suggests that stories and storytelling are one way to identify the underlying characteristics of a category. In fact, storytelling has recently been suggested as a means for revealing entrepreneurs’ identity (Williams Middleton, 2012; Johansson, 2004).

In my thesis, I investigated the stories of three of the currently most known Silicon Valley entrepreneurs: Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, which are also known for their outstanding, and sometimes hotly debated companies Facebook, Tesla and Amazon. I collected data from several digital platforms such as YouTube, which contained various “storytelling” material, including speeches, interviews, press releases, product releases, and talk shows. This data served as input for my analysis of entrepreneurial storytelling. I used open coding to identify common attributes and storytelling strategies that shape the social category of the hero entrepreneur.

Three common features seem characteristic for the entrepreneurs’ storytelling which also influences how we perceive the category of today’s hero entrepreneurs: they portray themselves as risk taking, visionaries for humanity, and passionate about technology. Take for instance these quotes of how they play up their visions for humanity and our future:

“I’m very lucky, because I feel like I have a mission driven purpose with Blue Origin that is I think incredibly important for civilization long term” – Jeff Bezos (2017)

“It goes way back when I was at university, I thought about the problems that are most likely to affect the future of the world” – Elon Musk (2013)

Although the individual stories of the three entrepreneurs slightly differ in content, these three attributes are always part of the main messages. Another key aspect is the combination of personal life stories and business concerns. The entrepreneurs provide the audience with insights into their personal development and family background, interwoven with their experience from their early business years. For example, a characteristic part of Jeff Bezos’ storyline is about himself as a young boy that fell in love with computers and spent his summers at his grandparents’ house. He narrates those experiences with a hang for detail and emphasizes the values that his grandfather gave him. By watching several of his appearances one can see that this story pattern is repeating. Also the other two entrepreneurs have a characteristic appearance. For instance, Mark Zuckerberg appears almost always in a simple T-shirt and jeans telling funny anecdotes about his student life, for example, how he ran late for class wearing his shirt inside out.

In other words, neither of them blatantly presents himself as unreachable businessman who feels superior to the rest of the world. Rather, they try to get across as regular human beings. Mark Zuckerberg tends to remind his audience that he was also “just a student in a dorm” and if he could make it, anyone could make it. Similarly Elon Musk. Instead of showing off with success stories he tends to narrate his past with self-ironic descriptions such as “…did some internet stuff here and there”. Jeff Bezos likes to add to his stories that he used to sit on the ground and did all the packaging himself in his early years of business. Hence, the identity that those three entrepreneurs have in common is being a boy next door, a clumsy self-ironic person, plus a loving family father – attributes that certainly trigger positive associations.

Another key aspect I observed was that the entrepreneurs make use of emotions in explicating themselves and tend to blend business topics with discourse on serious topics such as climate change and poverty. Mark Zuckerberg likes to mention that communities have the power to end poverty and fight climate change – portraying Facebook as a platform that brings people together and give them a voice. Elon Musk shares argues that the only way of providing a safe future is to invest in electric cars. Thus, dramatic sequences are supported by promising appeals invoking trust and hope that their businesses will provide to safe our future. For example:

“ (…) whether we are coming together to fight for a  disease like Ebola or to address climate change (…) what are we waiting for? It is time for our generation defining great works.” – Mark Zuckerberg (2018)

Taken together, the blending of personal content with serious discourse, combined with emotions, is their common ground. Their stories seem to be a tool to sell more than simple products; they sell their life stories in which they include emotions and the aspiration to solve the world’s greatest problems. Buying a Tesla is suddenly more than just buying a car. It comes with the package of contributing to the future. Buying your products on Amazon becomes the support of a company that seems to build a reliable and happy community. And talking about communities, why should we ever leave Facebook when it gives us the chance of having an impact on the world by sharing our own visions?

“Imagination is the limit (…) you are the magicians of the 21st century (…) go out there and create some magic!” – Elon Musk (2008)

To wrap up, my analysis of the storytelling of hero entrepreneurs has shown that there is a great consensus in topics, attributes, and ways of storytelling across the three Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. A category is associated with its actor’s status, values, and identities (Jones et al., 2011). My findings contribute to the existing literature on social categories by showing how a narrative analysis helps to provide deep insights into the attributes that make up a social category.

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