We have limited Spanish content available. View Spanish content.


What's Your Company's Story?

What's Your Company's Story?

Does your company have stories of its early days that are often retold? Do you have recent ones that remind you that you are still growing? If so, it might be time to start writing them down.

  • min read


What's Your Company's Story?

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.

For all that companies gain as they grow, they often lose a lot of the intensity of the few founders working in a start-up. Check out almost any corporate website, and you’ll find a “History” tab under the “About Us” section. Typically, it includes a timeline that starts on the founding day and shows facts, photos and a chronology of product introductions, expansions, and so on.

The most interesting websites, though, go beyond the beyond the timeline to tell stories that reveal the soul of the company. Such foundational stories are gifts that keeps on giving, allowing current leaders to draw on the past to highlight themes critical to today’s customers and employees.

IBM’s website, for instance, offers stories of innovation, technological progress and dedication to its customers. As you click through these stories of client dedication, you see related quotes from legendary IBM leader Thomas J. Watson Jr. appearing just above a similarly themed quote from former Chairman Samuel J. Palmisano. Also, Google discusses “10 things we know to be true,” linking its historical actions to its current perspectives on the right way to do business.

Foundational stories make for good marketing, of course, but they also can serve as a great HR or recruitment tool, connecting founders to incoming employees. They are particularly valuable when small companies reach the stage where they need to bring in outside professionals to help manage their growth, yet don’t want to dilute the soul of the company. Origin chapters define the firm’s early values and heroes, and later chapters can showcase great new employees who fill key gaps and enhance the culture.

Two founders of a Chinese grocery chain, for instance, told me how they slept at their first store for several nights before it opened and for way too many nights after. “We just did whatever it took,” he said. “That meant a lot of 2 a.m. wake-ups to buy the best produce from wholesalers.”

At a recent offsite training session, the founders and early executives used such stories to pass on their values and make sure the new team shares the original mission. They were careful to reflect reality by including mistakes, outright failures and poor decisions. And they called out how newer leaders in the room have to take the company to the next level. These chapters demonstrate that it’s acceptable to take risks and learn from initial failure. As one of the founders notes, “We should support the new leaders rather than say, ‘Things were different back in the old days.’”

The current and next generation of leaders must feel empowered to write the next chapters to keep the excitement alive as they grow. That can help the company resist the temptation to romanticize the past or to declare victory in reaching the final destination. Viewing the story as only the beginning, with more exciting chapters to come, puts new recruits at the center of a growing company’s future, rather than casting them as a team that threatens the company’s past.

Does your company have stories of its early days that are often retold? Do you have recent ones that remind you that you are still growing? If so, it might be time to start writing them down.

James Allen is co-leader of the global strategy practice at Bain & Company and co-author of the upcoming book “The Founder’s Mentality.”


Want to continue the conversation

We help global leaders with their organization's most critical issues and opportunities. Together, we create enduring change and results