Has your company outgrown its magical origin story branding and four ways to diagnose

Aug 5, 2021
min read

Often, when companies are thinking about employer branding, they think about their origin story, culture, and their major perks for employees. Origin stories are especially important for startups and small businesses that are in the process of scaling, as this typically forms the culture and key differentiators of the company. Employees are people after all – if we identify with something, we’re more engaged and likely to want to bring the goal to life. To build your company’s origin story, you’re typically looking at why the founder or co-founders decided to build the company. Some questions you’d want to cover are:

  1. What problem were you trying to solve
  2. Who were you solving the problem for
  3. What were your key motivators when you decided to drop what you were doing and dedicate your time to the business 

These are just the basics that all origin stories should include and we recommend looking up more tips on building a strong story if you’re in the process of doing so. This helps potential candidates decide if they want to go on this journey with your company to build a better product or service. At a startup or small business stage, the reasons behind starting the business can resonate better than the product itself. For example, founders who have personality traits that employees are looking for can make all the difference between signing a contract with your company versus a larger, more well-known company in the same space. After all, people resonate with other people. For more benefits on why building and sharing a solid founder story is important for fundraising, sales, and recruitment, check out FrogDog Magazine’s article, The Importance of the Founder’s Story to Marketing.

But does the origin story eventually become tiresome and completely irrelevant? When is it time to move away from your origin story to something a little more structured and focussed on employer differentiators? 

It depends. Each company is unique and some companies can take advantage of their story to sell or market the brand to their intended audiences. Some great examples include Knix, Girl Scouts, and Shopify. Origin stories work really well for these organizations because their audiences find them relatable.

Screenshot of Knix's "Meet Our Founder" section on their websitet

Other companies, like Ben and Jerry’s for example, have interesting founder stories too but they aren’t necessarily leveraged as part of their brand. Instead, Ben and Jerry’s is more known for their incredible efforts in influencing social issues.

Screenshot of Ben and Jerry's latest headlines on google news

Let’s make something clear though: founder stories are integral in creating your corporate culture regardless of whether or not it’s leveraged for external branding. Your leadership team upholds your company’s core values and acts as examples of what model employees should live and breathe. As your company continues to grow, the employees you hire should also reflect your company’s values. When you’re deciding on a more structured approach as opposed to the founder storytelling approach, consider how the latter impacts the former. 

Bringing the discussion back to whether or not it’s time for an employer rebrand, you may find yourself noticing a few things: 

The shift from wanting to work with specific leaders in your company to working for the company itself

In the early days, candidates were likely joining the team because they wanted the opportunity to work closely with specific members of the leadership team. You may find that over time, more and more candidates want to work with your company because of your corporate culture and brand instead. Apple is a great example of this – while many know of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak’s story, many people have joined Apple’s workforce because of its sleek products, opportunities to innovate from anywhere in the company, and a feedback loop where anyone can challenge each other. 

Old photo of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak

Your founder story no longer impacts how day-to-day business operates

When your company has evolved to the point where your company has its own powerful brand and doesn’t heavily rely on your founder story, it’s time to consider evolving your employer branding strategy too. You can usually pinpoint this by tracking the key driver for sales, marketing, investments, and recruitment. Royal Bank of Canada is an example of an organization that has a relatively unknown origin story but they’re the largest chartered bank in Canada. Many employees work for the bank due to its competitive salaries, incentive programs, and benefits. 

Your company has grown to a point where more structure is appreciated or needed

At this stage, employees are no longer following your cofounder’s Twitter accounts to get a sense of how they would run their company. Instead, they’re looking for specific perks that your company offers. This can include anything from shortened hours in the summer to RRSP matching and pension planning to parental leave top-ups. 

This typically happens when the company is growing very quickly and founders can no longer do one-on-one onboarding meetings to help new employees gain a better understanding of how the company runs. Humi has ambitious goals; we’re looking to double our team in the next year and there are new job postings going up on what seems like a daily basis. Many of our recent company-wide meetings include an agenda item related to newly developed policies. These in turn become major work perks that candidates can ask about and take advantage of should they fill an open role.

Your founders’ personal views may differ from your company’s stance on political or social issues

When businesses are starting out, the first employees are typically those who are already connected to the founders or a member of the senior leadership team in one capacity or another. This can easily lead to your employees sharing the same opinion on certain social or political issues. As the company starts to grow and new employees join regularly, the alignment on these issues may become distorted. You can see this happening when there’s a need for more “buy-in” through research and proposals. At this point, consider what you want your company culture to look like and be prepared to navigate any risks associated with taking a stance. 

An example of this would be Basecamp, a project management software company, that narrowed down its employee policies including a ban on societal and political discussions in the workplace. For many employees, work is seen as an opportunity to socialize and discuss current political or social issues. It’s a place where you can share ideas and learn more from each other. However, Basecamp’s CEO, Jason Fried, implemented a policy where these discussions were restricted which resulted in mass resignations. If Basecamp’s senior leadership team’s goal is to have a company culture where they do not wish to take a stance on political and social issues, they should be prepared for those who believe in companies taking a stance to quit.

Screenshot of Basecamp's latest headlines on google news

If you’re a founder or one of the first employees to join the business, you might feel tied to your company’s origin story. It can be the driving force behind why you started the business or why you decided to join. It’s important to take a step back and reevaluate whether or not it still resonates with your employees as you scale. This doesn’t necessarily mean doing an overhaul but rather, reworking how you deliver the story to engage your current and future employees.

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