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Forget your Daddy...who's your Villain?

Pivots and company growth place pressures on your company story. The inspiring story of Zum illustrates these perfectly.

Otto Pohl

Jun 18, 2024

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Your startup messaging is dynamic. There are differences across audiences and changes over time—and both contribute to an insidious risk as your company grows. The story of Zum, a fantastic startup dedicated to modernizing the nation’s school bus system, encapsulates the issues around these challenges. Their mission is disruptive in the best possible sense, and they have a great story—read on and see if has echoes to your situation.

When Ritu Narayan co-founded Zum in 2015, the story was simple. As a busy executive at eBay she had struggled to get her kids to activities during work hours. So she founded an Uber-for-Kids company to help working mothers like her. The service caught on, providing about half a million rides by 2018.

But on-demand child rides is a limited market, so Zum looked into related opportunities. In 2019, they netted a $400k contract from Oakland Unified to transport special needs children.

That kind of recurring revenue made them wonder—why not go big and compete for core bus contracts?

The pivot necessitated a new company story. Tech-forward child transport was always the core of the business. But they’d need a powerful pitch to get districts to switch from entrenched providers like First Student.

The answer: electric buses.

Without them, Zum was little more than an app-enabled bus service. With them, Zum offered school districts a path to a sustainable future.

There’s no arguing the environmental impact Zum could have. There are nearly half a million school buses in the United States, and 90% of them are diesel. The school bus fleet is double the size of all other mass transit in the country combined.

But this pivot created two storytelling challenges. Ritu told me that her evangelism must be carefully calibrated to specific audiences. Governments and school districts love the sustainability. When she spoke at Davos, Zum was all about changing the world. For the community and parents, however, the story is far more prosaic, and centered around safety and economics.

If sustainability is part of your messaging, she said, it’s tempting to go all in and talk about saving the world (right at the top of the Pohl Pyramid). However, for some of your stakeholders, messaging around sustainability is irrelevant, a negative, or reads as code for ‘more expensive.’

Balancing your messaging between these stakeholders creates a risk we’ll see in a minute.

The other challenge that contributes to this risk involves the company’s About story. When it was a ride-share app, the company narrative clearly addressed the pain of frazzled parents. “Peace of mind for busy families” was an early website headline. Even during the initial embrace of school transport, the theme only shifted as far as “I Zum to school so my mom can get to work.” But as the company pivoted further, it introduced a child-only “We Move Kids Forward” headline. The company narrative eliminated the “over-scheduled mom” origin story in favor of describing Ritu as someone who wanted to create a “trustworthy and reliable” transport option for her children.

Finding the narrative through-line for a company undergoing major pivots is a good idea. But it also exacerbates a narrative risk almost all companies face as they grow: they start to water down their message because a) they’re doing more things in more markets, and b) they have more stakeholder groups to keep happy. The “We Move Kids Forward” message is anodyne; stating in their About section that “We’re devoted to providing schools with effective solutions” says little.

Furthermore, the market isn’t standing still, and that that means Zum’s messaging evolution isn’t complete. A year after losing Oakland to Zum, First Student announced their own electrification strategy. Their plans are charitably described as modest, but the market positioning threat is real: When the industry’s largest player suddenly declares itself as a “leader” in electrification, it blurs the sharp distinction that Zum had represented.

As a successful startup finds itself fighting a multi-front war across the widening circle of its influence, there’s an urge to sandpaper down any potentially controversial statements.

The easiest way I’ve found to restore narrative clarity for a company is to remember a fundamental fact of great storytelling: Every good story requires a villain. In the first iteration of Zum, the villain was overscheduled modern life. In the second, it was the fossil fuel status quo. The need for story modulation among varied audiences is real; so is the desire to build an About story that spans all pivots. The current villain is the status quo in the broadest sense, from high cost to poor safety to insufficient inclusion to splintered community and to poor health. Those are all good things to fight against—but tackling such a broad gang of villains tends to inspire lowest-common-denominator platitudes.

Perhaps the easiest way to retain a sharp narrative edge as you grow is to be focused about what you stand against.

Look at your own messaging. Who’s your villain?

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Otto Pohl is a communications consultant who helps startups tell their story better. He works with deep tech, health tech, and climate tech leaders looking to create profound impact with customers, partners, and investors. He has taught entrepreneurial storytelling at USC Annenberg and at accelerators across the country.

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