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Mythifying the Startup

April 30, 2013

Mythifying the Startup

Ancient memories of generations past come back to life through Carl Muller’s poetic prose in Children of the Lion: a beautiful, massive work of art recounting the origin myth of the Sinhala people. In its review, The Hindu stated, “Don’t try to analyse it all, don’t try to rationalize whether it all happened as it did, just lie back and relax to Muller’s music with words.” For that is how one approaches myth, playing with it to glean a kernel of truth, but more importantly, be entertained and edified in the process.

Myth is not just the stuff of novels. It is a living, breathing phenomenon that transmits through people, shaping and defining their lives. All countries and peoples have myths. So do companies and startups. Google has a famous origin story, but notice how even the bare-bones version on their own website reads less like a historical account and more like fiction as they recount older events:

1995: Larry Page and Sergey Brin meet at Stanford. (Larry, 22, a U Michigan grad, is considering the school; Sergey, 21, is assigned to show him around.) According to some accounts, they disagree about almost everything during this first meeting.

Emphasis mine. Mere history could be bland and ordinary, but now there’s a small crack through which a seed of imagination could sprout, an opportunity for the story to get embellished and made richer. A story is hardly worth repeating if one can’t add to it as it gets retold.

Myths and stories are an important vehicle that convey a startup’s values as it evolves. It is not always easy or practical to retain the pioneering spirit of a fledgeling company when it grows and more people join the original team. When a new engineer hears about how Google’s founders famously disagreed about “almost everything” at the beginning, yet achieved phenomenal success later together, he also understands a little bit more about the culture and values at Google.

Vesess is but a small company. We have but a small team. Yet, I’m aware that even this small company is creating its own internal stories and legends, and weaving its origin myth. There are heroes, villains, and prodigal sons in this story. There is joy, and there is sorrow. Perhaps it’s only interesting to us, but the story keeps us going. When we grow, the story grows.

I hope we have an epic tale to tell at the end, a story that deserves more ears than our own.

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