Sustainability/Opinion/

Too much information: why sustainable startups are killing their growth with numbers

To achieve growth, it should be less about the numbers and more about the narrative.

Credit: Natasha Connell

By Joseph Simpson

Imagine you’re an investor and you’re hearing a pitch for the first time. The founder has a strong profile and their innovation has potential to change the world, but you don’t quite understand what the company does or how. Instead of being hooked with an engaging story of the opportunities and the challenges, you’re bombarded with numbers. 

Over the past few years helping sustainable startups tell stories, I’ve seen this challenge present itself in multiple forms — in pitch decks, sales presentations, on websites and across social channels — and as a result, I’ve seen startups with strong impact potential struggle to communicate what makes them special. 

For example, this sentence was taken from the sales deck of a potential client of mine: “CO₂ emissions have risen to 31.6 gigatons and concentrations will double to 560ppm by 2060, but with your help, our technology can reduce this…buy our product.”

Sure, these numbers sound important and it’s not like they’re out of place. But without context, conflict and resolution, it doesn’t really convey much beyond a thinly spread sales pitch. Far too often do we in the sustainability world let big numbers tell the story, and as a result, we’re holding back the growth of the entire industry.

The challenges of Europe’s sustainability founders

Over the past decade, the fight against climate change has heated up and nowhere is this more visible than in the universities of Europe. From TU Delft to Cambridge, these institutions have proven to be significant breeding grounds for sustainable innovation, giving birth to startups like Hardt Hyperloop, Climeworks and Meatable — to name a few. 

Because sustainable technology often requires complex engineering and systemic thinking, the founders of such startups usually come from hard scientific or academic backgrounds — backgrounds where the truth is made or broken with numbers.

However, when scientific startups communicate in the same manner outside of these environments, they often speak over the audience. And whilst it’s in their DNA — scientists have long struggled to communicate the findings of research — when we speak in facts and numbers we show our lack of commercial expertise.

To effectively communicate a technology’s potential, just like climate change at large, entrepreneurs with a scientific background must learn to wrap their numbers in a narrative that create meaningful connections between data and the ideas. Take, for example, Lund University spin-off Oatly, which is challenging the dairy industry with their tagline: “It’s like milk, but made for humans.” 

Oatly has distilled years of complex scientific research into a narrative about how their patented enzyme technology turns fibre-rich oats into liquid food that’s perfectly designed for humans. What’s more, this new narrative sets the scene for conflict — something which numbers alone struggle to do. 

Humans are hardwired to digest information in stories

Some psychologists suggest that we’re 22x more likely to remember information when it’s presented in a narrative as opposed to when you hear the facts by themselves. As these facts must be digested before they can evoke action, it’s essential that we get better at conveying them.

Why? Because before any sustainable impact is realised, startups must convince those outside of the sustainability bubble like potential investors and customers to join their journey. When communicating with those outside of the sustainability world, leading with complex, fact-driven and scientific language doesn’t always lead to action. 

For instance, I was recently working with a mobility startup whose founders were all aeronautical engineers. The technology was solid, but the CEO wasn’t a strong storyteller and instead spoke only about the specifics of the product itself (We’re X% more sustainable than our competitor). As a result, they struggled to raise funds and bring their MVP to market.

“When communicating with those outside of the sustainability world, leading with complex, fact-driven, scientific language doesn’t always lead to action.”

When sustainable businesses tell a compelling story, it complements their technology by setting a narrative of change. For instance, Vattenfall, the Swedish energy company tells a story of the potential of renewables not with facts or numbers, but with a simple phrase: “Fossil-free living within one generation”. 

This phrase is usually accompanied with images of children playing, not windmills or solar energy parks, evoking emotion (‘What about my children’s generation?’) over rational thought (‘We need to reduce CO₂ in the atmosphere’).

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The impact of facts versus storytelling for startups

Whether an investor decides to invest in your startup or whether a customer chooses your business over a competitor, the vast majority of these decisions are made based on gut feeling and emotions as opposed to rational thought. 

Why is this important? Because our emotions are the basis for over 90% of all human decision-making, and stories appeal to our emotions as opposed to our rational. 

This sentiment is in line with a recently released report by the World Economic Forum and ScaleUpNation, which states that storytelling is the number one tactic for young, innovative impact-driven companies looking to scale. 

Many with scientific backgrounds find this hard to believe, but by adding context, conflict and a path towards resolution, these evergrowing numbers become much more tangible. 

When startups wrap their sustainability metrics or technical capabilities in short stories, pitches become more engaging, our marketing efforts more effective, our presentations more appealing and our audiences will be more likely to remember what you have to say.

 

Joseph Simpson is the author of Impact Brand Building: How to build a scalable impact-driven brand, and a startup branding consultant bridging the gap between entrepreneurship and sustainability.

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Mikael Koivukangas
Mikael Koivukangas

Agreed on numbers. What’s perhaps a little bit more poignant is often the complete and absolute absence of any real-world images, video, testimonials (not just “I think this product is great! #User332” or “72% of X think Y!”) or other concrete examples of the company’s product in action. The reason for the above is excusable, in part: Most investors simply do not have insight into the field that a startup is claiming to disrupt. It’s excusable, but dumb. If you’re investing money, you should be studying the products and their potential and doing your own due diligence. It is this… Read more »