When Hans Gruber and his armed henchmen step out of the elevator onto the 30th floor of Nakatomi Plaza and take the Christmas partygoers hostage, unwitting guest and New York cop John McClane’s sense of duty kicks in, pitting himself against the bad guys and overwhelming odds.
Perhaps it is no surprise that we, as founders, could — and should — learn from Die Hard.
The lesson is this: More than the executive team, advisors, access to capital, go-to-market strategy, brand and product-market fit, one thing determines founder success: the ability to sell the idea of your company.
Over 20 years, I have been in thousands of situations where I've needed to sell an idea in some form.
This includes selling ideas to the boards and C-suite of Fortune 500 companies, European VCs, book publishers, commissioners of TV and film, as well as high-profile international talent.
I’ve had wins and losses, and the losses are the sharpest in my mind — I spent years and tens of thousands of pounds writing and developing an animated film that wasn’t commissioned because I made a common fatal flaw: assuming the idea would succeed by its own virtue.
One of the first mistakes entrepreneurial people make when selling their ideas is simply being too optimistic about the ability of their audience to retain and care about the information they are given.
Consider the odds of raising venture capital. A typical fund will receive 2,000 proposals every year. That’s 38 per week, often reviewed first by a team of two or three associates, and investments are made in around 1% of the companies VCs meet. There are equivalent odds for getting through to the team you need, the partners, advisors and the first customer.
Gaining access to these people is not the challenge. They are more accessible than ever. What stands in the way of your idea is contending with the evaluation of volume.
These odds are a reminder that you have to do everything in your power to ensure that your idea, no matter how titanic you believe its potential to be, overcomes the first thing guaranteed to lead to an unsuccessful sell: obscurity.
The inciting incident
To avoid obscurity, the idea must compel action and rally your audience behind it. This is the role of the inciting incident. The internet will tell you that the best way to do this is by storytelling: “If you want to pitch successfully, if you want to build a great business or brand, just use storytelling.” That’s about as helpful as saying, “If you’re building a house, just use bricks”.
We can be much more disciplined.
Give your focus to the single most important element of narrative structure: the “inciting incident“. It’s a deliberate piece of design by every author, playwright and screenwriter to capture and hold your attention — and is just as important and effective when selling an idea as it is for a feature film.
What is the inciting incident? Let’s go back to that moment in Die Hard:
The arrival of Hans Gruber at Nakatomi Plaza is the inciting incident that turns the hero’s world on its head and carries the audience with them while they fight to restore balance. So great is this conflict and in such epic opposition to the hero’s desires that we (the audience) are compelled to see what John will attempt to do to address the upheaval.
Help your audience empathise with your idea
The inciting incident arrests attention. But it first needs one thing to thrive: establish the world of the story. We care about John McClane, not because he’s there to fight bad guys. This isn’t a normal day for a normal New York cop. That would be forgettable. We care because he is actually there, at this party in California at Christmas, to reconcile his marriage to Holly. But now he faces a threat to his life and hers before he can even begin this task.
The established world of the story helps the audience empathise with the hero. It is the information needed to make the inciting incident thrive and carry the most weight. A cop doesn’t just fight bad guys. In the same way, your idea isn’t just an idea. When properly designed, the inciting incident gives the audience a reason to care about the success of your idea.
When applied to your startup, here are the key steps
First, identify your hero: For the avoidance of doubt, it is almost never you as the seller of the idea. It’s the people, group or market facing a major opposing force that your idea will help overcome. Then, establish the world of your story: What frame does your inciting incident need to thrive? Describe this world first so your audience cares about the outcome.
Now you can execute the inciting incident. Your audience must be hit hard by the conflict your “hero“ faces. So much so that inaction is not an option. Finally, tell your idea as the way to address the upheaval.
Any time you sell an idea, you are addressing an audience looking through the lens of a lifetime of experiencing this practice of the inciting incident, although they may not know it.
For this reason, especially when facing the odds, your audience will forget almost everything you tell them, except the conflict you present and the actions that can be taken to overcome it. Conflict is emboldened in our memory. As long as the inciting incident carries sufficient stakes, it necessitates an urgent response.
Especially in the earlier days of a startup, it is this, not the procession of technical architecture, statistics, financial models, processes and methods, that makes your idea — your sell — compelling and memorable.
The inciting incident will not make a weak idea any stronger, but not having it will make a strong idea far less likely to find its home.