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Best Customer Ever

James Warren May 28, 2024
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Nearly nine years ago, I found myself at a conference in New York called Future of StoryTelling Summit — FoST Summit for short. I had found this organization and event online, and I saw that they were looking for volunteers. I tossed my hat in the ring and was selected as a workshop room host. With barely a year under my belt as the founder of Share More Stories, I was struggling, scrambling and stumbling. Confidence was at an all-time low.

I felt out-of-place among all these experts in storytelling – across tech, the arts, media, and more. Who was I to be there in any kind of capacity?

By this point, I had already determined – after a massively failed crowdfunding experiment – that Share More Stories was not destined to be the social media antidote I believed we were all craving, and I had started exploring more concrete use cases of storytelling and brands, given my marketing background. I was urged to consider what kind of data analytics our platform or solution might include. So even though I was unsure of myself, broke and felt I was in over my head, I pressed forward holding onto a strand of courage and a barely discernable sense of purpose.

When it was time to host the workshop, I arrived early and connected with our speaker. Then people started arriving. I made mental notes of who was arriving, what companies they were with, who I might want to talk to.

During the session, a woman who was the head of insights at one of the largest consumer packaged goods companies in the world made a comment about how she was curious about stories from an insights perspective. Everything went slow-mo, like in the movies. I felt a rush of intuition. I made some comment, I can hardly remember what. But it was enough to catch her attention, as she nodded in agreement.

As the session ended, people were filing out. I felt this was my chance to introduce myself, so I did. She was gracious and took note of my name badge. “Share More Stories,” she said. “What do you do?”

I responded, “We’re helping brands connect through personal stories.”

She said, “That’s interesting. Tell me more.” So I did. We agreed to stay in touch, and she gave me her card.

After the conference, I reached out. I can still remember shaking as I emailed her. I basically pitched Share More Stories as a platform for not only collecting stories, but also learning from them. She wrote back, “I’m really interested in that. What are the next steps?”
At the urging of my mentor and partner, I replied, “Well, I could come to you [in the Midwest], or you could come here to Richmond, and I can show you how it works.” I had no idea what that would be, of course.

She wrote back right away, “I’ve got some travel to Atlanta in a couple weeks, how about I come to Richmond on the way back?”

My next move was to google “analyzing stories.” I found an AI startup that was doing just that. I signed up for a free trial, we downloaded their API, and I asked my developer, “Any chance we can build an analytics user-interface that I can demo in two weeks?”

He laughed and said, “You sure do go big, James!”

Two weeks later, I was running my first demo of real-time story analytics.

Three weeks later, we had an NDA, a draft SOW and we were getting set up in procurement.

Six weeks later, she told me she was leaving the company.

She was our champion and our customer. My heart sank. Within weeks, the momentum disappeared, and her successor did not have the interest or passion she had in Share More Stories and our very novel approach to insights.

We went from having a Fortune 500 company as our first customer to nothing.

Still, we had learned so much from this very painful experience. This was probably my most valuable sales and closing lesson ever. More importantly, I had gained conviction. When I need it most, there was a source or external validation that said, “You’re not crazy. This is a good idea. You just have to learn a few things so the company can get better, faster.”

This experience paved the way for us to gain more customers over the years. Now, many closed deals later (and even more lost deals), and with a number of Fortune 500 customers under our belt, we keep both our confidence and our humility close to our heart as we navigate our future.

I often reflect on the idea that if it weren’t for this customer-who-wasn’t, we might not exist today. In many respects, she was our best customer ever, because she helped set us on a course that eventually led to success. It reminds me that validation comes in different ways, and if you are willing to follow your own path, it will show up when you need it most.

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