Telling Stories of Family Businesses and Startups 

It was 1947. Like thousands of others, a young man arrived in Delhi from Sialkot, Punjab, fleeing the horrors of Partition. With just Rs. 1,500 in his pocket, he rented a tiny shop in Karol Bagh. From there, he hoped to rebuild his family’s pre-Independence business of selling ground spices.  

Cut to almost three quarters of a century later. Two young engineers were trying to recover from the failure of their year-old logistics company. Deciding to fill a need they’d personally experienced – ordering food quickly and easily from nearby restaurants. – they managed to sign on 25 restaurants in the Bangalore suburb of Koramangala, where they stayed. 

The circumstances, eras and industries may have been different, but the people in both these cases share space at the top of the Indian business pantheon. MDH is now a Rs. 15,000 crore spices giant, and the young man, Mahashay Dharampal Gulati, was at the time of his death in 2017 the highest-paid CEO of an Indian FMCG company. Meanwhile, the two Bangalore boys, Sriharsha Majety and Nathan Reddy, preside over food delivery giant Swiggy. Valued at over $1bn, it partners with over 1,30,000+ restaurants in 325 Indian cities, handling over 1.4 million orders per day. 

Family business and startups: Two sides of the same coin?                                       

MDH and Swiggy are just two examples of the contrasting sets of companies defining the modern Indian business landscape. Family businesses are the bedrock of Indian industry – clocking up 80% of India’s GDP, a quarter of its sales and 32% of its profit after tax. At the other extreme are startups. India is the world’s 3rd largest startup hub, with over 80,000 startups and 3 new ones registered every day. They’re mostly founded by confident young people, brimming with ideas that they hope will change the world.  

What both successful family businesses and startups have in common is that they are constantly looking to the future in their drive to succeed. They understand that a lucid narrative of their vision will make customers, employees, suppliers, investors and regulators sit up and notice them. They understand the power of a brand in creating a lasting value proposition. And that a story, well told, is what a brand is made of. 

While these commonalities are what compel both family businesses and startups to put down their stories, it’s the differences in purpose that drive their narratives.  

Legacy stories blend continuity with modernity 

What makes family businesses special is that people trust them implicitly. That trust is engendered by the fact that they’ve been around for ages, making them a constant factor that people have experienced all their lives. Whether it’s the Tatas or a local sweet shop, continuity is its legacy.  

But continuity can also breed an impression of stagnation. Of sticking to the well-trodden path and tried and tested ways. In an age where accelerated change is the norm, a family business story should always strive to dispel this notion. It needs to drive home the point that the legacy of the business is one of spotting new business opportunities, taking calculated risks and never shying away from change. It’s what distinguishes a Marico from an edible oil baron, or a Dabur from a regular vaid. Giving a story this flavour tells readers that this may be an elephant, but an elephant that can dance better than anyone else. 

Where are the stories

Start by talking not just to the family itself, but to all its stakeholders – employees, suppliers and customers. Each will have anecdotes and reflections that can prove to be important waypoints in your storyline. There will be stories of meaningful relationships, of struggles and crises, of roads taken and not taken.  

Next, on to the story itself. When crafting your storyline, it helps to hone the legend of how the business was founded. Of the early challenges, the struggle to put food on the table when money was tight and on the founders’ personalities. This gives the reader a sense of legacy, solidity and purpose. It gives the business personality, differentiating it from the Johnnies-come-lately. 

Lastly, always highlight the fact that the business has been successful because it has been able to keep up with the times. It gives the sense of a business that has a unique knowledge of its markets and its customers. Liberally sprinkle anecdotes of how the business has come up trumps by turning adversity into opportunity – for example, MTR overcoming Emergency-era price controls by diversifying into packaged masalas and ready-to-eat snacks. It’s transformational stories like this that reassure readers that this is a business that has seen it all and is here to stay. 

Startup stories are a tale of hope 

If family business stories have a foot firmly in the past, startups are all about the future. At a time when startup stocks are sinking, employees are being fired and investors are losing money, its only natural that startups are viewed with a healthy dose of scepticism.  

The plot lies in the future 

Telling your startup story right is essential to overcome this view. In the absence of a past legacy, a startup needs to detail, with laser-sharp focus, on what it sees its future impact to be. Every startup looks to shake up established norms, but detailing how it aims at doing so helps strengthen this narrative. 

Before beginning your story, go over your facts down to the minutest detail. Knowing your value, market and investors priorities will give your story a firm foundation and give readers the impression that you know your business inside out.  

Next, given that startups have very little history to show, keep your story tight – simple, straightforward and full of hope. Bring a tone of almost evangelical zeal, showcasing the value of your product or service now and in the future. Make your narrative personal, emphasising with individual examples how what you are doing is going to enrich peoples’ lives. This can compel investors to come to you, rather than you asking them to loosen their purse-strings. Nobody wants to pass over the next hot thing – think Decca Records and the Beatles – so utilize the fear of missing out to make a compelling case for your business. 

To sum up, every business – whether an established family-owned enterprise or a youthful startup – has a story to tell, whether it’s through its advertising, website or a coffee-table book. Telling it right will not only cement your legacy but serve as a compelling reason for stakeholders to ensure its continued success. 

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