We all love rags-to-riches stories.
In fact, most successful businesses we look up to for inspiration today started off with a less-than-inspirational beginning:
- Starbucks founder Howard Schultz started off in a lower-class family in the Brooklyn projects and eventually grew to run the most successful coffee chain in the world.
- Xerox CEO and chairwoman Ursula Burns went from living in a gang-filled Lower East Side to becoming the first African-American woman to run a Fortune 500 company.
- Infamous author J.K. Rowling went from being recently divorced and living on welfare to becoming a best-selling writer whose name often shows up on the Forbes’ billionaire list.
I could go on and on about how many of the world’s most successful people didn’t start off anywhere near where they are today. Their stories are full of struggle they’ve managed to overcome and they’re willing to share them every chance they get.
Why are we so fascinated with backstories – especially those with rags-to-riches themes?
It’s because we can see ourselves in early versions of Rowling, Oprah, and even female-versions of Howard Schultz. We see them overcome similar challenges we’re facing and we think, “well, if they can do it, I can too.”
Why Your Backstory is Important
What if your business isn’t the most popular coffee chain in the world, a best-selling franchise of fantasy fiction, or listed anywhere near the Fortune 500 list?
No matter where your business is at – whether you launched two weeks ago or have been rocking the socks off your customers for 30 years – every brand has a backstory.
It’s that backstory that establishes the foundation for your brand story and tells your customer who you are and what you’re all about.
Your business’ backstory accomplishes a few things:
- It helps your business stand out – Two companies selling similar products can stand out because of the story of how and why they got to where they are today.
- It backs up your vision – TOMS shoes provides shoes to children in under-developed countries because the founder Blake Mycoskie noticed hundreds of children going bare-foot in his travels, not just because it’s good PR.
- It connects you with your audience – If your backstory aligns with your audience’s values and vision of themselves, they’ll form a deeper connection with your brand.
Now that you understand how having a backstory can benefit you and your business, lets get down to how to actually put one together.
How To Write Your Backstory
1. Create a timeline (working backwards)
Before you can write a compelling backstory, you must know which points to include. That’s where the timeline comes in.
If you’re anything like me, it can be difficult to remember every incident that brought you to this point. That’s why we’re going to work backwards.
Start with where you are today. Then, think about what you did right before this that brought you to this point. The next step is to go back even further. Keep going until you can’t remember anymore.
Here’s the first portion of mine:
- Sept 2018 – I’m a digital marketing & content writing freelancer specializing in women-owned businesses
- June 2018 – Took the leap & quit the full-time job
- March 2018 – Went to Ladies Get Paid conference and realized my path is to help women-owned businesses
- July 2017 – Realized values do not align with job
- June 2017 – Started job as marketing coordinator
I could keep going further and further back, but it would take a lot more space, but you get the point. The goal is to get as much of your life as possible, including anything that could have potentially lead you to this point.
If you’re not sure about an event/decision, ask yourself: would I be here today if I didn’t make the decision I made at this point?
2. Turn your timeline into a three-act story structure
Now that you have a timeline in-hand, it’s time to give it a little bit of structure. We’re going to be turning your backstory in the three-act structure.
This is a little bit of what this looks like using my own backstory:
Act One (Setup)
- Exposition (the background & context): Grew up in a family of entrepreneurs, read and wrote all the time, wrote my first novella at 13, decided to become a writer/CEO in high school
- Inciting Incident (what sets things in motion, the “call to adventure”): Went to college and studied journalism & film for two years
- Plot Point One (what launched you to achieve your goal): Transitioned to fashion marketing, became interested in using storytelling in marketing, and got a job managing eCommerce & digital marketing
Act Two (Confrontation)
- Rising Action (where your journey takes form & you start to encounter roadblocks): I graduate college and begin working full-time, traveling to Europe for three months and come back, move to Seattle and begin to realize I’m being overworked and underpaid for my position.
- Midpoint (a significant event that threatens your primary goal): I hit a low point where I started having mental breakdowns almost every day, felt extremely undervalued and unempowered, and underpaid. I know I want to start my business but feel as though I need more experience and more financial stability.
- Plot Point Two (time to reflect on the conflict and come up with a new solution): I start journaling, meditating, talking to people and trying to figure out what to do next. I end up applying for jobs and taking interviews.
Act Three (Resolution)
- Pre-Climax (the final clash – you’ve almost reached your goal, but not quite): I find a new job with a higher salary, quit my previous one, and am excited about moving forward in a direction where I’ll get paid what I’m worth for work I love to do. Soon into the job, I realize this is not the right place for me and I start experiencing misogyny and underappreciation. I begin to slide back into frustration, anxiety, and depression and know it’s time to create my own path.
- Climax (the final moments of your overarching conflict that leads to your resolution): I spend a few months saving up as much money as I can, planning my business, and scheduling an end date. After one more meeting where my value is directly undermined, I throw in the towel and submit my one-month notice.
- Denouement (tying up loose ends, realizing your goal, and getting to where you are today): Three months later, I’m running my business and working on growing it to success. I’m helping women-owned businesses realize their own success by building their companies through their stories.
The three-act structure is a classic outline writers and storytellers use to create a compelling narrative. It takes your loose timeline and turns it into key points which will formulate your story.
You can learn more about each piece of the three-act structure here.
3. Fit the pieces together in a compelling narrative
Whew – you’ve just finished the hard part which is putting everything together in an outline. If you’re anything like me, outlines can be hard. However, when you’re struggling with the writer’s block of talking about yourself, they can be a useful tool to make sure you include the pieces of your backstory which matter the most.
Yet, you can’t just simply copy and paste this structure into your About page.
Instead, you must write your story and put everything together. It doesn’t have to be a long backstory; in fact, it should only be a few paragraphs – just enough to get your message across.
A great way to get outside of your own head is to write about yourself as if you’re writing about a third-party character. Pretend you’re writing a story and you have a character whose journey happens to look a lot like yours.
Clean it all up and send it to a few trusted colleagues, friends, and/or family to review. Once it’s all set to go, it’s time to put that bad boy on your About page along with a few other elements.