Hero’s Dilemma

The Hero’s Dilemma is not realizing that you don’t always have to be the hero. And you don’t always have to the guide.

If you’ve read Storybrand, maybe the hero-villain-guide paradigm hooked you. To summarize for those who haven’t read it:

  • you’re not the hero (of your brand story)
  • your customer is
  • you’re just the guide
  • and only together can you defeat the villain

So how do you talk about your brand without casting yourself as the hero? Or do you.

This is a keen question in the world of B2B startups. In this world, there are two major types – spinoff startups and plain old startups.

Spin-off startups are founded by owners (or sometimes execs) of established solutions businesses of some kind. Like Basecamp funded by the services of 37Signals, a web design and development company.

There are tens of thousands of other anonymous examples – software firms, consulting firms, digital agencies, and even less tech-related businesses: law firms, mortgage brokerages, insurance companies, logistics companies, medical companies, and so on.

Based on new market problems they observe, such businesses often get the idea for a specialized kind of solution, usually packaged as a SaaS product, mobile app, a two-way marketplace (the hardest to pull off), or a web-based, productized service. It’s a new way for them to monetize their expertise.

Spin-off startups are also usually run by an experienced team, a hunting party, who knows how to run a successful business together – and how to hire talent to help them do so.

By the way, this is the better kind of startup client to engage with as an independent consultant. As vgr says:

Choose hunting-party clients over individuals or impersonal organizations

Startup companies are the weird kind that everyone thinks of when they hear the word “startup”.

These have largely become a way for the investor classes to transfer wealth from one generation to the next. And on a similar token, startups are ways for enterprise businesses to expand to new markets or at least dabble in them.

In rare cases, startup investors do effect the transfer of wealth to middle-class founders without significant corporate experience. Rand Fishkin documents how the worlds of millionaire investors and middle-class dreamers collide in Lost and Founder.

In even rarer cases, founders are bootstrapped (not funded by investors or by the profits of an already established business). In the B2B world, it’s hard to bootstrap a product solution without having first built a consulting or other services business and thus learned a few ropes.

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It’s hard for bootstrappers to cast themselves as the guide instead of the hero, especially once traction is achieved. Because they are kind of heroes.

It’s equally hard for founders of funded startups to resist hero-dom. At least in my experience.

Looking for some data to back up that hunch, I had a quick look at the description text of funded Ycombinator startups in the B2B category.

If you filter for young startups (10 or fewer employees) and compare that with mature startups (200 or more employees), you’ll see a clear trend: you.

In the mature startups’ description, one observes the use of the word, “you” or “your”, either explicitly or by implication. This is because they have learned to cast their customers as the hero and their solutions as the assistant, per the Storybrand paradigm.

Of course, it’s easier for them to do so after they reach market and/or VC-world validation. Before that happens, they’re still pitching themselves to investors. Fundraising instead of selling. And on top of that, they have the media celebrating startup founders as cultural heroes. Or the startup world micro-media of social media accounts celebrating their successes.

This validation not a bad thing per se, but it apparently discourages them from thinking about how their customers as heroes – dealing with real life pain-in-the-ass villains.

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See how much easier it is for the spinoff startup brand, with founders coming from a long-term services firm? They don’t need the validation because they’ve already built a sustainable business. They don’t need to be the hero all the time because they’re used to being the guide. That’s basically what consulting is.

In fact, they’re happy to be both the guide and the hero.

Thus they have solved the hero’s dilemma, which is realizing that every hero has to step into the guide role from time to time. And vice-versa.

Now let’s zoom out from the startup world – whatever your business, do you cast yourself as hero, guide, or a little of both? 

Have a great weekend (: