“WHY” – Purpose-driven Entrepreneurial Storytelling

Analysing, Reflecting and Developing Language Use in Studies, Everyday, Professional and Public Life

Authors: Birgitta Borghoff and Nicole Bischof

What makes an entrepreneur unique? – If he succeeds in communicating his entrepreneurial idea and vision clearly, authentically and linguistically comprehensive against the background of his “purpose”. Then we talk about entrepreneurial storytelling.

Many founders, entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs initiating new projects or companies do so without writing a business plan beforehand; they do this more often than one might think. However, new project ideas and organisations rather emerge from the cross-linked communicative exchange of the interested actors than on the basis of a written and binding organisational, let alone communication strategy. As a special form of organizational storytelling (Schach, 2016; Herbst, 2014; Ettl-Huber, 2014) entrepreneurial storytelling refers to the theory of the “communication constitutes organization” paradigm (Cooren, 2015; Schoeneborn & Wehmeier, 2014; McPhee & Zaug, 2009) considering the founding of an organisation as a communicative task (Borghoff, 2017).

Our findings are embedded in the theories of organisational communication (Herger, 2004; Theis-Berglair, 2003) and organisational linguistics (Habscheid, 2003; Müller, 2008; Candlin & Sarangi, 2011) within an economic context. Both acknowledge the constitutive character and formative influence of language use in and on organisations. Against this background, the language that is used by actors and professional practitioners when talking about what they do, can also contribute to the emergence of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs in particular are supposed to tell stories in order to identify, define and legitimise new entrepreneurial projects, initiatives and organisations (Lounsbury & Glynn, 2001).

Our thesis: A large number of start-ups and young companies disappear from the market after only a few years, because the entrepreneurs usually focus on the entrepreneurial “doing” instead of communicating the entrepreneurial vision to a wider public. The long-term sustainable success of new projects and companies, however, strongly depends on how these organisations perform entrepreneurial storytelling, i.e. how they organise their projects better with linguistic and narrative means (Borghoff, 2017).

Research and case context: In her bachelor thesis, Nicole Bischof, former student at the ZHAW bachelor’s programme in communication, used the example of the management consultancy DoDifferent to investigate the extent to which this explicitly and/or implicitly implements entrepreneurial storytelling in practice. She investigated the research question of how entrepreneurial storytelling manifests itself in the company DoDifferent. The aim of the work was to linguistically reconstruct practices of entrepreneurial storytelling.

Founded by Christoph Jordi in 2012, DoDifferent currently employs seven people. The company provides strategy consulting and focuses on the positioning and employer brand of its clients. In her research, Bischof examined how employees of the company and individual customers communicate about themselves and how they apply entrepreneurial storytelling.

Research framework: The research project was supervised by Birgitta Borghoff, researcher and lecturer at the ZHAW Institute for Applied Media Studies. In terms of theory and methodology, the research is based on Borghoff’s grounded theory model for entrepreneurial storytelling (2018) and focuses on the aspect of practices of entrepreneurial storytelling. In her case study with projects in the cultural and creative field, Borghoff linguistically reconstructed the following four key practices (ibid.; see also the following post in this blog: https://entrepreneurialstorytelling.net/2016/12/21/einfach-machen-ueber-entrepreneurial-storytelling/)

  1. Curating & Innovating
  2. Entrepreneurial Strategising & Organising (i.e. the “making” of strategically relevant artifacts)
  3. Telling & Cooperating
  4. Researching and Learning

Bischof extended Borghoff’s model with Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle” approach as part of her Bachelor’s thesis. Sinek writes:

“As it turns out, all the great inspiring leaders and organizations in the world, whether it’s Apple or Martin Luther King or the Wright brothers, they all think, act and communicate the exact same way. (…) I call it the golden circle. WHY? HOW? WHAT? People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

(Sinek, 2011: 43).

The focus of Bischofs research not only was on the analysis of entrepreneurial storytelling practices (Borghoff, 2018), but also on the identification of additional discursive markers that tell something about the “why”, “what” and “how” of DoDifferent.

Data material: The empirical case analysis is based on a corpus of seven texts (web texts, strategy papers, etc.) and three narrative interviews (Küsters, 2009) with the founder, an employee and a customer of the company. In methodological terms, Bischof combined Borghoff’s entrepreneurial storytelling analysis (2018) and Bendel Larcher’s discourse analysis (2015) based on Breuer’s reflective grounded theory approach (2010). 

Key Findings: The analysis shows that entrepreneurial storytelling by and at DoDifferent essentially feeds on entrepreneurial practices (e.g. “tackle”, “establish”), strategic practices (e.g. “define”, “identify”), collaborative and communicative practices (such as “support” and “accompany” or “tell” and “listen”) as well as specific emergent practices (e.g. “something emerges”, “something arises from an idea”). In combination with above mentionend practices and based on Sineks (2011) “why”, “how”, “what” approach, DoDifferent’s entrepreneurial story can be reconstructed as follows:

Reconstructed story of DoDifferent (own depiction according to Bischof & Borghoff)

Interpretation: On the one hand, the findings show that various key practices from Borghoff’s model (2018) can also be demonstrated in an economic context. On the other hand, it becomes clear that the “why” has a special meaning in the investigated case. This in turn confirms a current trend that people not only buy products, but more than ever the idea behind a product; in the case of DoDifferent the conviction that happy employees make a company more successful. 

Our conclusions: The various aspects of entrepreneurial storytelling are supposed to support entrepreneurs in telling and framing their entrepreneurial visions in such a way that both the idea and the offer (“what”) as well as the communicative actions of the employees (i.e. the “how” of the language practices) reflect the underlying entrepreneurial purpose (“why”) and make it linguistically comprehensible. Then the narrative entrepreneurial uniqueness is able to unfold and new purpose-driven companies can legitimise themselves sustainably in the long term. This becomes possible when entrepreneurs explicitly and consciously tell what they do. Not only among themselves, but also in public networks and different arenas of communication. Then entrepreneurial success stories can be written. Discursive “follow-up” communication then is able to succeed. In this way, the narrative identity of projects and organisations becomes tangible and effective in the public sphere (Borghoff, 2017). In this sense, entrepreneurial storytelling not only provides an entrepreneurial but also a social added value for individual entrepreneurs, start-ups and young enterprises.


Bendel Larcher, S. (2015). Linguistische Diskursanalyse: ein Lehr- und Arbeitsbuch. Tübingen: Narr (Narr Studienbücher).

Borghoff, B. (2017). Entrepreneurial storytelling: Narrative Praktiken und Designstrategien in der Projekt- und Organisationsentwicklung. In: Perrin, Daniel; Kleinberger, Ulla (Hg.). Doing Applied Linguistics. Enabling Transdisciplinary Communication (175-184). De Gruyter Collection. Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter. Peer reviewed.

Borghoff, B. (2018). „Entrepreneurial storytelling as Narrative Practice in Project and Organizational Development“. In: Entrepreneurship in culture and creative industries: perspectives from companies and regions (63-83). New York, NY: Springer International Publishing AG (FGF Studies in Small Business and Entrepreneurship).

Breuer, F. (2010). Reflexive Grounded Theory: Eine Einführung für die Forschungspraxis. 2. Aufl. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

Candlin, C. N., & Sarangi, S. (Hrsg.) (2011). Handbook of communication in organisations and professions (Bd. 3, Handbooks of applied linguistics). Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. Curriculum Vitaes

Cooren, F. (2015). Organizational discourse. Communication and constitution (Key themes in organizational communication). Cambridge: Polity Press.

Ettl-Huber, S. (2014). Storypotenziale, Stories und Storytelling in der Organisationskommunikation. In S. Ettl-Huber (Hrsg.). Storytelling in der Organisationskommunikation (S. 9–26). Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien.

Habscheid, S. (2003). Sprache in der Organisation. Sprachreflexive Verfahren im systemischen Beratungsgespräch. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Herbst, D. (2014). Storytelling (3. Aufl.). Konstanz: UVK.

Herger, N. (2004). Organisationskommunikation. Beobachtung und Steuerung eines organisationalen Risikos. Wiesbaden: Springer.

Küsters, I. (2009). Narrative Interviews: Grundlagen und Anwendungen. 2. Aufl. Wiesbaden: VS, Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften (Hagener Studientexte zur Soziologie).

Lounsbury, M. & Glynn, M. A. (2001). „Cultural entrepreneurship: stories, legitimacy, and the acquisition of resources“. In: Strategic Management Journal. 22 (6–7), 545–564.

McPhee, R. D. & Zaug, P. (2009). The communicative constitution of organisations. A Framework for Explanation. In Putnam, L. L. & Nicotera. A. M. (Hrsg.). Building theories of organization. The constitutive role of communication (21–47). New York: Routledge.

Müller, A. P. (2008). Aufgabenfelder einer Linguistik der Organisation. In Menz, F. & Müller, A. P. (Hrsg.). Organisationskommunikation (S. 17–46). München: Rainer Hampp Verlag

Schach, A. (2016). Storytelling und Narration in den Public Relations: Eine textlinguistische Untersuchung der Unternehmensgeschichte. Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien.

Schoeneborn, D. & Wehmeier, S. (2014). Kommunikative Konstitution von Organisationen. In A. Zerfaß & M. Piwinger (Hg.): Handbuch Unternehmenskommunikation. 411-429. Springer: Wiesbaden.

Sinek, S. (2011). Start with why: how great leaders inspire everyone to take action. Paperback ed. with a new preface and new afterword. New York, NY: Portfolio, Penguin.

Theis-Berglmair, A. M. (2003). Organisationskommunikation. Theoretische Grundlagen und empirische Forschungen. 2. Aufl. Hamburg, Münster, London.

Becoming an Entrepreneurial Storyteller by Research-Based Teaching

Why entrepreneurial thinking, acting and communicating are important to me and how I deal with “Entrepreneurial Storytelling” in research-based teaching I tell about and reflect upon in the Lifelong Learning Blog of the PHZH.

This blog article is in German only! – The German title is: “Durch forschungsbasierte Lehre zum Entrepreneurial Storyteller werden”.

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Einfach machen ~ über Entrepreneurial Storytelling

This repost is in German only.

brückenwege blog

Sprache ist ein zentraler Bestandteil von Unternehmertum. Sie trägt zum Entstehen, Wachsen und Gedeihen von neuen Projekten und Organisationen mit bei. Dadurch, dass Menschen miteinander sprechen und sich interaktiv austauschen, d.h. kommunikativ miteinander vernetzen, entstehen – oftmals nebenbei und unbeabsichtigt – neue Ideen und Visionen. Manchmal auch erste Entwurfsskizzen von Dingen, die zunächst in visueller Form in Erscheinung treten, weil sie noch nicht schriftsprachlich „benannt“ werden können. Auf diese Weise nehmen erste Ideen oder Lösungsansätze für gesamtgesellschaftliche Fragestellungen sprachliche Gestalt an und werden damit sichtbar. So emergieren und manifestieren sich schliesslich ganze Unternehmen.

Darüber, wie durch “einfach Machen” Entrepreneurial Storytelling geschieht, schreibe ich gemeinsam mit Prof. Dr. Peter Stücheli-Herlach in der aktuellen Ausgabe des KM Magazin von Kulturmanagement Network mit dem Schwerpunkt “Kulturunternehmen”. Peter Stücheli-Herlach ist Leiter des Forschungsbereichs OKÖ Organisationskommunikation und Öffentlichkeit am IAM Institut für Angewandte Medienwissenschaft des ZHAW Departements Angewandte Linguistik, an dem auch ich beruflich…

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Wie Neues entsteht – über Entrepreneurial Storytelling

This repost on how something new is created by Entrepreneurial Storytelling, published in the blog of the IAM Institute for Applied Media Science, ZHAW, Winterthur is in German only.

brückenwege blog

Darüber, wie durch Entrepreneurial Storytelling Neues entsteht, schreibe ich heute im Blog des IAM Institut für Angewandte Medienwissenschaft, ZHAW, Winterthur.

Direkt zum Beitrag geht es hier.



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Cultural Entrepreneurship

Management Summary: The attached paper is a literature study on the subject: Cultural entrepreneurship – Summary of selected literary contributions in view of an interdisciplinary concept. By answering the research question of what cultural entrepreneurship means in the studied literature this paper aims to present selected literary contributions to the concept of cultural entrepreneurship.

Source: Borghoff, Birgitta (2005). Cultural Entrepreneurship: Summary of selected literary contributions in view of an interdisciplinary concept. Master thesis in the postgraduate course Arts Management (unpublished). Winterthur: ZHAW School of Management & Law, Center for Arts Management

Download master thesis “Cultural Entrepreneurship (German language)

(German titel of the thesis: Cultural Entrepreneurship: Zusammenfassende Darstellung ausgewählter Literaturbeiträge zu einem interdisziplinären Konzept. Diplomarbeit im Nachdiplomstudiengang Kulturmanagement (unveröffentlicht). Winterthur: ZHAW School of Management & Law, Zentrum für Kulturmanagement.)

Based on the findings from entrepreneurship research, the author investigates the following thesis: Entrepreneurship research is interdisciplinary in content and method. Immediate economic and practical aspects can be transferred to the cultural sector. From this point of view work in the cultural sector and entrepreneurship are not contradictory.

The work is divided into 5 chapters. Following the introduction, the conceptual basis for understanding culture and entrepreneurship is given in chapter 2. The underlying research question is examined in chapters 3 and 4. When answering the question, the author examines the concrete faculty areas of the respective authors, as well as the scientific, societal and political-social contexts the written texts are embedded in. This is followed by a description of the method in order to summarize the relevant contents of the concept of cultural entrepreneurship. Finally, the author investigates the respective goals and intentions of the authors whilst writing down their contributions. Chapter 5 reflects on the results and concludes with an outlook.

In the following, the key findings of the study will be summarized. Entrepreneurship is primarily not a question of acquired specialist and management knowledge. In contrast qualities such as a good intuition and perception, innovation, risk-taking and networking skills have an influence on the success of a (cultural) company as well as the understanding of one’s own biographical experiences. The self-responsibility for one’s own ideas, as well as entrepreneurial thinking and acting in harmony with the social values, are other important aspects of cultural entrepreneurship.

Due to the scarcity of public funds, new cultural offers are being developed with regard to their social legitimacy, before a financial guarantee can be granted. For this reason, leaders or managers of cultural institutions must develop entrepreneurial skills and abilities to succeed in the marketplace. An innovative marketing approach combined with an efficient marketing strategy that implies targeted visitor and target group analyses, might lead to an increase in audience numbers. Also the entering of strategic partnerships and increased involvement in communities can foster to positively influence and create a positive image of a cultural enterprise, an thus enthral important stakeholders.

Due to the inadequate economic knowledge of artists and directors of cultural institutions, an integration of university teaching and practice is required; this is entrepreneurship in artistic, humanistic and cultural education. The aim is to prepare young people for the challenges in the private sector, in the cultural and educational life whilst taking the initiative and establish themselves as cultural entrepreneurs in the market. In return, entrepreneurship research has to consider the cultural and symbolic dimensions of entrepreneurship, allowing for the development of a company in the first place. In future, these have to be strongly integrated into theory and practice.

In the eyes of the author the development of a theoretically and practically sound model of cultural entrepreneurship as well as the development of case studies on cultural entrepreneurs in cultural and business enterprises is crucial to contribute to the removal of barriers between the various disciplines. Thus, culture will be given a proper place within the economy as well as economy takes its place within the cultural sector. By presenting different views on the concept of cultural entrepreneurship, the present literature study offers a basis for further scientific research activities for the development of a model of cultural entrepreneurship.