“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.


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About entrepreneurialstorytelling

Birgitta Borghoff, MA, MAS ZFH Creative Entrepreneur, Entrepreneurial Researcher and Holistic Life Coach

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