A friend posted the query on Facebook, “What opens your heart?” My response was “another open heart.” One of my favorite things is listening to stories. From Garrison Keillor to a friend’s blog (Dave Day’s amazing life) to after-dinner chats with wine in hand. Story is what adds the subjective to the objective, and what makes the objective interesting. It is what makes investing interesting, at least for me. Story, more than any advice, is what sees me through my toughest days and helps me celebrate champagne moments.
Yesterday I was asked to be judgmental. The University of Washington invited me and dozens more to judge, catch breath, The Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition, more concisely known as GSEC. It is an international week-long competition between student teams. They present their business plans for improving the world. Why think small, eh? We judges listen to their stories told many different ways. In previous years I listened to their PowerPoint presentations. Yesterday I listened to their elevator pitches. The school suggests criteria, but effectively, we mock investors were asked to judge the teams the way we would judge any company. These aren’t play companies. The students are serious. Their goals are serious. Sustainable businesses that improve quality of life, health, and pull people out of poverty are built on passionate platforms. So, we were judgmental, and nice about it.
(Pity that I had to leave early, but intuition and serendipity proved it to be a good idea.)
I don’t know who won that round, and the finals aren’t over yet. I do know that I enjoyed talking to the teams. As an investor, one thing I looked for was whether they could tell me the story. Numbers are essential, but after the numbers I wanted to hear why they were doing it, why the customers, suppliers, and locals would want to participate, and whether they would pursue the business regardless of the competition and their education. Numbers can substantiate business plans, but they are based on assumptions. Stories tell me if they are sincere and passionate, and if the people in Bangladesh, India, or the Ukraine want to see them succeed.
Their stories and presentations are online at the GSEC web site, so I won’t repeat them here, but I will pass along a note about two of them. Sanergy, a company that improves human sanitation and turns the product into power, interested me because they turned a negative into a positive, and had a bit of fun with the presentation. It isn’t easy coming up with appealing graphics about a subject that is so graphic. Wello was the other one that pulled me in, partly because of the simplicity and usefulness of a device for transporting water; but what solidified my opinion was the way the presenter could listen to a question and then provide a concise and conversational answer. There was a why to the how.
Story is not enough. Story without substance is hype, or fiction. Story without balance is suspect, or fiction. Fiction is fine. It is the basis for literature, but fiction is best when it epitomizes a truth. Stories that are supposedly real, but that lack a foundation or that only tell one side are only useful to me if I can get a second or third perspective. It is one of the reasons that I use waffle words. Very little is certain and I like leaving open the door that acknowledges those other possibilities. Within the realm of writing, that detracts from the clear, definitive statement, but I think the clear, definitive statement is too often misleading.Take it to an extreme, only use clear definitive statements, and story becomes diatribe and the basis for shock jocks and overblown pundits.
Companies tell stories. It is usually in retrospect that we recognize hype or limited perspective. Investors though must listen to stories in real time and judge whether the story is complete enough. Dendreon (DNDN) has consistently told its story and received lamentations from the investors because the company didn’t expand the tale to include grand possibilities. I like their success, and each new bit of news improves their story. (I wish the stock would reflect that, but oh well, patience lad.) Microvision (MVIS) has a history of over-promising and under-delivering. The word “hype” was used frequently when describing the early CEO, so great things were expected from his replacement because surely the new CEO would be more grounded. Whether through intent, inexperience, naivete, or unfortunate circumstance, the new CEO’s story for Microvision’s future frequently falls shy of reality. If I can’t trust the storyteller, I don’t listen to the story, or I look for other storytellers.
I am in the midst of a story. Each of us is. Over the last few years there have been painful episodes. Many phone calls and emails have centered on unsolicited advice. What I’ve found most useful has been story. Many of my friends are well-educated in various health care modalities: traditional and not, professional and not. Such a breadth of advice means that much is contradictory. Stories have been the most useful. Texts are good resources, but personal experience is most appreciated. One friend advocated many different things and was slightly ticked that I didn’t try them all, yet was surprised when I picked one out of the mix and followed it. To me it was simple. That solution was supported by their direct experience in a situation that was similar to mine. They were surprised that I acted on it because they didn’t consider it advice, just a story. Precisely.
Fiction has its place (as I eagerly await some sci-fi in the mail). But listening to real stories, substantial stories, told with passion and at least a bit of humor and humility is a fine way to spend a day, or an evening, or a life.
Story is powerful. Tell me your story and make it real.