A version of this article previously appeared in Forbes.
Marcia Brown’s 1947 retelling of the classic French folktale Stone Soup is a de facto playbook for how to start a venture.
In Ms. Brown’s version of this oft-told tale, three soldiers enter a small town during a time of war. Initially, all of the villagers flee to their modest homes and shun the soldiers’ request for food and lodging. However, the villagers do not realize that these travelers are not merely foraging soldiers. They soon learn that they are entrepreneurs who will launch a magical venture that involves a restorative meal, a communal celebration and reassurance that better days are ahead.
While gathering stones with which to make stone soup, the soldiers describe to each other how delectable their soup will be, piquing the villagers’ curiosity. Intrigued, the villagers individually make small contributions to the pot of stones and boiling water: a few radishes, a couple of carrots, a handful of potatoes, eventually resulting in a meal that surpasses anything the townsfolk have eaten in recent memory.
Depending on your child’s age, you can either overtly or subtly communicate the various start-up lessons described below as you share Stone Soup with them.
Something From Nothing
Lesson: Creating something from nothing is intoxicating and contagious
One of the most powerful lessons from Stone Soup is also the most obvious. Every entrepreneur is faced with making something out of nothing. When a venture is conceived, it is merely an idea. As the story illustrates, entrepreneurs manifest their ideas by rallying a motivated team and supplying them with the necessary resources.
When the soldiers carefully gather the pile of stones and announce that they will make stone soup, the villagers respond, “Stone soup? That would be something to know about.”
Just like the soldiers, entrepreneurs must communicate a similar aspirational vision in order to motivate their stakeholders (employees, vendors and investors) to join their team, throw their resources “into the collective pot” and share in the resulting creation. True success is when your venture creates wealth in excess of the sum of the participants’ individual contributions.
Lesson: Prototypes bring your venture’s story to life
Your child will also learn the value of a tangible representation of a venture. In a pivotal scene from his book Start-up, Jerry Kaplan describes how he mesmerized a group of jaded Kleiner Perkins VCs by throwing his leather portfolio onto a conference table and dramatically describing it as a handheld device that could digitize handwriting. As Kaplan spoke, the VCs passed around his ordinary portfolio, envisioning the future of handheld devices.
In Stone Soup, the soldiers’ prototypes are the stones. As the soldiers collect the rocks and describe the delectable soup they are making, the villagers begin to view them as something more than mere stones, just as the otherwise sophisticated Kleiner Perkins team’s imagination was ignited by Kaplan’s humble portfolio. Prototypes bring the entrepreneur’s story to life by giving stakeholders a foundation upon which they can anchor their imaginations.
Ask For No Money
Lesson: People contribute to exciting, dynamic ventures, not those in need
Stone Soup also makes clear that one of the most effective techniques for acquiring an investment is to not ask for money. As the saying goes, “Investors want to give you an umbrella when the sun is shining and then they take it away at the first hint of a coming storm.”
Thus, meet with investors before you need capital, in order to: (i) alert them as to the existence and nature of your venture, (ii) obtain some free advice, and most importantly, (iii) pique their curiosity so they will be receptive to your future updates.
After your meetings, send the VCs brief updates, highlighting the accomplishment of the key milestones. This will demonstrate your ability to execute your plan, and alert them as to your venture’s momentum and progress.
Start With A Big Pot
Lesson: A big opportunity allows all stakeholders to be adequately rewarded
After the stones are gathered, the soldier’s initial requests are innocuous. Instead of asking for food, they simply request a large pot and water. It is unlikely a small pot would have sufficiently captured the villagers’ imaginations, as they would have assumed that the ensuing meal would be solely for the soldiers’ benefit. A large plot implied that there would be plenty of soup to be shared by all who assisted the soldiers.
Share The Bounty And Celebrate
Lesson: Feed your stakeholders before you feed yourself by creating a celebratory culture
Once the soup is prepared, the soldiers first share it with the villagers before they partake themselves. The soldiers do not just stand around the pot slurping the soup and then trudge off to bed. Instead, they encourage the villagers to bring out a large table, and thus turn the preparation and consumption of the soup into a communal celebration.
Entrepreneurs often get caught up in day-to-day challenges and do not allocate sufficient time to celebrate their venture’s small victories. However, it pays to create a culture of celebration.
Sell The Smell
Lesson: A limitless future is easier to sell than yesterday’s finite reality
The smell of money is seductive because it is bound only by the entrepreneur’s ability to communicate their vision. Much like the impoverished soldiers, in the early stages of your venture, you often have to sell the sizzle because you have no steak. The soldiers understand the power of selling the smell as evidenced by their lurid description of the soup, which causes the villagers to imagine a fantastic meal and motivates them to contribute to the venture.
Fool No One
Lesson: Deliver equitable value to all stakeholders
A cynical adult might conclude that the soldiers duped the unsuspecting villagers into sharing their food and gave nothing of value in return. Wrong. The soldiers do not con the villagers out of their food and hospitality. In return for the meal, the soldiers give the villagers several gifts – a temporary respite from their war-weary existence, hope for the future, and a timely reminder of the power of a cohesive community. They demonstrate that if the townsfolk can make a fantastic meal from stones, anything is possible.
Dishonest entrepreneurs are unsuccessful in the long run. They may be able to temporarily fool their stakeholders, but their dishonesty will eventually become evident. Successful, serial entrepreneurs know that honesty is a competitive advantage. As such, they communicate with their stakeholders in an honest and transparent manner.
You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse.
Image credit: jarmoluk via Pixabay