How Do You Tell A Good Story From A Dangerous One?

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Tuesday, 8.23pm

Sheffield, U.K.

If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story. – Orson Welles

The news is full of stories about the collapse of Greensill Capital – the disruptive fintech that turned out to have little tech and which employed that age old financial instrument – the long con. Greensill Capital’s founder, Lex Greensill, was feted and celebrated around the world. And then the company went bust this month. Another meltdown, this time of a hedge fund called Archegos run by another billionaire, Bill Hwang, seems to be a story of banks falling over themselves to lend to someone with a chequered history because they wanted the fees that would result.

So, there are dangerous stories – people with power and connections pushing a narrative that ends up hurting others. But could you have worked this out before the fact? Was there anything that would have warned us that these people couldn’t be trusted? I suppose you might as well ask if you could have predicted Hitler and everything else that happened after he came to power. Some people would argue you could, others will argue the opposite. Both may be right.

How about the story you tell yourself about your career and your life choices? Or the story you come up with for a new business idea or a project? Or the story about your next year’s business plan. What’s the difference between one kind of story and another?

The reason I’m thinking about this is that I need to come up with a few stories – ones that can convince me that certain projects are worth doing. So what should we consider as we try and create a narrative?

Warren Buffett is usually helpful here so let me draw on what I remember from reading his letters.

It starts with the opportunity. Whether it’s a business or a project or an idea – the first thing you need to ask yourself is whether it has a moat. Why is it protected from the competition, what does it have that sets it apart? Specifically, what does it do that is hard to copy, difficult to replicate, impossible to catch up with? The bigger your moat, the more likely that you have something that has a chance of succeeding.

The second thing you need to ask is whether you have your timing right. Why do this now? What is it about the environment, about what’s going on that means now is the time for this idea to be released into the world? Why will it take off? Why will people realise that this is the thing that they never knew they always wanted?

The third thing you need to understand is the character of the management. And if you are the manager – you must understand your own character. Why should people trust you? Why should they believe in you – why should they be certain that you will do everything you can to do what you have said you will do?

For many of us these are three hard tests. Our ideas may not be unique. The world may not be ready. And we may not be committed to the thing we are pitching.

If that’s the case, don’t bother to pitch at all. But if you have these elements in place or you are willing to work on them – then you might have something that you believe in. And if you believe in it, perhaps others will as well.

Maybe that’s when you’ll have a good story to tell.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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