March 15, 2022

Who am I to do this?

Kyle Hietala

“Your website looks great,” my partner, commented, “but it doesn’t say anything about why you’re qualified to do this.”

“The website is the argument,” I replied. “The storytelling, design, writing…all of this signals what I’m capable of.”

“But you don’t say anywhere on your website that you did all of it yourself,” he countered. My best friend had said the same a couple hours earlier.

They were right: I was underselling myself. I’m new to the game, which means I don’t have a track record yet. No case studies, no testimonials, no client logos for eye candy.

It’s a chicken-egg problem, like the, “how do I get a job without relevant experience?” and “how do I get relevant experience without a job?”

The startup world loves big-swing bravado. I could argue that being a continental debate champion with the best collegiate team sets me up to be a killer narrative writer. I could highlight how going through Teach For America, teaching English to 7th & 8th graders, sets me up to wrangle even the stubbornest founders. Or I could talk about how building marketing from scratch and writing a foundational narrative for my last company, SigFig, battle-tested me. 

But smart founders would call BS. All of those are cross-applied experiences; they’re not direct. Like most founders, I’m placing a bet on myself and making a commitment to hustle until I win my wager. And I know the odds are stacked against me: service businesses are perennial doozies; and few things are fluffier on face than ‘foundational narratives.’ Fresh off a re-read of The Intelligent Investor, I’d tell you to short me. (Fresh off an hour in r/WSB, I'd tell you different things.)

Here’s what I’ve learned about stories: if they’re not raw, reflective, and honest, they’re doomed. The reason we love stories is because we relate to them. They’re the footsteps from our shoes to someone else’s. They’re the process through which we empathize to expand our understanding. 

If that sounds too much like a horoscope, you’re right and wrong. Right: for startups, stories have to be grounded in hard data, rigorous evidence, and simple facts. Good luck walking up Sand Hill Road with only a, “we’re saving the world with technology” gospel. Wrong: for startups, stories aren’t just about stringing together industry jargon and trendy metrics. They’re a synthesis of real and aspirational. They’re part data and evidence, part humanity and vision. Thinking and feeling aren't opposites; they're complements.

So who am I to create the foundational narratives of startups? I’m all-in: this is my singular focus. Having debated, taught, sold, marketed, and done lots of other communication-focused activities, I’m convinced that bad communication is often the spark that has ignited many a dumpster-fire. 

High achiever, low ego: that’s my brand. I’m at once excellent at what I do and also receptive to feedback. Something I don't like about consultants and agencies are the egos: here are my frameworks for organizational theories of excellence, here are my processes for sure-fire success, etc. By the way, watch my TED talk and buy my Amazon bestseller! I want to see a collective shove-it-up-your-asses moment for all this self-aggrandizing stuff. I work unreasonably hard for founders, that's it.

My stance is this: I write and design exceptional narratives; and each is better than the last, because I’m always looking to improve and grow.  If you’re not obsessed with improvement and growth, you can’t claim to be exceptional. To be exceptional, you have to do a lot of bad work first, know it’s bad, and then revise it until it’s shippable. Narratives are a process, a journey from scattered ideas and fragments of thoughts to a unified, cohesive story that flows like a fresh freestyle and soars like a sopranic serenade. 

Who am I to do this? I’m not sure yet. But I know why I’m doing this, who I’m doing it for, and how I’m going to do it. For now, those are the questions that matter to me, because my compass points toward helping founders build, grow, and scale. Let’s let the tape roll and we’ll see in a while who I was to do this. Today, tomorrow, and at least the day after, I’m doing this.

Clear, candid reflections & thoughts.

I probably hate BS more than you: I taught middle schoolers and then I worked in brand marketing. Grab your shovel.

One high-quality, in-depth essay per month.