My New Product Mantra: Start With The Story

Building your product is way easier when you start with the story.

My New Product Mantra: Start With The Story

In this weekly series, I opine on how words affect the way we understand the products and services around us. I do this for your entertainment and education (and, of course, to remind you that if you’re looking for a freelance copy, content, product, or technical writer… yada yada, hire me.

Here’s a fun fact about me: I have a thing for good commercials. Okay, a “thing” is a bit of an understatement: I’m obsessed with good commercials. I fawn over them. I force my friends to watch them. I dissect them and discuss them in lengthy diatribes. Don’t even get me started on Susan Glenn.

I believe commercials to be the haiku of modern story-telling, as with similar constraints comes similar functional beauty when done well. Telling a compelling story in 60 seconds is fucking hard, but when done right, those stories can compel action and persuade masses like no other.

Given this obsession, then, you shouldn’t be surprised that the subject of today’s post is one such commercial: the overview of The Light Phone 2.

The Light Phone 2, in all its hipster glory.

Wait, What Are We Talking About?

The Light Phone 2 is an upcoming product that fits neatly into the ongoing resurgence of the dumb phone — so neatly that it has become something of a poster boy for the movement.

While technology-wise the phone is somewhat interesting — its e-ink display and slim form factor are as alluring as its minimalistic operating system — the product is receiving widespread acclaim and adoption for one reason and one reason alone.

It is telling a great story.

What Happens

Most great products are born from customer insights. Great product companies have for decades done everything possible to connect with customers, to discover new problems, and to deliver compelling solutions.

However, for product companies, too often the solution itself becomes the “thing” once those insights are captured.

Product thinkers tend to get obsessed about the form factor, the specs, the user experience or user interface or the line of copy in the app. We get lost in the functional myopia and forget the humanity of the problem the product was born to solve. We expect our products, which check all the boxes, to be discovered and to sell themselves by virtue of their capability.

And yet, the story behind the product is just as if not more important than the product itself.

So what does this have to do with commercials and the Light Phone 2?

Well, first, consider that the Light Phone 2 has already drummed up more attention (and $1MM USD in pre-orders more) than any other dumb phone on the market to date — and it’s not even on the market yet.

Then, consider the relative marketing and R&D investments of Nokia and Motorola, who each have heavily invested in the dumb phone market and have the powerful tool of nostalgia at their disposal.

The Result

How, then, did the Light Phone 2 become such a rousing success? It happened with a single commercial.

In one minute and forty-seven seconds, the makers of the Light Phone 2 manage to tell a crisp, clearly-articulated, and compelling story — a story that demonstrates a keen understanding of the customer it’s targeting and the problem it’s trying to solve for that customer.

What makes the Light Phone 2 video so effective? It perfectly executes on structured story-telling:

  • The protagonist is introduced and clearly related to the audience (read: angsty millennials).
  • The protagonist is set in a distant but weirdly-relatable environment of discomfort (read: generic metro areas and tableaus)
  • The protagonist faces a challenge we can relate to (read: smartphone obsession and feeling disconnected from life)
  • The protagonist finds a way to overcome the challenge (insert product here)
  • The protagonist overcomes adversity and succeeds (insert happy montage of tech liberation)

Most importantly, like any great commercial, there remain enough questions to warrant further time investment yet in its audience it accrued enough emotional investment to drive a call-to-action (in this case, a pre-order).

Is the Light Phone 2 the best phone on the market? Absolutely not. Will it be easy to fix once broken? Definitely not. Will the company behind it even exist in 10 years? Probably not.

But what the team behind the Light Phone 2 has done so well is connect what it’s building to the story it wants to tell, and the impact of that story-telling on its success is clear.

In many ways, it’s hard to separate the story from the product: they were designed together, and that’s what makes the entire offering so appealing — and effective.

The Takeaway

I think that notion—that a product should have a story and that its story should be inseperable from itself—is one we should as product developers take note of.

We should know what story our product is trying to tell before we even build it, because it is the story that will ultimately drive adoption of the products we build, not just the features themselves.

In many ways, the arc of a story ties very neatly into our lean canvases and our value proposition designs. Why then do so few of us take the time to plan for that story from day one?

We as product folk should take more pride in those stories. We should be working with our go-to-market teams way before we build a thing; we should be aligning on the story we want to tell and then working to deliver on that story, not building a feature and then trying to wrap a story around it.

I know Simon Sinek has the monopoly on “Start With Why”, but we need a new product mantra: we need to start with the story.

Why? Because building great product is way easier when you start with the story.

Prioritization is easier. You can prioritize based on the impact the feature has on your ability to tell your story.

Validation is easier. You can get the market to validate what you’re planning to build by asking for a commitment after telling them your story.

Launch is easier. You know when to pull the trigger and how to go to market: when you are confident you have delivered on your story.

In the end, driving adoption and moving business metrics related to your product will be the reward for telling your story well.


Your product should be able to tell a great story about why it exists, and you should know what that story is going to be before you build the product.

So, the next time you’re looking at a new feature or product, start with the story. Just be sure it’s an inspiring one, because if it isn’t, you’re unlikely to inspire anyone else—not your investors, nor your teams, nor, most crucially, your buyers.

What about you? Agree? Disagree? Respond away. And if you’d like to learn more about me or my business, visit