When Pigs Swim: Why Every Entrepreneur Needs an Origin Story

Photo by  Jakob Owens  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

In his book “Sell with a Story,” Paul Smith tells a story about a time he and his wife attended an art fair in Coney Island. As they browsed the exhibits, they came across one picture that especially grabbed their attention. It was a photo of a pig swimming in the ocean.

His wife, an artist herself, admired the picture as “inspired genius.” But Smith saw, well, just a pig dog-paddling in the ocean. Interesting, for sure. But is it worth buying to display in the house?

The photographer noticed Smith and his wife looking at his photo and walked over to join them. Smith asked him why the pig was in the ocean.

That’s when the photographer started to tell the origin story—the story about how that picture came to be.

He said he captured the photo just off the beach of Big Major Cay, an uninhabited island in the Bahamas where years ago an entrepreneur brought a bunch of pigs to raise for bacon. The problem was that all there really was on that island was cactus—and pigs don’t eat cactus.

But then one day a restaurant owner from a neighboring island started dumping his kitchen refuse off of his boat a few dozen yards off the shore of Big Major Cay.

As you can imagine, it didn’t take long for hungry pigs to figure out that there was food in the water close to shore. With their survival instincts kicking in, they learned to swim to eat. And subsequent generations of pigs continued that trek to the point that today all pigs can swim at what has come to be known as “Pig Beach.”

Since the pigs have learned to see boats as a potential source of food, they eagerly swim up to people in their boats. And that's how the photographer was able to capture this photo.

Smith was sold. He bought the picture. But that’s because he “bought” the story first.

“The moment before he shared his story (to me at least), the photo was just a picture of a pig in the ocean, worth little more than the paper it was reproduced on,” Smith wrote. “But two minutes later, it was no longer just a picture. It was a story—a story I would be reminded of every time I looked at it. … Perhaps for an art aficionado like my wife, it was already a valuable piece. But for me, my interest in and willingness to pay good money for that picture increased exponentially as a result of the story.”  

The Selling Power of Origin Stories

Now, think about your venture. What’s your story? Why did you start your company? What led you to feel so strongly about the mission of your business that you would be willing to leave a more secure world of full-time employment to take that proverbial plunge into the chaotic world of entrepreneurship?

These are all questions that point to your origin story—a narrative that brings meaning to the mission and purpose that formed the foundation of your business in the beginning and continues to shape it today. And it’s your origin story that humanizes your brand, connecting with customers on an emotional level that differentiates your company from the competition.

Think about it. Smith bought the swimming pig picture not merely because of the superior quality of the photo compared to others on display at the fair, although it was likely a stunning picture. No, he bought it because of the story behind why that pig was swimming in the ocean in the first place.

As the cliche goes, “A picture tells a thousand words.” But it was the photographer’s story behind that picture that brought meaning to those “thousand words”—to make an emotional connection with Smith in a way that caused him to see the picture as something interesting, different, and valuable.  

The Bottom Line

If customers don’t know your story, they may see your business as just like any other that provides corporate accounting services, commercial heating and air conditioning services, project management software, or whatever you sell. And that can make it difficult for your venture to stand out enough to attract the best customers, employees, and partners.  

But think about this: Even if you're in a crowded market, no one else has an origin story exactly like yours. So, why not tell it? Why not use your story to connect with customers on a more human, emotional level where they can't help but want to join your cause and do business with you.

Sean M. Lyden is CEO of Lyden Communications LLC, an Orlando, Fla.-based consulting firm that helps companies use storytelling to unlock sales growth.