How to Build Your Origin Story

Of the three kinds of stories that organizations tell – Origin, Impact and Vision – a well-crafted origin story is the most often retold.  Why? It usually has suspense and intrigue, and it follows the journey of one person (or two) solving a big problem. But when considering your own origin story, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the possibilities. So focus on finding a moment where something really changed.

Where HP began

Humble beginnings…

Like when the Jobs and Wozniak created a Blue Box to make free phone calls around the world – and sensed their power to change that world. Or the one in which Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard made an “audio oscillator” which, among other things, helped bring Disney’s Fantasia to life. Or think of John Muir looking down across Yosemite with Teddy Roosevelt…and how that moment helped protect the valley.

When it comes to your story, make sure the three P’s (place, people and problem) are each clear. This will help you setting the scene as you build to a “pivot,” a key moment when something changed. This moment is the twist that makes your story move.

We worked on a story for Enterprise Community Partners, an organization that has transformed (and greened) affordable housing. The story references a meeting with Jim Rouse, the founder, who was a very successful developer who had built shopping malls, neighborhoods, and even a whole city, but he had never figured out how to really help those that most needed it.


And then one day…

Then one day in the spring of 1973, three women from his church approached him with an idea. Where they lived, in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., were two of the worst tenements they had ever seen, named, ironically, The Mozart and The Ritz. Seeing the lack of decent housing for people with very limited means, they asked a simple question: Why not buy the buildings and fix them up, so people can live in decent housing with dignity?

It’s a simple (if slightly crazy) idea, and it needed partnership – financial, technical, and local – but they did it. And today they invest nearly $1 billion a year with partners just like these three committed women.

Here’s another one, the Numi Tea origin story, that I told at one of the first Journeys events (they were the sponsor).

So, some tips on revealing your organization’s origin story:

1. Set the scene.

What was the world like? You might like to start with “About 10 years ago,” or “Back in 1957,” that will help us know we’re going on a journey. Provide some sensory details, so we can really travel there in the story.

2. Choose one or two people.

A person is much easier to follow and understand than an organization.

3. Tell us about their world.

What were they facing, and what did they care about? What were they good at? This is helping you build to your key moment.

4. Zoom in to an a-ha moment.

This may be a mind-blowing a-ha, or much softer… like a realization that turned the tide. You can open this with “and then one day.” As in, “And then one day, we were walking along the cliffs of the Grand Canyon, and we got into a conversation…” Provide some sensory details about that moment. From there, you’re building the twist in your story, the pivot that changed everything.

5. Show what happened as a result…

“Because of that…” is a good way of triggering the change. As in, “Because of that, we were up for six nights straight to prepare of the upcoming show.” Include any way of describing how the world is really different today. That could be “Ever since then, the world of tea has been different.”

An origin story isn’t just about an organization, or about a famous person. It’s about about people like you and me, facing great challenges, and bringing all of their will and ingenuity to make a change. And the story may span decades…but the retelling is all about finding those key moments.

Keep us posted as you’re telling yours!


  1. andrea scher on May 10, 2013 at 9:51 am

    Love this article Jay! Simple and brilliant. going to keep it in my pocket!

    • JayGolden on May 10, 2013 at 10:13 am

      Thanks Andrea! Please help us stay on the lookout for more great origin stories, of people and of orgs:)

  2. Austin McCracken on June 12, 2013 at 4:31 pm

    Points 1, 3 and 4 are excellent headings to keep one’s personal story on track. Speaking personally these will certainly give added value and interest whenever I choose to relate mine.

    Thank you Jay for posting/sharing this article.
    Austin (McCracken)

    • Stacia on July 13, 2013 at 12:48 am

      Excellent: concise & clear look forward to more in your series

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