How to tell disruptive stories, the Piggly Wiggly way
So your startup is doing something disruptive but you’re having a hard time pitching it. It’s difficult to walk the fine line between too crazy and not crazy enough.
If your idea is too out there, investors will say “that’ll never work”. If your idea is too realistic, they’ll say “this isn’t a moonshot.”
You’re looking for the sweet spot: “just so crazy it might work.”
One crazy idea that did end up working was the invention of the self-serve grocery store. I’m not talking about self-serve checkout or robo-stores.
I’m talking about 1916 and the first Piggly Wiggly.
Thanks for reading A Leap of Faith, a newsletter about pitching, founder storytelling, and company building.
An assembly line, except you are the belt
If you’re not American you might not know about Piggly Wiggly. It’s a grocery store operating in the Southern and Midwestern States.
But it’s more than a gleefully-improbable name. Piggly Wiggly’s founder, Clarence Saunders, invented the whole idea of the self-serve grocery store in 1916. 106 years ago.
Before Piggly Wiggly, you bought everything from a general store. Imagine buying all the products you regularly buy at the grocery store but through the user interface of your local butcher.
Like your supermarket, products were displayed on shelves. But you couldn’t actually touch them. You had to order through a clerk who picked, packaged and priced items for you. The clerk had the bandwidth of one customer at a time.
In Saunders’ mind, this was inefficient. He wanted a store where “customers would enter single file, pick up a basket, shuffle through a turnstile, and then head down a winding one-way route that would guide them past every item in the store.”1
In other words, an assembly line where you were the belt.
Self-serve groceries ushered in an era of packaged goods, branding and a new era of consumer choice.
Imagine how difficult it would have been to pitch!
The (hypothetical) Piggly Wiggly Pitch
Saunders’ went against every norm of the American consumer. No one had ever picked their own groceries before (although there was a new thing called a ‘cafeteria’ where you picked food and put it on a tray, doing away with waiters).
I imagine his pitch would have been something like this:
“Picture something better than a general store! Instead of talking to a clerk, you see, feel and grab products right off the shelf! The packages have all the information you need to decide what to buy! When you’re ready the clerks are there just to collect payment! Freedom! Choice! Convenience!”
(Exclamation marks because this was the man who named his company Piggly Wiggly)
The responses would have been every variation of “that’ll never work”:
“No one wants to pick their own groceries. They want someone to do it for them.”
“How will people know what to buy if someone doesn’t tell them?”
“Why would people want more than one type of molasses?”
“So many other things have to happen before your concept can work.”
“Even if people want self-serve, you’ll never beat general stores. They’re too entrenched.”
“What are your qualifications? Have you done this before?”
What not to do
After a few of these meetings I can picture Saunders, head in his hands, staring up at his chalkboard. He would have wanted to change his story:
“I need to make this sound more achievable. It’s too big a leap to go from clerks to self-serve. So I’ll say we’ll give the customer a pencil and paper and they’ll mark down what they want as they walk through the store.
The clerk can still offer guidance, especially choosing between two products, and pack everything up.
This can be a slow and steady change, letting people get used to the idea of having more choice. There aren’t that many packaged products anyways. We don’t want to overwhelm people.
Instead of opening our own competing stores, we’ll sell this shopping concept to general stores. It will help them earn more money. We’re not competitors, we’re partners!
I’ve been stocking shelves and learning the grocery grade since I was fourteen. But they’re right, I’ve never built something like this before. It’s best I work inside the system first to earn my stripes. If it works I can spin it off.”
Here’s his revised pitch:
“Imagine a new way to shop at your general store. Instead of waiting in line for a clerk, you write down all the products you want while you browse. Don’t worry, you’ll still get the service you want and a clerk will correct your mistakes. There are lots of new products being made but it can be scary to choose. Trust your general store to help. I’m Clarence Saunders and I’ve been working with general stores since I was fourteen years old. My concept is a low-risk way to help stores, and customers, evolve into the future.”
It’s closer to reality. But it’s no longer disruptive.
Stick to your story
There are many ways, in your story and strategy, to mitigate risk. But don’t let investor feedback force you into the mindset of de-risking everything.
The core of every disruptive story is a leap of faith. Identify what that is in your startup. Never water that down. You should be able to answer this question: what is the specific leap of faith I’m asking investors to take?
Today, the founder of Piggly Wiggly might have done market research or created a pop-up shop to A/B test his concept. He might have used secret shoppers or video surveillance to analyze shopping inefficiencies. No matter what tactics he used the core disruption, the investable part, is still a belief in the future that most people would disagree with.
Get used to hearing that skepticism.
It will help you stay on track and confidently pitch your disruption. Say the big, bold thing you believe in and then stop talking. Let investors be skeptical, be uncomfortable, even be silent.
The confidence to embrace the risk and uncertainty inherent in your startup is what gives great pitches their power.
For Clarence Saunders the leap of faith was the belief that people wanted more freedom and choice. That was a huge leap in 1916. He believed it, most people didn’t, but that part of his vision was sacred.
Think about other leaps of faith that are now commonplace:
People will rent out their homes to travellers.
People will give rides to strangers for money.
People will find dates online.
People will pick their own groceries. And they’ll do it in a place called Piggly Wiggly.
From Benjamin Lorr’s excellent book, The Secret Life of Groceries: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/253715/the-secret-life-of-groceries-by-benjamin-lorr/