storytelling

A startup founders' story slam

January 14, 2013: 12:11 PM ET

Michigan-based Entre-SLAM encourages entrepreneurs to let all their business frustrations (and joys) out into the world, through competitive storytelling.entre-slam-storytelling

By Vickie Elmer

FORTUNE -- Like most startup founders, the women who launched Entre-SLAM have plenty of stories about the joys and complications of getting their business going.

They could tell you all about their search for the perfect venue or the right emcee for their storytelling competition and networking events for entrepreneurs. But partners Jeannie Ballew and Christa Chambers-Price would be just as happy to have their storytellers do the talking.

Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Entre-SLAM encourages entrepreneurs to connect over stories and a beer. "We are drawn to authentic, real life stories," says Ballew, who has written two unpublished novels and hosted a local public access television show. She gave it up this summer to spend more time on Entre-SLAM. "This is like The Truman Show -- watch everyday people and their everyday dramas and issues," she says. Except the people telling stories are business owners, some who have decades of experience and some who started just days before their storytelling debut.

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Ballew and Chambers-Price are tapping into the kind of audience that shows up for The Moth, the NPR monthly story-slams staged in a dozen cities, Creative Mornings, and TedX conferences. They are also drawing on marketers' passion for using stories to sell everything from cars (think Jeep) to whiskey (Jack Daniels) and much more.

There are a handful of other business storytelling events around the country, but very few are held monthly like Entre-SLAM. The events also attract organizations that consult and coach, film, and fine-tune business leaders' tales so they appeal to customers, investors, or potential partners.

In a sense, Entre-SLAM combines elements of a chamber of commerce mixer, The Moth, and a MeetUp event. Winners take home prizes ranging from a gourmet dinner from an area chef, to validated parking stickers, to a free massage.

Ballew and Chambers-Price came up with the idea for Entre-SLAM last January 2012 while they were discussing how they could collaborate on a veterans' training course. (Ballew's background is in training.) Ballew asked Chambers-Price if she wanted to go The Moth. "I couldn't go," Chambers-Price recalled. But she thought that they could create a similar event for small business owners.

Within three weeks, they decided to launch a new venture, which had no name but did have a hope to reach "that person on the fifth row, that guy or gal in the dark, who has a great story to tell, but never had the right connections" to get invited on-stage, said Chambers-Price.

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The duo met through a bookshop owner who lives in their neighborhood. "He first saw the potential in our meeting," says Ballew. "Little did he know what blessed madness it would birth." Ballew eventually became Chambers-Price's client, at her company KnowledgeCrush, which helps market and coach solo entrepreneurs. (Besides the storytelling and networking business, the two women are working together on a book-writing cruise aimed at executives, part of Ballew's book coaching and editing work.)

They held their first Entre-SLAM on March 29 in a packed catering space, where some of their friends and a few surprise guests shared stories of their business setbacks.

Chambers-Price told a tale at an Entre-Slam in April, sharing a lesson she learned when she was 18 years old and in the Army, about the importance of not leaving any of your partners behind. Entrepreneurs are also on a battlefield, she said, "low-crawling, scraping and fighting for our dreams.… I hope that we all will do that for each other because at the end of the day, we're all in this together."

At a recent gathering, 20-something business owners sat next to older entrepreneurs at a downtown Ann Arbor bar. Besides the storytelling, the evening featured a curry taste-off by two Indian restaurants, a massage therapist, and an improv group performance during intermission. A few of the storytellers were giving their third Entre-SLAM performance.

"The stories that evolve from these gatherings are meant to be told again and again," Ballew said. "We envision building a thriving, online community of entrepreneurs but also we plan on releasing a series of books."

Ballew and Chambers-Price have big plans for Entre-Slam. "I keep visualizing Entre-Slam in Japan," said Ballew "We have every reason to believe it can be international."

First, though, they plan to build a strong following in the Midwest: The duo will focus on Ann Arbor for most of this year; then probably Chicago; Austin, Texas; or the Grand Rapids area, where a business group has expressed interest in the entrepreneurial story slam to reinvigorate its business networking events. They've already had the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti Chamber of Commerce Gen X and Y group take part.

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With that 20- and 30-something group in the house in October, the story topic, "Winging It," brought some strange tales: A gourmet tasting entrepreneur had to buy 60 ducks' hearts as part of a quest to make the right sauce for a dinner party for 12. A musician moved into radio, then software development, and spent three months on what should have been a two-week machine simulation project -- all to keep his babies fed and in diapers. One year into building a fast-growing painting marketing venture, one entrepreneur left his company in the hands of his staff when his father developed an aggressive cancer. "When hard becomes normal, normal becomes easy," said David Landau, who later won the night's top prize.

Entre-SLAM's business model is based partly on corporate sponsorships, so far most of them local enterprises such as a monthly magazine and a travel agency. Eventually, they'd like to land major corporate sponsors like Google (GOOG) and Red Bull. "It's a product that entrepreneurs use to stay awake. And Red Bull is fun," said Chambers-Price.

So is Entre-SLAM, especially if you have a friend who's telling a story, or if you hear a story that feels like an old friend.

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