The future belongs to those who tell the best stories.
And behind every compelling story lies a universal pattern. It’s called the hero’s journey.
The term comes from U.S. mythologist Joseph Campbell, who published The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949.
In this now-iconic book, Campbell suggests that every human narrative is a variation of one story that crosses time, culture, geography, age and gender.
Once you see the hero’s journey, you can’t unsee it. You’ll spot it in everything from Star Wars to Game of Thrones to Jane Eyre, The Wizard of Oz — and even in the rise and fall of Silicon Valley startups.
In pop culture, the pattern often focuses on individuals, but building a business is also a hero’s journey. And when you understand this archetypal story, you’ll be better equipped to navigate your own path to success.
As I mentioned last week, people don’t desire products. They long for the feelings that products give them. And stories are a powerful way to evoke those feelings.
This is especially crucial in today’s cluttered marketplace, where anyone can copy your product features. What they can’t copy are your stories. And stories over time equals your brand.
Let’s take a closer look at this journey — and how it applies to companies of all shapes and sizes.
The road to transformation
Author Christopher Vogler says the hero’s journey documents a powerful process of transformation:
“A hero leaves her comfortable, ordinary surroundings to venture into a challenging, unfamiliar world. It may be an outward journey to an actual place.
But there are as many stories that take the hero on an inward journey, one of the mind, the heart, the spirit. In any good story, the hero grows and changes, making a journey from one way of being to the next.”
My own journey began with a simple idea. Twelve years later, JotForm now serves 4.1 million users and employs over 130 people.
Those numbers are part of the highlight reel, but this has been a winding path, filled with twists and turns, and unexpected obstacles along the way.
While it’s easy to imagine that success begins with a stroke of genius and proceeds directly to the top of TechCrunch, that’s almost never the case — and it’s certainly not the path to meaningful transformation.
That’s where the hero’s journey comes in. I’ve trimmed the steps a little (with apologies to Campbell and Vogler), but remember that they’re all essential.
Here are the eight steps of the journey, plus some thoughts to help you navigate each challenge along the way.
Step 1: Ordinary World
The story begins with the hero in her normal environment. It’s safe and familiar. Luke Skywalker is a bored farm boy. Dorothy has a predictable life in Kansas before a tornado blows her and Toto into Oz.
In our world, maybe that’s the comfortable rhythm of a regular paycheck or a 9-to-5 job. Maybe it’s focusing on small features and minor upgrades when your business has the potential to change the market.
Step 2: Call to Adventure
The hero encounters a problem, adventure, or challenge. In Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi asks Luke to help rescue Princess Leia and restore order to the universe.
Back in 2007, Brian Chesky and his roommate, Joe Gebbia, were struggling to afford rent in San Francisco.
Knowing a big design conference was coming up and hotels would be fully booked, they decided to rent out three air mattresses in their loft and tour their guests around the city.
They were called to start Airbnb (which now has over 5 million listings in 191 countries).
In our case at JotForm, the call to adventure came from our customers.
At first it was hard to digest, but this wake-up call revealed a truth we’ve ignored for the last several years: we’ve been too comfortable creating online forms.
We always thought our job was simply to battle it out in a crowded space with dozens of online form builders, where even Google was gunning for our market share.
Little did we know that listening to this call would transform the very DNA of our business and define a completely new market.
But enough about forms. Here’s how the journey continues.
Step 3: Refusal of the Call
The story would feel dishonest if the hero jumped right in. Instead, she struggles with fear of the unknown and refuses the call to adventure. If that feeling is familiar, you’re certainly not alone.
Fear and reluctance are almost universal human experiences. As entrepreneur Faisal Hoque writes in Fast Company,
“The overwhelming sentiment growing inside of us, gnawing at us, and saying, ‘You cannot do this,’ is what deters us from our goal of achieving the greatness we are born to do.”
In order to answer the call, Hoque encourages us to remember that regrets are worse than failures.
Identify the root cause of your fear, because that’s the first step to overcoming it. Then, keep your eyes on the goal, acknowledge your avoidance, and move forward anyway.
In other words, answer the call.
Step 4: Meeting with the Mentor
As the journey begins, the hero meets a mentor. Typically, this is a wise, older figure who prepares the hero to face the unknown.
The mentor might be a wizard, like Yoda, or a benevolent witch who offers sage advice and a pair of ruby slippers. It can also be a parent, teacher, or friend.
In recent months, the User Experience Research (UXR) team has been our mentor. By engaging deeply with customers, they found the magic.
We used to think about forms as a way to collect data, but the UXR team’s guidance helped us discover that many customers were actually using our product to act on the data — to analyze and make sense of what it meant in their businesses.
They showed us that JotForm doesn’t provide online forms; we make organizations more productive.
We may have known this before, but perhaps we shrunk from the challenge — and that’s the beauty of a mentor. They open your eyes and compel you to listen.
Step 5: Tests, Allies, Enemies
Once the hero crosses the first threshold, momentum starts to build. Dorothy sets out on the Yellow Brick Road. Luke and friends travel the galaxy to battle Darth Vader.
The hero also makes friends and enemies, and faces many tests along the way.
Tests. Challenges. Failures. The hero’s journey shows us that struggle is unavoidable. It’s part of the process.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re starting a company, launching a new project, switching careers, or running a non-profit organization. You will face tests. You will fall down and have to pick yourself back up again.
Step 6: Ordeal
Now it gets real. The hero confronts her greatest fear, often with a fight-to-the-death battle — whether it’s a physical struggle (like Dorothy getting kidnapped by the Wicked Witch) or an intellectual, emotional, or psychological trial.
Back in 2011, Airbnb was a 40-person startup facing a major ordeal. A European company called Wimdu had knocked off their business model and website — and while Wimdu had $90 million in the bank, Airbnb co-founders Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia and Nathan Blecharcyzk had raised just $7 million.
The threat was real, but Airbnb chose to fight back. They went big and bold, raising an additional $112 million and opening nine global offices in less than a year.
By June 2012, Airbnb logged its ten millionth booking and eventually, defeated Wimdu.
As Chesky told investor and Blitzscaling author Reid Hoffman, “The Samwers [the German brothers behind Wimdu] gave us a gift. They forced us to scale faster than we ever would have.”
No one wants to walk through the fire, but everyone will face ordeals at some point in their lives. The hero’s journey teaches us that no matter what appears, you will be stronger on the other side of your trial.
Step 7: Reward
The hero triumphs. She conquers evil or escapes the Wicked Witch. Now, she can seize the treasure, which could be anything from a magic sword to hard-won knowledge to respect of the community and personal satisfaction.
What is your reward? That’s something you have to define for yourself. Money, praise, and recognition are great, but are they enough to carry you through the ordeals? Be clear about what you’re chasing, and choose wisely.
Step 8: The Road Back
After the celebration comes a return journey. Now, the hero has to deal with the fallout from her actions. Darth Vader chases Luke and Leia as they escape the Death Star. There are still challenges to face.
Eventually, the hero arrives home with a treasure: freedom, love, peace, knowledge. But no matter what the hero brings back, she is forever transformed by the journey.
Answer the call
Moving from familiar to unknown territory is not easy, and that’s where the hero’s journey can help.
When you realize that you will face challenges and there will be tests along the way, you’re better prepared to seize the adventure. You can confront your fears, knowing that transformation lies on the other side.
Take us. Despite our 12 years in business, JotForm recently set out on a new journey — and once we answered the call, there was no looking back.
The new PDF Editor that we’ve just launched represents the first step across that threshold. It offers automation, design, communication, and durability, and it’s a bold step forward for the whole company.
I’m excited to share this release, but I also want to confront a hard truth:
Most people and most businesses don’t answer the call. They stay in their safe zone. They produce the same thing over and over again. Maybe they tinker with the details, but they don’t reach for a new level.
I understand, because I’ve played it safe at times, too. I’ve resisted opportunity and avoided the unknown. But not anymore.
So, if you’re ready to join me, here are two thoughts that might help you to take action.
1. Face it head-on
What are you avoiding?
What challenges and opportunities are you putting off for later?
Sometimes the answers are hidden, and uncovering those steps part of the battle. In other cases, adventure is right in front of you, but you don’t want to see it.
2. Get help
Mentors, experts, interns, friends, and teachers. You’re going to need them all. Gather your allies — not only because they can help you when the road gets tough, but also because they help to make it worthwhile.
Answering the call can transform the very DNA of your business. In our case, it started with listening (deeply) to our customers, in ways we hadn’t listened before.
We realized that we had a choice. We could stay in the comfortable data collection market and battle it out with dozens of online form builders.
But, we don’t provide online forms. We’re on a mission to make organizations more productive.
So, when you’re faced with the choice to remain in your “ordinary world” or set out for the unknown, remember:
Transformation isn’t easy, but it is always an adventure — and it’s the most worthwhile journey you can undertake.