Estimated reading time: 14 minutes
The very beginning of a business memoir is the place where you can either make or break your relationship with your reader. It’s the point where you have the opportunity to either hook your readers in or make them want to put your book down.
But how can your memoir be accessible, interesting, controversial, inviting, exciting, insightful, and/or irresistible, right off the bat? How can you also establish the tone and mood of your book and give some tantalizing hints of what is to come all at the same time?
There are many excellent ways to begin a business memoir or autobiography, including:
- The Beginning – Start with your birth, or very early in your life.
- The Influences That Shaped Your Life – Talk about the people, places, events, and ideas that helped make you who you are.
- A Foundational Activity – Discuss the idea, hobby, belief, or something else that led you into business.
- The Beginning of Your Business or Your Business Idea – Start by looking at your early work adventures, and what you learned.
- A Pivotal Moment in Your Company’s History– Hit the ground running with a moment of high drama.
- A Philosophical Statement – Lay out what you believe to be the underlying reason for your success.
- Fantasy vs. Reality – Start your memoir with a story that illustrates the difference between how you’re viewed and what you’re really like.
- A Symbol – Highlight something that stands for you, your family, your life philosophy, or your business.
- Your Credentials – Explain why you are qualified to write this book.
- An Act That Got You Into Trouble – There’s nothing like beginning by lifting the curtain and letting readers see you at your worst.
- A Startling Statement – Lead off with a surprise; it’s an excellent way to hook readers.
To help you get started with your memoir or autobiography, I’ve given examples of the first lines of several popular business memoirs and autobiographies that use these beginnings. Studying these openings may help you zero in on the beginning that’s just right for your book.
#1 – Begin your memoir at the beginning
Indra Nooyi, former Chair and CEO of PepsiCo, takes this approach in My Life in Full: Work, Family, and Our Future:
“The women’s living room in my childhood home had a single piece of furniture—a huge rosewood swing with four long chains that were anchored into the ceiling when my grandfather built the house, on a leafy road in Madras, India, in 1939.”
Nooyi goes on to talk about her family, what it was like to be a young girl in India, and the expectations placed upon her. Beginning a business memoir in this manner gives readers insight into the early influences on a woman who rose to the very top of a major corporation.
Charles Bronfman, former head of Seagram, uses the same approach to begin Distilled: A Memoir of Family, Seagram, Baseball, and Philanthropy:
“I was the fourth of four, with all that goes with that. Each of us, the children of Sam and Saidye Bronfman, were two years apart in age. Minda was born in 1925, Phyllis in 1927, Edgar in 1929, and me in 1931. My parents wanted me to be born on June 20, the same day Edgar was born and the same day as their wedding anniversary. Phyllis says they went for a ride on a bumpy road to try to induce my arrival, but I was stubborn and didn’t make an appearance until a week later. She chuckles that I was kind of a “squabby, long kid…like a chicken.”
#2 – Start with the influences that shaped your life
Ginni Rometty, the former CEO of IBM, uses this approach in Good Power: Leading Positive Change in Our Lives, Work, and the World:
“The people and events of our youth influence how we work and lead. That why these first chapters tell the story of my childhood and early career. There are the faces and places I see when I close my eyes. My grandmother’s lamp store. My sisters at our kitchen table. A first date by a lake. Being the only woman in many rooms. From family to friends to first bosses, the people you’ll meet played outsized roles in shaping my character, values, and habits. I am me in part because of them.”
As with the previous approach (Begin at the Beginning), launching a business memoir with the influences that shaped you gives the readers insight into your thoughts and feelings. The difference between these two approaches is a matter of emphasis: do you spend more time on the basic facts of family and setting, or on the people who inspired you in your early life?
#3 – Begin your memoir with a foundational activity
Phil Knight takes this approach with Part I in Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike:
“I was up before the others, before the birds, before the sun. I drank a cup of coffee, wolfed down a piece of toast, put on my shorts and sweatshirt, and laced up my green running shoes. Then slipped quietly out the back door.”
Knight begins his book by describing how important running was to his early years. He also discusses his love of Oregon (where he lived, ran, and later created Nike) and the Oregon pioneering spirit. We instantly learn how his love of running he loved and the state he was proud to call home figured in the creation of Nike.
#4 – Start with the beginning of your business or idea
Paul Van Doren does this in Authentic: A Memoir by the Founder of Vans:
“All I needed to know about making canvas shoes I learned at the Randolph Rubber Company in Randolph, Massachusetts. My mother got me my first job at Randy’s as we called it, as a service boy (a kind of runner or material handler) when I was sixteen. I went on to spend the first twenty years of my career learning the trade.”
Van Doren devotes the first chapter to his experiences at Randolph Rubber Company, learning the business, and founding what became Vans shoes. Then, in the second chapter, he goes back in time to discuss his boyhood. Beginning a business memoir in this manner offers readers an insight into how early work experiences, even the accident of where you began your working career, can have a major influence on your development.
#5 – Begin at a pivotal moment in your company’s history
Michael Dell, the founder of Dell Computers, uses this approach in Play Nice but Win: A CEO’s Journey from Founder to Leader:
“I was sitting at Carl Icahn’s dining room table with Icahn and his wife, eating Mrs. Icahn’s meatloaf.
“It was a lovely spring evening—Wednesday, May 29, 2013—and Carl Icahn was trying to take my company away from me.
“It was a truly surreal moment, in so many ways.
“That May evening was almost the precise midpoint in a nine-month drama in which the personal computer company I started in my freshman dorm room at the University of Texas in 1984, the company with my name on it, titled E and all, almost slipped away from me—and then changed forever, changing me along with it.”
From here, Dell goes on to talk about the problems facing Dell Computers in 2005, and how he responded to serious threats facing both his company and his industry.
#6 – Start your memoir with a philosophical statement
Ray Kroc offers a philosophical statement at the beginning of Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s:
“I have always believed that each man makes his own happiness and is responsible for his own problems. It is a simple philosophy. I think it must have been passed along to me in the peasant bones of my Bohemian ancestors. But I like it because it works, and I find that it functions as well for me now that I am a multimillionaire as it did when I was selling paper cups for thirty-five dollars a week and playing the piano part-time to support my wife and daughter back in the early twenties.“
Sam Zell, founder and chairman of Equity Group Investments, takes the same approach in Am I Being Too Subtle: Straight Talk from a Business Rebel:
“My father was the first person I knew who had done something ‘impossible.” At thirty-four, he escaped his hometown in Poland on the last train out, just hours before the Luftwaffe bombed the tracks, and then led my mother and two-year-old sister on a twenty-one-month trek across two continents to safety.
“As a result, I grew up believing that anything is possible. And when you’re not aware there are any limitations, nothing stops you from trying.”
Beginning a business memoir in this way, as Kroc and Zell do, tells us who you are at the outset, and helps us understand your later thoughts and actions.
#7 – Begin by comparing fantasy to the reality
Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, uses this approach in Walton: Made in America:
“Success has always had its price, I guess, and I learned that lesson the hard way in October of 1985 when Forbes magazine named me the so-called ‘richest man in America.’ Well, it wasn’t too hard to imagine all those newspaper and TV folks up in New York saying ‘Who?’ and ‘He lives where?’ The next thing we knew, reporters and photographers started flocking down here to Bentonville, I guess to take pictures of me driving into some swimming pool full of money they imagined I had, or to watch me light big fat cigars with $100 bills while the hootchy-kootchy girls danced by the lake.”
Walton uses the opening paragraph to set up a contrast between what people imagined about him and the truth, which is that he drove an old pickup truck, got his hair cut at the neighborhood barbershop, and so on.
#8 – Begin your business memoir with a symbol
John Mack, the former CEO of Morgan Stanley, uses this in Up Close and All In: Life Lessons from a Wall Street Warrior:
“I couldn’t stop staring.
“The offices of F.S. Smithers & Co., a pedigreed investment bank, overlooked the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, at the very tip of lower Manhattan. It was 1970, and I was on a job interview. I knew the corporate bond business, and I had aced my soon-to-be boss’s questions. Lady Liberty, holding her torch high, filled the floor-to-ceiling glass window in front of me. As her green oxidized copper caught the late-afternoon sun, I kept thinking, That lady is where it all began for my family.”
For Mack, the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of opportunity. It was in search of opportunity that his grandfather came to this country to start a new life, without knowing a word of English. Mack uses the rest of the first chapter to detail his grandfather’s struggles upon arriving in the U.S., beginning with being sent to the wrong city where he had no relatives or friends to help him get started.
This is a tricky way to begin a business memoir, for if the readers don’t connect to the symbol in the way you do, they may drift away.
#9 – Begin with your credentials
Jacob Tomsky begins with his credentials in Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality:
“I’ve worked in hotels for more than a decade. I’ve checked you in, checked you out, oriented you to the property, served you a beverage, separated your white panties from the white bedsheets, parked your car, tasted your room service (before and, sadly, after), cleaned your toilet, denied you a late checkout, given you a wake-up call, eaten M&M’s out of your minibar, laughed at your jokes, and taken your money. I have been on the front lines, and by that I mean the front desk, of upscale hotels for years, and I’ve seen it all firsthand.”
In one lengthy sentence, Mack lays out his work history, making it clear that he is qualified to tell his story.
#10 – Begin with an act that got you into trouble
John LeFevre, a Goldman Sachs dealmaker with a penchant for tweeting, opens his Straight to Hell: True Tales of Deviance, Debauchery, and Billion-Dollar Deals with a sampling of some of his tweets that set off a firestorm:
“If you can only be good at one thing, be good at lying…because if you’re good at lying, you’re good at everything.
“Every year, children learn a valuable life lesson: Santa loves rich kids more.
“Sometimes, I will apologize for farting even when I didn’t just so people think mine don’t stink.
“My garbage disposal eats better than 99% of the world.
“Statistically speaking, you shouldn’t worry about what your first wife’s mother looks like.”
We instantly know that LeFevre is an irreverent rule-breaker, willing to put it all out there, even at the risk of losing his job—and we quickly learn that he was drunk when he set up this Twitter account.
Opening #11 – Begin your business memoir with a startling statement
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz utilizes this approach in Onward: How Starbucks Fought For Its Life Without Losing Its Soul:
“One Tuesday afternoon in February 2008, Starbucks closed all of its US stores.
“A note posted on 7,100 locked doors explained the reason:
“We’re taking time to perfect our espresso.
“Great espresso requires practice.
“That’s why we’re dedicating ourselves to honing our craft.”
Beginning by saying he closed all of the company’s stores to re-teach baristas to make great espresso gives readers a clear indication of Schultz’s determination.
What’s the Best Way to Begin a Business Memoir or Autobiography?
There is no single best way. But there are many excellent approaches.
Try writing several openings and then decide which one works best for your book.
To learn more about the intricacies of penning a business book, see “How to Write a Business Book.” and “5 Ways to Begin a Business Book.” And if the thought of writing a book by yourself seems overwhelming, consider hiring an experienced ghostwriter to do it for you.
IF YOU’D LIKE HELP WRITING YOUR BUSINESS MEMOIR OR AUTOBIOGRAPHY …
Contact us! We’re Barry Fox and Nadine Taylor, professional ghostwriters and authors with a long list of satisfied clients and editors at major publishing houses.
You can learn about our business ghostwriting work and credentials on our Business Ghostwriter Page.
For more information, call us at 818-917-5362 or use the contact form below to send us a message. We’d love to talk to you about your exciting idea for writing a business memoir or autobiography!
Please Note: Although we’re based in Los Angeles, California, we travel around the U.S. and abroad to meet with our authors. We do not ghostwrite screenplays, books for children, poetry, or school papers.
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For more about business memoirs, read our business memoir FAQ:
What is a business memoir?
A memoir is an examination of a certain portion of your life. A memoir doesn’t tell your entire life story; instead, it focuses on one or certain noteworthy and emotionally-impactful or life-altering events, people, and times. A business memoir applies this approach to your business life, adventures, successes, and failures.
What are the elements of a business memoir?
There are many elements to a memoir. Three crucial elements are:
Memory – Your memoir is based on your memories; they need not be investigated to ensure that they are 100% factual and impartial. Your memoir is your story as you remember it.
Struggle – The readers want to know what you struggled with, successfully or not.
Truth/Lessons – Your search for the truth of your life or portion of your life you are presenting to the readers, or the lessons you learned from it.
Emotion – While an autobiography can be a strictly factual account of your life, your memoir should reveal your emotional responses to what has occurred. Indeed, some of the stronger memoirs are purely emotional journeys.
What should not be in a business memoir?
There is no firm list of items to include or exclude from your memoir. But always remember that you are not writing a complete, detailed account of your business career. Instead, you’re sorting through your memories to reveal your business struggles and emotions, successes and failures, what you learned and what you still have to master.
How many pages should a memoir be?
There is no absolute number of pages to aim for. Instead, aim to tell a good story. That being said, most business memoirs are in the range of 50,000 to 100,000 words.
How do you end a business memoir?
With the conclusion of your story. But remember that the conclusion of your memoir story is not necessarily the same as the conclusion of your entire life story. The best business memoirs look at a “slice” of your business life: a certain time of significance; a certain person or group you interacted with; an event that brought you low or set you up for success; or a challenge you faced. A business memoir looks at a portion of your business life, so when that portion has been told, your memoir is at an end.