Every athlete has a story. It’s really the one thing I like about sports.

The two that come to mind right away:

Lance Armstrong: The famous cyclist survived a nasty cancer that spread to his brain, lungs and abdomen, went on to win the Tour de France a record seven consecutive times, then lost it all in the midst of a doping scandal.

Mike Tyson: Tyson’s mother died when he was 16. After being left in the care of a boxing manager and trainer, he went on to become an undisputed heavyweight champion boxer then later went bankrupt, despite having earned more than $400 million in his boxing career.

Even given only quick takes, the stories of these two famous athletes are intriguing and make me want to dig deeper.

I’m not one for sports metaphors, but here’s a great place to make a connection. Story matters in business the same way it matters in sports. It’s a way for brands to reach us, to make us feel good. That’s probably why we’re seeing more companies give their stories a bigger platform.

As someone who works with clients on brand stories all the time at 1000WATT, I’m all for this. A compelling narrative is an essential foundation for marketing. But I worry that in the rush to cull and craft the perfect copy, the one essential element of a great story is easily overlooked:

The product or service itself.

Great stories are built on facts not fabrications.

This was my big takeaway from the publicity around the latest social platform to hit the Internet – Ello.

Ello was one of the most talked about companies in tech news coming out of the summer. They owe all the hype to their underlying story: We’re not Facebook. We won’t sell you out. We think the future of social media should treat users better. Etc. Etc.

Strong story, but…

Ello is still invitation only, but their story is out there already. They want to create an ad-free social platform in which users’ data is not bought and sold. They want to let users be users and keep the product the platform. Idealistic. For the people. Down with privacy invasion.

Sounds good.

However, after getting my invite about a month ago, it took me all of 15 minutes to close the door on this one. Unfortunately, story’s about all they have right now. There’s no there there – yet anyway.

And that’s really where the story falls apart. So far, it seems to hinge on a lot of wants for the future. But it’s missing any details of today’s realities. What is Ello, the platform, today? Basically a collective of interesting people who share artsy kind of stuff.

Cool, but am I really to expect this will become the communication hub for me that Facebook is? My guess is they’ll pivot off this “the anti-Facebook” positioning to something more definitive and targeted at an appropriate audience once they get in deep with developing the product.

That’s the thing about story – you can’t go out story first. You can’t shoehorn a product or service into people’s lives that doesn’t solve a real problem – even with a compelling narrative. The product has to lead and the story has to flow from it. Not the other way around.

At 1000WATT, we challenge clients to first look at their product. If you don’t have much under the hood, a fancy story isn’t going to do much for your business. In fact, it will hurt your business. Unsubstantiated claims lead to disappointment; disappointment leads… out the door.

Call it a “come to Jesus” moment. It can be uncomfortable. It can be fun. It’s not easy, but can be just what the product and marketing needed to forge ahead.

(And by the way, if you haven’t had a chance to check out Ello, this video is probably the best explanation you’ll see online.)