Interview with StoryFile Co-Founder & CEO Heather Maio-Smith.
Imagine being able to share your story with the world in a way that will be available forever or getting the chance to ask an ancestor or any remarkable person a question. All of that and more is now possible with StoryFile, a startup that launched its first consumer product in October. Something that started as a way to hear Holocaust survivors is now available to anyone who wants to share their life story or listen to the wisdom of others.
StoryFile co-founder and CEO Heather Maio-Smith spoke with startup coach Roland Siebelink on the latest episode of the Midstage Startup Momentum Podcast. They discussed the roots of StoryFile, its recent launch, and the journey ahead.
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Roland Siebelink: Hello and welcome to the Midstage Startup Momentum Podcast. My name is Roland Siebelink and I'm a coach and ally for all the fast growing startups out there. And I'm so amazed today because we snapped a really special guest. It's Heather Maio-Smith, the co-founder and CEO of StoryFile, joining us from LA. Hello, Heather.
Heather Maio-Smith: Hello, Roland. Thank you for having me.
Roland Siebelink: Oh, absolutely. This was a bit of a slog to set up. I think you're very busy, hugely busy schedule. And that must mean because StoryFile is just growing so fast in both the impact and revenue. But for those that haven't heard about the company yet, what do you do? What change, what impact do you make and how do you make the world a better place for those you target.
Heather Maio-Smith: Oh, wow. That's a lot of questions. We allow people to record their life story in a way that allows other people to have conversations with them. You can record your story. You could record your parents, your loved ones, your aunt, uncle, your children, and then others will have a chance to really get to know you or them in a completely different way through asking you questions and you'll answer them. And you'll have a conversation, a back and forth.
Roland Siebelink: Wow. That's amazing. What brought you and other co-founders to this idea? What sparked the idea of this startup?
Heather Maio-Smith: It began in 2009. I was producing a lot of immersive exhibitions and I was interviewing a lot of Holocaust survivors for this one exhibition and they were amazing and we were having amazing conversations. Particularly, in between filming and things like that. I thought to myself, "My grandchildren are not going to be able to have these conversations." I said to myself, "What would it look like?" The original vision was I want to be able to sit across from a person at a kitchen table and I just want to ask you questions about your life and learn all about you. But I want to ask the questions that are on my mind and go deeper in areas that I wanted to go deeper and then go back to other areas. I wanted it to be based on what I wanted to know and what I was curious about. I embarked on this project. Over the years, we've done 50 of those interviews. But the one thing that I kept getting questions from people when they would experience this is can I do this myself. And, "Oh my gosh. I would love to capture my parents' story this way or my grandparents or the founder of our company. Can I use this to practice role-playing or learn a language? The questions were endless. Finally, I said, "All right, what would it look like if we were to do this and make this ubiquitous for the world to be able to do for themselves?" And StoryFile was born. We've spent the last three years developing the technology behind it. And we launched our first consumer product in October of this year. Everybody can give their loved ones a gift for the Christmas season and give them this StoryFile and capture their life story.
Roland Siebelink: Well, that's awesome. We don't often have a startup here that's just launched a product. We often have people that have been in the market for a while. But let's talk about that experience because I think many founders that are listening to this podcast have a similar stage in their startup. How has the launch been going to the degree you can share? What have been some surprisingly positive experiences and maybe also some areas where you feel like this has been a little bit falling short of expectations or has been more difficult than expected?
Heather Maio-Smith: I'll start with the more difficult than expected part. It certainly surprised me at the difficulty saying, "Okay, it's ready." And your timing. It's taken a long time for us to get to the point where we've gotten. It may seem simple, but it's actually been a very complex technology to build. A lot of layers, a lot of things to think about over the years, a lot of changes, a lot of iterations. I always say this sometimes about academics. They have a fear of publishing because they always think they're going to learn something else that'll help their thesis or "Oh my gosh, something else is going to come about and I can't publish it yet." But at some point, you just have to put it out in the world and say, try it, let me know how you're finding it, and you expect to just keep iterating and keep making it better and better. We finally decided, we've got to launch it and just let it fly and let it have a life of its own and see where it leads us. The actual launch is similar in a way to giving birth. If you've never had a baby, if you never had a child before - it doesn't even matter if you're giving birth or not, actually - you don't know what you don't know. And you think one thing. You've seen other people do it. You may have seen your parents do it. You've seen your friends do it. You've watched a movie. You've taken in a lot about the experience, but until you actually go through it, you don't know what you don't know and you don't know what it's really like. I'm one that has my whole life tried to learn from others' experience. Through this whole experience, I've absorbed a lot from other people and learned a lot from other people about this experience. But in the end, it's still your decision to make and you have to come to it yourself. And that's what StoryFile is about. It's been a very interesting, very interesting experience. I would not have traded this last year for anything. It's been huge from fundraising, cashflow, development wise, learning, getting things ready, answering questions. Learning so much about yourself and your own capability as well. My grandfather always said to me - and it's typical, so many people have said this - know what your strengths are, know what your weaknesses are, and surround yourself with the best people that you can possibly get that will complement you, that'll fill in for those weaknesses. And I have to tell you that this past couple of years, nothing has resonated with me more than that. As you talk to potential investors, they've given us a lot of advice. We've learned a lot through that process. It's a matter of just talking to people about it. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone has a story. I go back to it. Everyone has something that they can relate to and something to add. And you just capture, you gather all of that and you hopefully learn from it and you hopefully make the best decisions for you and the company. We have an amazing team as well. I don't know about other companies, but our employees, our colleagues, teammates, we've given them a lot of say. They influence a lot of how we do things and what we do. I lean on them a lot.
Roland Siebelink: Very good. Not easy in an early stage company where I'm guessing you often have to pivot from one decision to the other rather rapidly.
Heather Maio-Smith: We've been using the analogy of a train for the last 11 months since last year. We've been a very, very fast moving train. It's hard to really pivot and get onto another track when you're going so fast. We've tried not to pivot this year as much as we had done the first couple of years of our existence. And I think it's served us really well and we've gotten stronger from it. You do have to change tracks or at least make a little bit of a bend at times, slow down and then get faster. Once we launched, we felt like we're not on a fast train as much. In particular, with the consumer product. The other things we're doing might still be on a fast track. But with this one, we got to the launch and then it was just, "Okay, now you're going up a hill." I'm going to date myself right now, but there was a book when I was child and - I don't even remember the name of it - it was a train. It was, "I think I can, I think I can. I think I can" was the mantra. Because you think you can, you think you can, you think you can, you keep moving and you keep going. It's slow, but you keep going. You keep going up, up, up, up, up. And you finally make it. That's where we are right now.
Roland Siebelink: What was the difference between the first two years when you did many pivots and then the third year when you said, "Okay, let's try not to pivot as much anymore." Was there a higher degree of confidence or did you get sick of pivoting all the time? What happened?
Heather Maio-Smith: There were a lot of things actually. I think our primary issue was that there were so many opportunities with our technology. The vision is so big. It's a massive vision. It's a really, really big vision. You can't do it all. You have to decide, if I lay this foundation, then what does that entail? What does that look like? And then you start building the first floor, the second floor, then you start decorating the house inside. We had to have that solid foundation and not keep chasing the opportunities. This is where the hard part is. It's a balance. We didn't want to narrow the vision. What we ended up with is we're building a foundation. We're not building one product necessarily. What we did was we said, "All right, we're building a foundation. Everything we're doing and the entire vision has to lay on that foundation." It's one product. It's a platform. It's one platform. And then you've got all the multiple multiple parts that can go on that building. We had to ultimately look at it like that instead of looking at it like, "Okay, should we do the B2B first? Should we just build it to do X? Should you do B2C? Should you do the mobile app, which is more of a social media thing." There was so much opportunity that we finally said, "No, it's actually all the same." It's actually just the platform, the base. Then when we concentrated on just the base, then it was: "All right, now we're ready. What do we actually go up with first?"
Roland Siebelink: Right. That gave a lot more clarity that you felt like even if we do make some tactical decisions, it doesn't feel like a pivot anymore. I love that. That’s a great analogy. How did you then translate that more purposeful vision into a target market, into a revenue model, or the whole cold, hard cash considerations?
Heather Maio-Smith: You're going to hate me for this, but most of it was gut.
Roland Siebelink: That's not unexpected, actually. That's probably the answer I would get most often when I ask this question. That shows your true cutting as an entrepreneur.
Heather Maio-Smith: You talk to enough people, you read a room. It's like reading a room. What would people do for this? You get a sense. You try and build it to that. You try and get it to that. You try and distill it so that it can meet that goal that people told you over and over again that they would like to see.
Roland Siebelink: That's right. You were initially based on actual demand from the market. People saying, "I want to run this by myself. I want to record my parents."
Heather Maio-Smith: But they couldn't afford the $500,000 that we were doing it for. You're definitely going to price yourself out of the market. You could afford $50 for seven questions. You could do 500 questions for $500. You may have a reason to do the $250,000 interview, which is now what that previous interview actually costs. You may have a reason to do it and do it that way. And there are plenty of reasons. But if you don't, what we wanted to do was democratize it. We wanted to make it accessible to everyone. We didn't want to price anybody out of it, out of the market. And we built a product that would do exactly that.
Roland Siebelink: Very inspiring. Have you found that there are certain ideal customers or people that are really predictably gonna be latching onto this where they feel this is so much in my wheelhouse based on either their profession or their psychology or some other customer characteristic?
Heather Maio-Smith: We call them memory keepers. Is there one person out of your friends that normally makes sure everybody takes a picture or takes a picture of the table? Someone who cares about documenting. You probably have one or two. Everyone may do it, but there's one or two that it matters to them. I think those are the initial early adopters for our consumer product. The intent though is for 5, 10, 15, 25 years from now, everyone in the world will have their own StoryFile. We think, "Oh, I would love to talk to a World War II veteran or a president. There are a lot of people that have already passed away that we would have loved to have had conversations with. But just as important as those people are to us today, and their experiences, 50, 60 years from now - whoever's living right now, 50, 60 years from now - those people will be the ones that we're talking about, that we would have loved to have had a conversation with. There's another aspect to it in that businesses can use this. Online education can use this. If you think about it, every company has an FAQ page. Ours is really cute. You could do a StoryFile with your FAQs. You don't have to have everything written. What I envision is a video Wikipedia. Instead of going to Google and asking a question and getting 15 pages and going down a rabbit hole and spending hours and hours and hours to try and find an answer to a question, why can't you just ask somebody? Why can't you just ask someone, "Hey, I was just diagnosed with ALS what do I have to look forward to? What does that mean? How do I tell my family? How do I cope? What should I do next?" All those questions. It's not really about what year did you come over on a boat? Or what year did you graduate from college? That's important, but it's more what did you learn in college? What did you take from that? What was that experience like for you? Those are universal questions that humanity will keep asking and be curious about forever. Dating, for example. What if I don't want to FaceTime with the individual before I actually meet them in person and then have a first date? And then, "Oh, okay, sorry. We had a FaceTime, now I'm going to pass." What if you could do that and have that, ask all those questions in the privacy of your own home? That person has no idea that you're talking to them and you're not rejecting them, you're just passing. It's not a superficial pass. It's not, "Oh, I don't like how you look in that picture," which by the way is not anything like the individual whatsoever. Why not just try and get to know that person? Your body language tells you so much about an individual. The human eye and the human being - oftentimes, I think we don't understand how much information and how much we're absorbing just by watching someone answer a question and talk to them. We're really smart in that way. You can practically tell when someone's lying just by looking into their eyes.Seven if I had an audio recording of my parents, how do I really know what their body language is like? The pauses in between, what were they doing during those pauses? Were they crying? Are they laughing? Did they smile? Did they look away? Were they lying when they told the story? You can't tell all that through audio. You can't tell all that by reading a book, an autobiography. But you can, if you've asked those questions, if those people have recorded the answers and recorded the stories that they want to tell future generations, you can get a sense of who they were.
Roland Siebelink: Yes, absolutely. I think it's such a compelling vision. I'm so proud to have you on the Midstage Startup Momentum Podcast. And I think this is definitely one of the most purpose-led startups that I've interviewed. I'm very happy to have had you on here. I'm sure listeners will want to test this out or check out the products, where should they go and what can they do?
Heather Maio-Smith: They can look up StoryFile Life. It's story file.com/life. You can also get on it storyfile.com. Actually, you can reach out to [email protected] and they can give you all the answers and get you to the right person if you want to talk to them. We're on Instagram and Twitter and all the others.
Roland Siebelink: Absolutely. And I think, Heather, your team gave me discount codes, which we'll be sure to put in the notes of this podcast so that people can test this out for themselves. I definitely recommend doing so. I'm gonna have it on my task list for tomorrow myself.
Heather Maio-Smith: Every one of your listeners should take that discount code and use it as a gift for Christmas.
Roland Siebelink: Exactly. Great gift ideas for Christmas, all on the Midstage Startup Momentum Podcast. That's excellent. Thank you so much.
Heather Maio-Smith: Just find one loved one that you want to capture. Just one.
Roland Siebelink: The most loved one. Absolutely. Very good. Thank you so much for joining us today, Heather. This was an amazing interview. Really appreciate the purpose behind this and how you are working towards making the world a better place that way. Again, people, try this out. This product StoryFile, discount code in the podcast notes. Thank you so much, Heather.Roland Siebelink talks all things tech startup and bring you interviews with tech cofounders across the world.