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.
- How to know when your product is ready to launch.
- The difference between seeing other people launch a product and doing it yourself.
- How startup leaders know the type of people to put around them.
- Why StoryFile tried to avoid pivoting in the time leading up to its product launch.
- How to handle having a massive vision without having to narrow that vision.
- The future uses of StoryFile’s technology that go beyond its initial market.
StoryFile Free Trial
- Go to https://life.storyfile.com/free-trial-form
- Fill out the free trial sign up form.
- Enter your promo code and click "Apply".
- Click "Try StoryFile Life for Free" to create your account.
- Your account is created with a Story Pack discount.Go to the Pricing page by clicking "Pricing" at
the top and you can see that the price for Story Pack has been discounted.
- To purchase a Story Pack, click "Get Started" for Story Pack, click either "For Myself" to purchase
for yourself or "Gift to Another" to purchase for someone else. For the latter, you will need to enter
the email for the person you are purchasing for. You will be taken to the Stripe checkout page where
you can make a payment to complete the purchase.
Promo Code: MIDSTAGE
*Note: No restrictions on this one, so share widely! This code also expires 1/31/2021.*
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.