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A few years ago, Mark Ury worked with his young son to create a picture book for his wife. Ury wrote the book’s text and his son drew the pictures. “The final product had me thinking about visual stories and the cloud,” Ury recalls. And it led to the launch of Storybird — a website for “art-inspired storytelling” — in 2010.
A little under three years later, Storybird, which is based out of Toronto, has over two million members (and has inspired a dozen marriage proposals). The site works with artists from around the world, who upload their portfolios onto Storybird’s platform. Users choose their art, sequence the images any way they like and add text to turn them into a story. They can then share the story across social networks and embed it on blogs. “We’ve essentially taken a children’s publishing imprint, put it on the web and turned it into social software,” Ury told me.
Initially, Ury and his cofounder, Kaye Puhlmann (both formerly consumer experience designers for digital ad agencies; Ury has worked with clients like Apple, Nike and Starbucks), imagined that families would be the primary users of the site. “Parents reading on the iPad to their kids in bed,” Ury said. Parents and kids are indeed using Storybird — “and a lot of people create stories almost as extended greeting cards,” Ury said — but it turns out the largest demographic is teachers and students. Over 125,000 schools are now on Storybird, with teachers issuing assignments to students and using the site in the classroom to help kids with their writing skills. The most recent demographic — and “the most voracious,” according to Ury — is teen and tween girls. “They are using it for what I’d almost call conversation and communication,” he added, sharing images and messages with each other online “the same way you might use Tumblr.”
Indeed, former Tumblr president John Maloney was one of Storybird’s first funders and is now also an advisor. The company raised $850,000 in seed funding last year from Learn Capital, High Line Ventures, Index Ventures and Maloney. Storybird used the funding to relaunch the site in HTML5 and to add staff.
Storybird operates on a freemium model, selling memberships to teachers and individuals. Teachers can sign up for Storybird Pro memberships, starting at $69 a year, that give them more classroom tools and support a larger number of students. (A free teacher membership includes 75 student accounts and lets kids create an unlimited number of books.) Individuals can opt for membership ($9 a month or $59 a year), which entitles them to free PDF downloads of their books, custom covers and other perks. Otherwise, it’s $1.99 to download a story as a PDF. Users can also order a print version of their book, starting at $13.95 for a two-page paperback (and ranging up to $43.95 for a 24-page premium hardcover).
A “consumer connection” for artists
Users can’t upload their own art to Storybird. All of the art on the site is professionally created, and that’s intentional. Ury said he initially thought about a site for collaborative storytelling, where one user would draw and the other would write, but quickly realized that “asking one party to draw was going to be ridiculous,” because most people just aren’t very good artists. He and Puhlmann instead decided to tap the professional artists, illustrators and animators they’d worked with at previous jobs. “Some of these guys have no consumer connection,” Ury said. “We could use that.” The artists upload their work to Storybird for free, and Storybird links back to their Etsy shops and personal websites. Storybird also pays authors royalties when users download or print their creations.
A few Storybird artists are now making “hobby money” from the site — $5,000 to $10,000 a year, Ury said. But Storybird is also driving “millions of visits” to the artists’ websites and Etsy pages.
What’s next: Poetry, long-form and “a new approach to revenue”
“We are to publishers what Android is to Microsoft,” Ury said. “Microsoft is about shrink-wrapped IP. With Android, the IP is free and they make money somewhere else. With Storybird, the IP on the platform is free” and the company will turn elsewhere for revenue: “We’ll charge you to be part of the community, as opposed to paying for reading and writing.” Hence the memberships for individuals and teachers.
Storybird is considering tip jars for artists, or paywalls, to certain content — “some way, where, as the artist starts to grow, they can create a different approach to revenue.” But Ury’s not yet sure how that will look. And if the content is monetized somehow, the writers present another problem. “We’re starting to see amateur writers who are just killing it, building up an audience and getting quite popular,” Ury said. “But an artist may have 10, 15, 20,000 people who’ve written stories with their artwork. We’re not sure how to commercialize that. We’re clearly brokering a relationship between the writer and the artist, but it’s by proxy.”
That’s a difference between Storybird and completely text-based community writing sites like Wattpad (another Toronto-based company, which has about 10 million members). Some Wattpad authors have gotten traditional book deals, but on Storybird, multiple authors are working with the same art, and it’s not clear yet if just one person can be an “ambassador” of a certain set of artwork.
In 2013, Storybird plans to expand to other form factors, including poetry and longer works. For now, the company will remain web-based. “I don’t like the fragmentation of Android and I’m not crazy about what’s going on with Apple,” Ury said. “I feel strongly — and the more I talk to developers and investors, it’s borne out — that staying on the web and working with the power of the link has allowed us to grow in a way that you just can’t do through the app marketplace. It’s a nightmare dealing with apps in schools” and libraries and schools remain “a really big way that we grow.” For now, the HTML5 site looks good on iPad.
Moving into 2014, “what happens if Storybird tries to play a cultural role beyond the platform?” Ury wondered. “We could be the next multimedia platform for an author or artist. We could incubate the next animated series.”