Telling tales with some help from software


I’m supposed to be the one asking the questions. But as we chat in front of Tully’s cafe in San Francisco’s financial district, Stephen Racunas says to me, “So what’s your story?” I shouldn’t be surprised he’s asking. Racunas’ startup, Story Coach, aims to build an encyclopedia of every person’s life lessons.

Story Coach is part publisher, part editor, part time-capsule. The service lets people tell a short story to the company, either verbally or written out. Story Coach then turns the yarn into an electronic or physical book. Here’s how it works: A customer either phones in, types up, or records and sends in a story. Typically the topics are those pearls of wisdom one picks up along the way of life. The software, which 42-year-old Racunas, the chief company’s technologist, has dubbed Story-Tech, provides prompts to bolster the tale: elaborate here, embellish there, for instance. An algorithm then scrapes the web for relevant historical content — news clippings, pictures, video footage. Then, based on the story and material found online, one of the team’s designers creates original illustrations.

(If that sounds a bit like a 21st century version of the oral history, it is. The firm originally sought to partner with StoryCorps, an NPR program that focuses on telling the stories of everyday people and that has been around since 2002. No luck so far.)

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The idea was born out of a group project in Design Garage, a class at Stanford’s design school taught by David Kelley, founder of legendary design firm IDEO. At Stanford, Racunas teamed up with fellow student Mark Rogers, now Story Coach’s CEO, and designer Jules Sherman and head of sales Zach Osborne. The idea began as a medical project focused on serving seniors. But after some research, they found that potential users’ biggest desire was connecting with younger family members.

So they decided to tweak the plan and start with the segment that presumably has the most stories to tell: grandparents. The team went around to senior centers asking for volunteers. Instead of using the word “senior,” Racunas refers to his first costumers as “elders” to designate their wisdom. The company has made about 30 books to date, and plans to sell them for $5 per e-book and $20 per hardcover. They are self-funded, and have raised money for Story Coach by continuing to work on health tech. And someday their storytelling technology could even make tales “smarter” — like changing the plot mid-story based questions from a reader (good, perhaps, for the precocious grandchild who asks “why?” after every sentence).

Storytelling is an ancient practice. Story Coach wants to take it into the future.

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