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Scrappy Storytellers

by Kristine Santos

People always want to know their family history. StoryCall is an Atlanta consumer startup dedicated to making it easier for families to capture their stories. StoryCall has recently opened their beta, allowing users to capture stories from elders in their family through a series of professionally-guided biography sessions. Alok Deshpande, co-founder and CEO of StoryCall, is driven by his passion for creating sustainable businesses that can positively change the way people live.

What’s the story behind StoryCall?

I started StoryCall after my grandfather passed a couple of years ago at 96. He was in a memory care community and he had Alzheimer’s for the last 6 years of his life. My parents live in India, so my wife and I—along with my uncle and others—were heavily involved in his care.

When he passed, the grandchildren decided to memorialize his life by sharing stories about him with our broader community. Unfortunately, when we started asking questions—to my parents, my father, my uncle—they knew some things, but they didn’t have stories about his life as he would tell them. They had what I call the CliffNotes of his life–surface level information. It was at that point my sister and I felt the regret of having lost his stories.

I looked for a solution for my own parents, but couldn’t find anything that fit the bill. A lot of things are like memory books—you hand it to your grandparents and say, “You should record all your memories in here.” That can be very isolating. So, I decided to build the solution.

The first product we created is called Umenta. It is a much larger project for families. We interview several members (10, 15, 20 members of the family). We then take all of those interviews: record them, cut them up, transcribe them, edit them, and launch it all on a private website for the family. We have several families using Umenta—it’s basically a full-service approach.

As we shared Umenta with more families, we realized that for many people it’s either not appropriate or they are unable to take on that size of a project. We wanted to make StoryCall more accessible. We kept getting feedback from our customers that they loved the interview process—specifically the elders. They loved talking with somebody and having engaging questions. That’s the genesis of StoryCall. We said, “Let’s build a platform that connects people who want to capture their life stories with those interviewers who love doing it. If we can put those two pieces together and serve as a platform to preserve those stories—giving them questions, maps and, directions—then we’re on to something.”

What have been the most rewarding and difficult parts of creating StoryCall?

The most rewarding part has absolutely been the clients themselves and seeing the elation of the families. The storyteller (who tends to be an elder) gets excited about telling their stories, knowing their stories are being preserved, and having that dialogue. On the flip side, the adult children or grandchildren get the satisfaction and solace of knowing they’ve given one of the best gifts they could give to both their elders and future generations. It’s something they’ve thought about and now they’ve found a solution that works for them. That feedback has been the most rewarding.

It’s also rewarding to see the impact on the storytellers themselves. We’ve conducted several StoryCalls with a woman with early stage dementia. Recently, her daughter reached out to us to say that her mother has become so much happier and more gregarious. She’s talking more after she’s done several StoryCalls. Her memories are flowing. That’s incredibly rewarding for our team.

In terms of the challenges, it’s many of the same challenges of building a business: searching for the right fit, figuring out what people want, and managing a team. All of those things can be really tough. Some days, things are going really well; other days, it’s like the sky is falling. It’s an emotional rollercoaster. Trying to stay level-headed, you learn a lot about yourself in that process and that’s been the most challenging.

What’s your vision for StoryCall?

I believe that we can make it really easy to capture stories. Not only stories of elders, but stories of any topic, in any language, and in any country. Answering questions is the easiest way for people to share. If we get it right, we can build the largest database (for lack of a better term) of human history ever created in the first person. It’s someone who said it. We can listen to it. You can imagine people telling these stories.

Today, our complete focus is on elders and preservation of legacy because there’s urgency around that. In the future, you can imagine people being able to connect on stories about going through an illness or stories about a specific topic like the Selma to Montgomery March. We can drive this through, what we call StoryMaps. Our StoryMaps have specific questions across someone’s life. It often brings out stories that people didn’t even think about. We can have maps about any historic event and any sort of experience, helping people connect around those stories. The vision is for this to be a global opportunity. Facebook and Twitter connect people in today’s world; we want to use voice to help people connect on their past experiences.

What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the Atlanta’s entrepreneurial ecosystem? How do you want to see it grow?

We have really good and budding leadership. We’re located in Atlanta Technology Village and David Cummings has created a fantastic space. But, it’s not just David. He’s created it, and other people have taken it on and made a space that really harbors entrepreneurship. I see the benefit to that. I personally see it, I think our team sees it and we enjoy that. We’re having some new leadership of successful entrepreneurs, at least in tech, who are paving the way for a great system. ATDC also does a fantastic job.

The challenges are that, over time, Atlanta has to become more diverse in the types of companies coming out of the city. StoryCall is a consumer application. You don’t see a lot of consumer startups in Atlanta. Michael Tavani is pushing things around with Switchyards and he’s going to be very successful doing it. Still, to get support for a consumer app (as opposed to a B2B app) can be a bit more challenging.

People say that a lack of capital is a weakness, but I think it’s actually a strength of Atlanta as opposed to a weakness. People say there’s not enough capital but I disagree. There’s efficient capital here. It’s not thrown around like Silicon Valley, but it is efficient capital and you have to be scrappy. You have to be able to bootstrap. You need to be scrappy and go step by step. There are capital opportunities when you do that. Those capital opportunities tend to focus on healthcare, security, or other things Atlanta is known for, so I hope we’re able to broaden that over time.

Continuing reading this piece on pear-a-digms, a thought leadership blog focused on cultivating a culture of connected productivity entrepreneurs, students, business professionals, business owners, and everyone in between.

The Author: Kristine Santos. Entrepreneur. Anthropologist. Writer. Runs social media and blogging for Atlanta-based startup PEAR’d, a virtual collaboration ecosystem for entrepreneurs. A vegetarian who’s learning how to sew and wants to know all about your startup. Let’s talk on Twitter@PEARdUP

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