Rutger Bruining of Story Terrace talks life stories
Rutger Bruining thought about recording his grandparents' life stories—life in the Resistance during WWII, 20 years in the Caribbean—but he never got around to it. The regret he experienced at having missed the opportunity spurred him to start Story Terrace, a company that produces life story books.
"A biographer for every person."
Rutger's breakthrough came when he realized he could tap into the freelance market to match up writers with customers. When someone orders a book package, Story Terrace assigns them a writer within their area, allowing most interviews to be conducted in person. If Story Terrace doesn't have a writer nearby, they go looking for one [Hint: This is why you should have an updated LinkedIn profile!].
To date, they have 200 freelance life story writers in the US, and many more in the UK and the Netherlands.
Also covered in our interview:
- using family members as guinea pigs when starting a new life story business
- how Angel investors helped him get his fledgling business off the ground
- the guidebook of high-level tips Story Terrace provides to its freelance writers
- creating a structure or outline of the book before the writing is started
- using technology and an online platform to help customers upload photos and captions, and—in the future—to make edits to the drafts
- systematically surveying customers after they've gone through the process
- Story Terrace's Virtual Reality pilot program (compare this to the work Hilarie Robison is doing with embedded links to videos in her life story books at Legacy Tale)
Links and stuff:
Want to learn more about becoming a freelance life story writer for Story Terrace? Check out their application process.
If you enjoy the interview, please help others find us by leaving a review on iTunes.
Now go out and saved someone's story.
Amy: 00:46 Can you tell us what inspired you to create Story Terrace?
Rutger: 01:23 Absolutely. It was much more of a sort of a personal journey than a professional journey. I felt regret for over 10 years that I didn't record my grandparents' stories. I have been thinking ever since about why I didn't do that even though I had that intention, and why so many other people haven’t done the stories of the people they care about the most. Story Terrace really came out of having had different ideas over that decade, none of which seemed really scalable to me and not really solving the issue. So when I saw how easy it had become to manage freelancers online and with some of these more generic freelancer marketplaces like freelancer.com, I realized not only that you could have people in different places do freelance work, but specifically how many great journalists and authors were working as freelancers and were available for jobs like the ones that I wanted them to do, such as record other people's life stories.
Amy: 02:28 Did you ever do any of this for your own family?
Rutger: 02:39 The question is more who hasn't done one in my family by now. The first guinea pig was my stepfather, and my mother has just started hers. My father has done his. Actually I got one given for my birthday recently and I have started the process to sort of do my own, although I'm a little bit younger than the average customer.
Amy: 03:07 What a great idea. Y have this idea, this brainchild to match up freelance writers with doing something that you have a regret that you did not do. But then to use your family members. That’s very common to what most of my listeners probably have gone through and how I started off, pretty much any personal historian or life story writer that I know, we use our family members as guinea pigs and then you can work out the problems as you go through the process. Things that you didn't expect, things that you didn't know that you didn't know. Did I read something about a grandfather who was maybe involved in the Resistance? Is that right?
Rutger: 03:54 Yes, he was. And actually I spent quite a lot of time with my grandparents when I was in school. He used to tell me a lot of stories about being in the Resistance, but also about traveling. He and my grandmother, they left for a couple of decades in the Caribbean where he was a physician. And he played a lot of sports, which is something that we really connected over. So all of those stories, once he passed away and they just faded so quickly, much quicker than I expected. I was never able to really retell them in the same way that he told me the stories.
Amy: 04:33 I'm not sure how old you are, but you do sound a little bit young to even have that interest in the family stories. Typically it's not until somebody gets till maybe their early fifties or so, that they start realizing, oh, my parents are getting older and if we don't do something to collect their stories, they'll be gone forever. But it sounds like maybe that impulse struck you a little bit earlier in life and maybe it had to do with the death of your grandparents.
Rutger: 05:00 A lot of our customers give the product as a gift to their parents and they are on average a little bit older than when I sort of started to take an interest in this. I'm 40, but I started the company about four years ago and I've been thinking a lot longer about it. So in that sense you're probably right. And then the question is, why is that? Probably because I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and because I had that idea that I wanted to interview them. So when I then didn't do it, it was kind of a strong regret that didn't really leave me that easily.
Amy: 05:40 [inaudible]. And then when you launched Story Terrace, you did it with the backing of some financial investors, is that right?
Rutger: 05:51 Yes. I started by myself and then at some point I got a group of Angel investors to join and to help get us to the next stage. And then the last funding we did, as you alluded to in your introduction, was crowd funding.
Amy: 06:06 Most of my listeners are going to be people that are solo practitioners, you know, in most of them bootstrapped, they don't have investors. They’re just going out there and starting their company with whatever savings they have. I know when I started The Story Scribe, my life story writing business, I started that back in 2010 and you know, my planning, my sort of market analysis was: pinch my nose, close my eyes and jump into the deep end. And hope there's people out there who want this product. Thankfully there are, and have been consistently throughout. I still believe on a gut instinct level that the market is very underserved. But I'm guessing since you had investors, you probably did some market analysis and you probably really studied the market to see if, you had to tell your investors why this was a viable idea, is that the case? And is there anything that you can share with us that, like any real hard numbers about the state of the life story business and how many people want to have it done and why we know it is a good business to get into.
Rutger: 07:22 I don't have as much data as you, uh, as you may think I started a business based on gut feel and I started by myself without external investors. So I don't think I was that different from you and most of your listeners in that sense. The difference is probably that I'm not a writer. I'm wasn't starting the business because I was going to write these stories myself. So I was looking for a model that was using third party writer or sort of freelancers and build a business around. It's in terms of how big the market is or could be. I personally, I'm on the same side as you are. I believe that we can create a movement, people like yourself, myself and other listeners by offering this service and by making people more aware of that at some point it becomes a normal part of life that you capture your own life story or your mom's or dad's life story captured.
Rutger: 08:24 So that's the bigger goal which we probably all share and how long it will take to get there is the big unknown in terms of data and bringing external investors in. I've never been able to find really strong research around this topic and we've had a little bit of research done ourselves and from that came out that about two thirds of the people would be interested to capture their parent's life story and about a who would be willing to pay the that we charge for that. So. So that's sort of as much as I can tell you here.
Amy: 09:01 Well, and obviously if you, if you did this crowdfunding campaign and you had so many people, from what I understand, you had quite a few people who became small investors in the company. I mean that right? There is proof that there is. I like how you called it a movement. There is this swell of interest in capturing the stories and what I think is probably the biggest hindrance isn't a lack of interest, but a lack of knowledge that there are companies like yours out there to help people gather these stories and record them and create beautiful books or other types of projects. so yeah, that, that movement, our biggest challenge right now, I feel is getting the word out that yes, you can save your stories and your elders and your family their stories because, you know, I don't know how it is with you, but if, if I'm talking to anybody that I've just met and they asked me what I do, there is immediate interest in it.
Amy: 10:01 You know, people just respond so well and that's whether they're ready to have their own story or somebody else's story done. But people are just very interested in this and, and I think we live in a really good time because technology has made it possible. And I, I love the idea that you've tapped into the freelance market. So can you talk a little bit about that, because I'm sure some of my listeners will probably be interested. You have a venue for freelancers to go out and do what they love doing best, which is telling stories. How does that whole thing work?
Rutger: 10:34 Well, there's two ways to look at it. One is from the customer's perspective and one is from the writer's perspective, from the customer's perspective, and we want them to be able to work with a local writer, someone that really matches with their, with their backgrounds and their personality and background can be a professional background, but it can be also an interest or a cultural backgrounds. And at times we also get requests for sort of people with specific language requirements where we would interview for in Mandarin, which was write a book in English. But in any event, we really tried to have a very widespread range of freelance writers as part of our pools. We can offer people in very far flung places with their background and personality.
Amy: 11:30 That has to be a challenge. Where are your markets right now? Are they in the UK and the US or beyond?
Rutger: 11:38 So our biggest market is the US. And we are also active in, in the UK and in the Netherlands.
Amy: 11:43 And you have a stable of freelance writers for each of those locations?
Rutger: 11:50 That's right. So in the US we have have over 200 writers in our pool and we are adding to that every week.
Amy: 11:56 And is the, is the goal for the writers to be able to go and meet the storytellers in person or are these interviews done on skype or on phone?
Rutger: 12:06 So 95 percent or maybe even more of our books are created on the back of in-person interviews. So that's why we really, when we have a customer in Indiana, we’ll use a writer in Indiana.
Amy: 12:20 I am so impressed that you've been able to spread the net so far. From my own standpoint, the in-person interviews are so powerful. I've done interviews over skype and over phone but more with the secondary people, so not the main storyteller, but if there are children or, or colleagues or somebody wants to add to the story or they want to have their voices in the story, then I can do those kinds of interviews over skype or on phone, but the in-person interview can be so powerful and I'm just, the logistics of it, of what you're doing is kind of mind boggling. So if you have, let's say you have somebody from Akron, Ohio that contacts you and says, I want to have a life story done for myself and you don't have anybody in your pool of writers and Akron is that when you go out and look for somebody, a writer I mean.
Rutger: 13:13 Yes. And we will do that in two ways. We will basically go on linkedin and we do a manual search in that area. We would approach a number of people or if it is a bigger place, we may go to some other sort of online forum where we can find writers in that location. And the other thing is we would ask some of our existing writers who are just slightly too far away, whether they know somewhere.
Amy: 13:40 I think that you have different levels of projects, but how many in-person interviews take place? Then for a typical project
Rutger: 13:52 For a typical project there will be three interviews, in total around six hours.
Amy: 13:58 And then this is more from the writer's perspective. What does that look like? So you, you hire, you have somebody take on a job, they're responsible for doing the interviews and for the writing, are they running with this independently? Is there much, say, editorial oversight on, on your end? how does that all work?
Rutger: 14:20 After we've matched someone with a writer, we ask them to have a quick phone call so they get to know each other a little bit before the first meeting and they can break the ice a little bit so you don't run into walk into a stranger's home or invite a stranger into your home because you already had that first chat on the phone. So that's really the first step and that's done between the customer and the writer. We have a nice guide book with tips and tricks, and sort of, you know, our expectations on the process and the outputs and the bit of information on what our customers know and how we have instructed the customer so that the writers fully aware of that. So that's an online document that our writers can review any moment. They create a structure for the book which then the customer approves. And I mean we, we will have a look at that as well, but generally we're not so much into the details that we can really judge it.
Amy: 15:27 Let me, let me interrupt. When you say a structure, are you talking about an outline?
Rutger: 15:31 Yep. Basically an outline just to make sure and I would recommend it to anyone to make sure that the customer is on the same page as to writer and so that's after the writing is done. The someone doesn't need to completely restructure the book and from there if that's agreed by the customer, their writer basically the entire text or if it is specifically long book and sometimes we would do that in pieces, but with most of our standard books that we'll be all done in one go. We would copy edit that in house and then the writer would share that with the customer, take onboard any of the changes to customer would like and then they're handed over to us and we take care of a photo collection and creating the book.
Amy: 16:18 Yeah. That was going to be another question that I asked because with the photos, you know, often they're. So they're such an integral part of the narrative. I mean sometimes like for instance, if I'm working on a project and somebody has something that's maybe an anecdote or less than an anecdote, something, some little tidbit that they want included in their story, but it's not anything that you can really fully develop in within the narrative. That's where photos come in handy because you can have a long caption that captures something, but that, that piece is separated out for, for your process and that's done in house, is, is that, does that include the scanning and writing the captions and all of that.
Rutger: 17:04 So in general, the photos are sent to us digitally if customers are unable to digitize that and we do it for them occasionally, but in principle they send them to us digitally and they indicate in which chapter they want them to be. So that's also why we do that after there's an outline for the book so that the customer can move them around in our online system and they can make changes to where they want their book generally. And they write their own captions and sometimes we help them with and we have instructions for them. Well, we would include in captions and making sure there's an order of sort of a title location and a timestamp.
Amy: 17:47 Oh, that's interesting. Okay. So it really is a collaborative process with the customer there. are actually, is there a portal or something that they can log into on the website? Oh, interesting. Okay. So they're actually doing a little bit of work. I'm not the writing part, but they're doing a little bit of work on, on saying where they want things and how they want things to look. Is there a lot of customization that they can do, say for the photos or are all the photos, are they, are they interspersed through the chapters or are they all on separate pages?
Rutger: 18:22 No, our books are printed in color, uh, throughout, which means that we can place a pictures anywhere. Generally we placed him at the end of chapters.
Amy: 18:31 Do you use a template for the layouts? Are, are all of the layouts custom designed?
Rutger: 18:37 So we use templates and yes. So we use templates. I think that's,
Amy: 18:43 that's the short answer. Okay. Very good. And then what about the cover art?
Rutger: 18:47 so for the cover we have a quite a few templates and at times we fully custom creates the cover but there we have tendonitis as well and it depends on the type of picture customers use which template we recommend to them, but ultimately we give them a few options and sometimes people don't use photos. I don't know if that's your experience as well, but sometimes we get some, I don't know, it could be a painting or a drawing or we help customers to source someone who can turn a photo into, into some kind of artwork. There's, there's different things. We also help people creating family treats, all the kind of stuff that may be required for the book that's not just plain text,
Amy: 19:32 right. Well in with your customers. So if they're, you know, if they're elderly and they're not computer savvy or they're not design savvy, do you find that the family members help out with these kinds of things too?
Rutger: 19:48 They're two different. I mean it really depends on what the customer wants. Some customers love it if one of their grandchildren helps them out with the book and they kind of enjoyed being part of that process. Some people really want to do it by themselves until the product is finished. We very often sense printouts of text to customers that don't even have a computer and we also take people's photos, sometimes the writers to do take the captions, but these are really exceptions where we try to help people that are not digitally savvy.
Amy: 20:21 So you do the copy editing and I assume some proofreading and you do the photos and the captions and the layout all in house. And then what do the customers end up with? Are these, do they get to decide if they want a hardcover or softcover or do they get to add more books under the order? If they'd like?
Rutger: 20:40 We print full color hardcover books and our customers get four with their package, they can order more. They can also order softcover. We have created a coffee table style books in the past as well. So there's, there's different options, but the standard book is a full color hardcover book.
Amy: 21:02 Sounds like you're using freelance writers pretty much every step of the process that you're talking about. There's a big pool of freelancers. I mean I know there's freelance designers, there's freelance proofreaders, copy editors, but you have a mixture of, of using freelancers and some in house staff.
Rutger: 21:22 Yes. To be copy edited and proofread. We generally do in house.
Amy: 21:28 You're starting just like any solo practitioner out there, any life story writer, you know, we start with the marketing and we see it through to, you know, we put the book in somebody's hand. You're doing the exact same thing on a different scale, but I'm sure there's some parts of the process that are a little bit more challenging. Can you talk about that?
Rutger: 21:48 More challenging for us than when you're an individual or in general what we find the most challenging parts?
Amy: 21:53 Yeah. No, I mean in general, like where are the parts that maybe are a little bit harder than other parts of your whole process.
Rutger: 22:02 We do quite a lot of customer research and what we found is that customers really enjoy the interaction with their writers. They absolutely love it, are also very happy with the end product. They also tend to enjoy the sales process. The thing that they rate the lowest is the time where they need to actually create the edits. So the time from having the text to having to print a pdf, which is all this stuff with getting the photos in the right place and etc. Etc. So that's really the part that we've been working on and that's why we bring up more online. So then it doesn't become this process where a customer sees a sort of a foolproof and they want to make a few changes. We need to make that. Then we get another big document that we need to send to them, which they need to check. So we really want to bring it online so they can immediately see the changes they want to make. Such as moving a photo around quickly changing the name and the caption.
Amy: 23:07 That's a great idea. Yeah, because that's one of the bottlenecks for me to, I shouldn't say bottlenecks, that is a time consuming process when you're getting, you think that you're at the finish line, but then there's all these small changes that have to keep going back and forth and honestly, you know, you have to get approval to because you don't want to send it off to a printer and binder and have those little mistakes hanging out there or other mistakes that maybe they haven't noticed. So, and then be the one who's responsible for those mistakes. So, in my experience, each of the rounds of changes then necessitates the client going through the draft and approving and signing off again. And it can get frustrating for them because that's when it's not as much fun. That's when they're not in the stage of telling their stories and sharing these really meaningful things and it gets a little technical so I can understand that. So how do you find this out? Do you do a questionnaire at the end asking them like a customer survey on what they liked and what they didn't like?
Rutger: 24:14 A customer survey, which just goes to any customer completes their book including if there's someone that's paid for the product but isn't the storyteller and it's been a gift. We send it to both of them and we on a regular basis, I would say every two to three months, everyone in the company gets assigned a number of phone numbers from people who have completed their book and we call all of them: the person who leads our technology development, marketing team, and basically everyone around a company gets to speak to a few customers and what they thought of the process.
Amy: 24:50 That is a great idea. And are you have certain questions that you're asking them or is it just a casual conversation? Like, hey, hi. You know, how was the experience? did you enjoy it?
Rutger: 25:02 It’s not really a script. It's an interview. It's a little bit like the instructions we give to our writers, which are pretty much high level and tips, otherwise they have the freedom to do the interviews any way they want. We want to understand what people found a process. We want to understand what they thought of the product, of the sales process, but within that we try to keep it open because otherwise we don't really hear what the customer thinks.
Amy: 25:39 Yeah. I think that's a great tip for anybody who's doing these kinds of projects is to reach out and find out what worked for the customer and what didn't work. We can modify and be better the next time around. We're kind of getting short on time, but I did want to ask you a virtual reality life story project.
Rutger: 26:08 It's something that we're looking into. I mean, for me, I would like to help people to capture their life story in a very meaningful way. And firstly, I believe a book is a fantastic medium because you can weigh every word and you can really write the story the way you want to without feeling pressure because you can always change a few words or an entire chapter and deleted until the very end. But for the person consuming a book, there's also something missing which is sort of video voice. And so I'm basically looking into what VR can do in this, in this area, and I can play a very important role wherever you still would create books, which really create a script and wherever we would find out what are the most meaningful stories in someone's life. And then we would basically record those in a 3-D environment. And we've just done a first pilot where we did that. And then use people's own photos and home videos to enhance that experience so that you can hear your grandfather or grandmother and the most 10 most important stories of their life.
Amy: 27:21 So when you say you find this, you find out the stories ahead of time, are you reenacting anything or it's just where they know what kind of story they're going to tell once they have the cameras on them.
Rutger: 27:33 Exactly. So if you were to ask the average person, well first of all, you're not sure what to ask them if you haven't really created a book first. So when I say a script, I mean a manuscript for the book. I don't necessarily mean that we script will, people will say, but we will know which 10 topics to ask a question about and from there they can talk freely about it but they have already thought about it so they don't feel under the pressure and that will make it difficult for them to sort of being in front of a camera. It's not the most comfortable thing for most people. So they, they would know what we would talk about but they talk about it in a very natural way because it's not scripted.
Amy: 28:12 Are these special kinds of cameras then that you have to use?
Rutger: 28:16 So these are 360-degree cameras and so that's when you put on your headsets, you have the feeling like you're in one room with the, with the person that is telling the story.
Amy: 28:29 Wow, I love that. I love the idea of that. I have a 19-year old son. He's got an incredible curiosity about all kinds of things, you know, history, sociology, all kinds of things. But really video is the medium of choice and that's what you're doing. So you're integrating something because we've shifted, you know, there's obviously a lot of readers and that will always be with us, but there is now so much video in so much that we can do with video. So you're just, you're kind of gathering everybody into the fold, right? The people who, who aren't necessarily going to be sitting down and reading a 150-page book about their grandfather but would probably love to see this immersive virtual reality kind of project. I like that you're doing that. I did have an interview with Hilarie Robison who has a company called Legacy Tale and they're doing something sort of similar where in their book layouts and the photos they are, I'm not sure what the technical term is, but something that they're embedding within the photo.
Amy: 29:31 Somebody as they're reading the book, you know, this is a regular hard copy book. They can point their smartphone on the photo and it will come up with a video or it will come up with an audio snippet and it's not, it's not virtual reality, but it's, it's bringing in those elements of a video and audio. And I think, you know, particularly audio is, can be so powerful when, when you're hearing the voice, especially after the person is gone, audio is a very powerful medium to really connect to that person because our voices are just so much a part of who we are.
Rutger: 30:07 Yeah, absolutely. And I think it's just an area where we are in the experimental phase and we need to find out what's the best ways to bring these emotions and voice and video across and that personally I strongly believe in VR, but maybe it will be something else. So it's all very early days.
Amy: 30:28 Well good luck with it. What do you want to see in the future for Story Terrace? What are some of your big goals?
Rutger: 30:37 We really want to to help create a movement and really make people aware that you can now capture people's lives in a meaningful way. And honestly, if you don't do it, there's really no reason why you shouldn't do it. Wo we want to continue to make it more accessible and we want to make life as easy as we can for the freelancers we work with so that they can focus on the part of the work that they love doing and that our customers want them to do. Say the interviewing and structuring and ultimately the writing, whereas all the other products, we try to add technology to make it more efficient and more fun.
Amy: 31:16 If somebody wants to get in touch with you because they are a life story writer and they're looking for some more venues, how do they do that?
Rutger: 31:25 It's very simple. They go to our website, storyterrace.com, and there's a section on writers and then there is a section to become a writer.
Amy: 31:37 Thank you, Rutger. This was a really an enlightening talk. I love the direction that you're taking this and like I said before, I love this idea of it being a movement because I think that's exactly what needs to happen. This groundswell of interest, and connecting people who know how to do life stories with the people who want to have the life stories done and share their story with their family. So thank you for taking the time to talk to us today.
Rutger: Fantastic. Thank you for having me.