Diary of a start-up: Could Hail be the future of digital publishing?

When Bex Twemlow, the now-managing-director at Hail, was called back to her old High School in 2013 to help them solve a yearbook-related publishing problem, she ended up leaving the meeting with something on her mind.

The school was trying to put together a yearbook, but wrestling with issues around both form and function.

How could they get all the content they'd created during the year into one publication? How would they track down all the information they needed? The images? The stories? Where would it all be stored? On flash drives? Disks? On peoples phones? What was the best option for designing and publishing? And what would it cost? $30,000? 

Sitting looking at a cupboard full of the previous years offerings had left them feeling that there must be a better way. 

Later that night, Bex realised something: It wasn't just a school yearbook issue, it was a content-creationstorage and publication problem. It was an issue that was much broader and larger than schools and end-of-year publications.

It was about how we create, curate and communicate our most important stories. It was about how we get those stories out to our communities, our tribes.

Even later that night, a scratchy mock up drawing of a system that would allow people to stop thinking about the formatting and design elements of content creation and focus on actual content was drawn up by Twemlow over coffee and Mallopuffs, and presented, the next morning, to Tom Barnett (the head designer of her web design agency). 

Tom got it and liked it. He had not long before heard a Webstock talk by Karan McGrane where she'd spoken about adaptive content. The whole 'create once, publish everywhere' concept made sense and was a good fit with what Bex had presented to him. 

Orange curtains and shag pile carpets provided the back drop to the creative process, and five long months later, a product was beginning to take shape. But what to call her?

Long story short, a yearbook solution was delivered to the school and, in the process, created one of those conversations that lead to bigger, scarier and wholly more encompassing things. You know the kind: "...this is much bigger than this..." and "...this has an international market..". Those kind. It seemed that many organizations faced these same obstacles when it came to delivering their messages to audiences in a cost and time efficient manner. 

So Twemlow and Peter Hills, the principal of her old high school teamed up with Stuart Dillon-Roberts, a digital and IT specialist, and founded what was to become Hail. 

Clearly, the first challenge would be building the team – Bex knew who her ideal “A Team” was, but to secure them would create massive conflicts with her current business. So she set about advertising the roles and received some solid applicants, including Tom Barnett, Ben Dawson and Regan McEntyre, developers and designers at her agency. The agency was no doubt going to feel it, but tough decisions had to be made. 

Peter had recently invested in a piece of land close by which still had an empty 1970's house on it. So, fuelled by some early seed funding, Tom, Regan and Ben moved into "The House" up in Maori Hill, Dunedin, to start the product development process.

And that's where the hard work began.

Orange curtains and shag pile carpets provided the back drop to the creative process, and five long months later, a product was beginning to take shape. But what to call her? Given that most of the team were born in the 70's and that had already garnered creative energy from operating in a distinctly 1970's environment it only seemed right that the name should pay tribute to that. Why change something that's working for ya ? 

And so Hail was born. If you're a Star Trek fan the penny might have already dropped. A Hail is a form of communication used on Star Trek to engage with space stations and other space-like entities. A Hail involves sending and receiving signals, both digital and visual, and has the key element of two-way communication. Communication is sent and accepted and engagement is the result. 

The first customers for Hail were schools which helped to iron out Hail's inevitable bugs in the safety of friends. From those first few users the company learnt much about supporting people in content creation processes and team collaboration, knowledge which has now been put to good use with the platform's 45 real-live paying organizations. 

On Monday the 24th of August the decision was made to come out of beta, officially launch, and in true "start as you mean to continue" fashion, the company pushed for, and got some totally rad international media coverage on TechCrunch. (Up until this point no marketing or PR had been done, so that was kinda cool). Rad or not, the coverage was unexpected, with Bex and Paul Twemlow working through the night (and two bottles of wine) trying to keep up with the subsequent social media explosion.  

The TechCrunch article was brilliant, starting conversations about pain points in content creation and communication and validating the company's vision of enabling people to create intelligent content once, and publish that content anywhere, on any device. 

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....Which brings us up to the present. 

Last month Hail hit the road as part of our nationwide roadshows, talking to content creators up and down New Zealand about the issues around current content management platforms. We've been completely floored by the response to Hail so far. We are on to something. Which is both brilliantly comforting and completely terrifying. Hail is a thing. And we're making it happen. Hold on tight.