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STQRY: The company nobody ever says ‘no’ to

There’s only so much information you can fit on a small plaque to satisfy viewers’ curiosity. That’s the problem driving STQRY, a homegrown company that’s never been told ‘no’ following a pitch. Why? 

Picture this: You’re a tourist, walking but ecosystems are impossible to see when down past the Ferry Building on the San Francisco waterfront, the elegant centerpiece of the Embarcadero. It’s September, sunny in these parts of the world, and life, generally, is good. You’re excited to take in the city and soak in its history and culture.

San Francisco, however, is a big place. Maybe you have a heavily creased and stickered guidebook to lean on to open the city up for you, or maybe you’re the sort of traveler who likes to leave your experiences to chance.

There’s much to be aware of. Right where you’re standing, you’re a brief stroll away from an 80-year-old mural dedicated to the San Francisco waterfront strike of 1934, a monument honouring Abraham Lincoln and a bronze display that takes you through the long history of the very waterfront you’re walking down. The Team New Zealand’s America’s Cup base is close by. If you turned and dived into the city, there’s a litany of world-class art and museum spaces to be wowed by.

Every city has its own cultural ecosystem, you’re actually inside them. You can download all the apps in the world, but you’ll never be completely up with the play – and the juggling will get exhausting.

But what if every city could be brought to life inside one app, with the push of one button – part multi-media, part GPS, part city guide, part audio tour – which could not only take you to the door of the best museums, art galleries and points of interest in town, but also show you around inside in a more fulfilling way than ever before possible?

Such is the driving idea behind STQRY (pronounced ‘story’), the brainchild of two young Wellington 20-somethings, Chris Smith and Ezel Kokcu, with daylight between now and when they turn 30.

STQRY is geared for both the individual explorer and cultural institution, a new idea that has developed staggering momentum and quickly: zero-to-several hundred clients in a little over a year, a business offering that so far, in New Zealand and on the West Coast of the USA, has proven literally undeniable. 

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At the centre of all big things lies a great idea

The story of STQRY starts with a series of coincidental happenings, a silent snowball in the back of the minds of co-founders Smith and Kokcu as they searched for a big, new, important business idea and then explodes into a genesis moment prompted by a pelican, of all things. Smith, a native of Seattle in the United States, was working for Microsoft’s Xbox department as a 16-year-old. When he finished high school he wanted to combine travel and study. It was 2006, the Lord of the Rings trilogy had recently ended and New Zealand was on his radar. He started looking at Wellington’s Victoria University and decided to apply and see what came of it.

“At the time I figured, why not? What can hurt? The worst case scenario was that I would get to experience the coolest country ever,” he says.

While at university, acquiring a degree in international business and marketing, Smith kept clear of more typical modes of student employment. He worked as a freelance web designer and co-founded Dash Tickets, growing the business into a nationwide ticketing company.

Kokcu met Smith at the start of 2012, when she moved from Nelson to Wellington to start a computer science degree at Victoria, having recently returned from a gap year in Turkey. “It was really good timing,” she says.

The two began talking business ideas. Smith had left Dash Tickets and was looking for a challenge. Inspiration was elusive. They attended a developer conference at Te Papa, sowing the seed that it might be fun to develop something for a museum. Kokcu says she started thinking about times travelling through Turkey where she’d overpaid for confusing audio guides.

The dots were forming, but it took a trip to Wellington Zoo to bring them together. Enjoying a day out, the two friends were fascinated by the pelican’s bucket-like gullet. One of only two pieces of information on display was that the pelican could hold 13 litres of water in its beak. “We both saw this fact and it’s like ‘wow’. You immediately think, ‘why, how, when’. It had no context,” Smith says.

Kokcu recalls, “We couldn’t find any information. We couldn’t find a zookeeper. There was no one to tell us how the pelican held that much water in its beak.”

Smith says that he tried to use Google to source the answer. “But it’s hard to materialise a question to type into Google. It is hard to Google a satisfying answer,” he says. It was the very prototype of a lightning-bolt moment.

STQRY founders ezel kokcu chris smith founders adviceVisitors have curiosities. Institutions have stories. With every second person smartphone enhanced, the power to bring spaces – zoos, museums, galleries – to life in a more engaging and informative way was at Smith and Kokcu’s fingertips: QR codes, image recognition software, geo-location technology.

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Smith and Kokcu scribbled a one-page concept down on paper and took it to Wellington Zoo. It was kismet. The zoo was looking for new and better ways to communicate with its visitors. They were in.

Before Smith and Kokcu even had a product, they had a launch partner. Smith had pitched Dash Tickets to large businesses, but this was something new for him.

“Trying to sell and pitch nothing is much harder. I think the best way to do it is to sell yourself and your passion. It’s really hard to say, I’ve got this really cool idea I can’t show you or tell you about, so just trust me,” Smith says.

Oliver Du Bern, visitor experience manager for the Wellington Zoo, was in the room for that first pitch. He was impressed with Smith, who seemed to understand the potential of what this new idea could be and how exactly it would work for the zoo. “It was one of the best pitches I’ve ever seen,” Du Bern says.

Importantly, the timing was perfect for the zoo. Du Bern says that zoo staff had been kicking around for a while how they could engage visitors through their mobile devices and had experimented with its own QR codes.

Over the next series of weeks, Smith and Kokcu, in partnership with the Wellington Zoo, built STQRY from the ground up.

“It was very intense. The most hectic few weeks ever,” Kokcu says.

Smith enlisted several friends, who gathered in his apartment off Courtenay Place in Wellington, laying out sheets of paper, drawing lines between them, while Smith says he sat in a dark corner coding it all. Amidst that crush, they were able to get STQRY going with a beta version in June 2012. In these early stages, several decisions were made that would later help STQRY to grow quickly and without snags.

Hunkered down in Smith’s apartment, trying to bring the idea in their heads to life, they decided with STQRY to shun existing online content management systems, where future clients would upload material. Using Drupal or WordPress might have been quicker then, but they felt it best to go their own way.

“It meant that we could make up our own rules. We could customise every element for the user. And now that we’ve grown it means there’s no limitations on what we can do,” he says.

The close partnership with the zoo was a massive leg up for STQRY. Du Bern says he was in constant contact with Smith, offering him feedback, or having Smith talk things through for him, guiding him on how to roll STQRY out across the zoo.

“Developing with a client, they know what they want. They give good feedback and we could put it into a product that for them was essentially perfect,” Kokcu says.

STQRY has clients and it has users. This partnership with Wellington Zoo allowed Smith and Kokcu to build the company from the ground up in tandem with each.

The zoo supplied them with access to a focus group of visitors to help make sure STQRY was as easy to navigate as it was to program information into. It was a win-win. This user focus from day one has manifested itself in small, but welcomed touches. Information in STQRY is maximised to use as little data as manageable. When using a specific venue guide, be it museum, zoo or art gallery, the app reorders information in line with where a visitor is, rather than prescribing a set path for them to follow inside the venue.

“This approach has given us an edge from the very get-go and it has helped build a company culture,” Smith says. Today, STQRY partners with clients to develop new features for the app, reflecting specific needs, which are then made available to all its customers.

Smith says that most recently Venture Southland, which STQRY has been working with to develop guides for its Milford Sound tracks, helped spearhead the launch of an offline mode, to counter the complete lack of phone reception out in the bush. “Everything we do now is in tandem with a client, with a direct customer in mind that it will affect.”

Sometimes the stars align on an idea

With the Wellington Zoo their first customer and implementing the app successfully for its visitors, STQRY, fuelled by a $400,000 seed-funding round, focused on getting word out. They hired developers, a copywriter and “just kind of hit it hard,” Smith says.

Feedback was mixed. “We were still new, still trying to figure out what our objective was and we only had one client with no study, no numbers to go at them with,” Smith says.

The early days were just about talking to as many people as they could. And then a couple of months in, things exploded. From within this boom, a path alighted itself.

The success of STQRY as a broad-use app, not tied to a specific venue like the Wellington Zoo, depends on reaching a critical mass of buy in across a single geographical area. A city-by-city approach became the most logical plan of attack. Within this, Smith and Kokcu saw that getting city government on board was a crucial first call to make.

“They’re a funding source to museums and very influential. They run meetings, have great contacts, there’s public art near every venue we pitch to and everyone in the community knows them,” Smith says.

Wellington City Council was an early supporter and produced a glowing report about what a city enhanced by the app could look like, which STQRY touted to other councils.

“STQRY is a powerful single-use tool. But when there is a lot going on in an area it becomes even more powerful to use,” Smith says.

stqry in action?

New Zealand was easy to connect, but the first 15 months was, in a sense, a series of smaller launches. STQRY spread outwards from Auckland and Wellington, to Hamilton, Napier, Christchurch and Southland, before jumping over the Pacific Ocean into Seattle, down into San Francisco and Los Angeles, where they are now actively pitching clients. Each new city is a new start, where Kokcu and Smith have to build out their base and reach the right influencers.

When the requisite strategy made itself clear, the rest spoke for itself. There was a broad need for what STQRY was selling.

Smith says that only 13 percent of museums have audio guides and within those places few visitors actually use the guides. Audio guides are expensive, too. They cost around $40,000- 50,000 to launch, he estimates, and require leasing hundreds of devices, with costs around creating content and maintaining hardware.

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stqry in actionWith STQRY, if a visitor has a smartphone, they already have the hardware. The client, which develops and composes its stories with STQRY, can upload and maintain the information on their own. Clients have then seen a 15-20 percent uptake of the app, which is much higher than is been seen with guides that have to be paid for and picked up.

It has proven simple, engaging and cheaper, attractive for both museums with existing audio guides and those who can’t afford them.

Hilary Lyden, of the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, a STQRY client, says she feels it will help broaden the pool of museum visitors, which is exciting to her. Her museum had audio guides, she says, but was struggling to engage.

“There’s only so much information you can fit on a small plaque,” she says.

The response from visitors to the museum, Lyden says, has been “hugely positive”. They can put multimedia content at its visitor’s fingertips easily and the QR codes rolled out into the museum are easy for users to navigate, with the in-app scanner.

Inside the app, customers have no way to market themselves over other customers. Points of interest for people using the app emerge in line with what is closest by.

And it’s quickly become a tool for its users to discover the city at large. Half of all people that download it in one place use it to travel to a second location, Smith says.

It’s a powerful amount of common sense. When their customers, such as the Wellington Zoo or the Walt Disney Family Museum, encourage visitors to download the app, they are marketing it for them. In six weeks across July and August, Smith says, there were 80,000 downloads without any effort from them.

But this benefits the clients too. In San Francisco, the Asian Art Museum is a customer. The much larger San Fran MOMA is, too.

When users download at one venue and then continue with the app, discovering things in that city they might not have otherwise, bigger clients are benefiting smaller ones on the platform. It’s a unique level of harmony between company, customers and app user. Smith says that 15 months in, they’ve never been told no following a pitch.

They’ve had a few responses of not now … all of which have later become yes, he adds.

Read more: Britomart concourse becomes a wearable gallery

A good idea, hard work and the right timing are a potent mixture 

With STQRY, Smith and Kokcu have at their disposal a single, adaptable tool, capable of working for a specific venue or across broader geography.

On a limited budget, Briony Ellis, the director of the NZTE’s promotional effort in San Francisco to leverage the New Zealand Government’s investment in Team New Zealand at the America’s Cup, needed a tool to tell New Zealand’s stories in San Francisco. There was a New Zealand restaurant opening for the event, a partnership with a local restaurant, and Team New Zealand, its sailors and the world-class local technology on board its boat.

Ellis turned to STQRY and has been delighted with the results. The opportunity it give a customer to link many assets into a single platform was unparalleled.

“It bought some cohesion in picking up 100 or so New Zealand elements city-wide in San Francisco,” she says.

Others have just been flat out impressed with Smith and Kokcu’s approach to doing business.

“STQRY’s rapid success is what a lot of planning and hard work looks like. Chris and Ezel really impress me. They’ve turned each connection and resource provided to them into an opportunity,” says Catherine Robinson, director of the Kiwi Landing Pad in San Francisco, who has worked with STQRY when they’ve come to the city.

STQRY has a staff of nine, which swells and takes on contract staff as required. All STQRY product development is done in Wellington. There’s an American base in Seattle and account managers working in each market. Smith and Kokcu serve as the discovery team, setting up new areas. Now it is Los Angeles, soon they hope, the East Coast. Within 12-18 months, Smith says, Europe. It’s a workplace held together by a lot of Skype.

Kokcu and Smith are in this for long haul. “We want STQRY to be in every cultural organisation in the world,” Smith says.

The two of them, with backgrounds in programming and business, are poised at a time of greater innovation within the field of museums and art galleries, to make a significant impact in how people interact with and learn about cultural ecosystems.

Smith thinks that it almost had to be outsiders like them who were going to help cross this divide.

“We’re passionate about arts and culture, but it is an advantage that we don’t have a background in it. If you were too immersed, you’d be tainted. We’re very lucky in that technology is taking over the world, but yet we’ve found an industry that is still blooming into technology.”

Growth has been fast and the heights STQRY has scaled in 15 months could be vertigo- inducing. But as Smith explains, the speed they’ve grown has given them little time for celebration or self-awareness.

For Kokcu, it really only began to start to sink in recently.

“I generated a client list and it was so long. I looked over at Chris and told him to come and take a look. We’ve made a big impact. It was right there in front of us.” 

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