Heather Maio-Smith is the Co-Founder, President, and Chief Visionary Officer at StoryFile, bringing global audiences an interactive ecosystem that records and preserves human conversations in a way that removes the traditional boundaries of time and space.
Victoria talks to Heather about why this product needed to exist in the world, supporting human connection and storytelling, and the journey to get funding, expand, and plan what's next for StoryFile.
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VICTORIA: This is The Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Victoria Guido. And with us today is Heather Maio-Smith, Co-Founder, President, and Chief Visionary Officer at StoryFile, bringing global audiences an interactive ecosystem that records and preserves human conversations in a way that removes the traditional boundaries of time and space. Heather, thank you for joining us.
HEATHER: Thank you for having me, Victoria. I'm excited to have a conversation with you.
VICTORIA: Yes, I am really excited to learn about StoryFile and your product Conversa. Tell me a little bit about it.
HEATHER: You did a great job on the introduction; thank you. The one thing that I would add is that it's very important that people know that this is video. And this is the differentiator between us and maybe a traditional chatbot, for example. We are video-based. That could mean an actual human being creates the content. The video content is always preferable. [laughs] But you can also do it in some sneaky other ways too [laughs], so it's very interesting.
VICTORIA: Right. So as I understand it, and correct me if I'm wrong, you can record a video of a conversation and then use Conversa to turn that into an interactive video where a user has the freedom to ask their own questions.
HEATHER: Correct. Essentially, what you do is you answer whatever questions that you like. You're in charge of the storyline script. You create all the questions. The interviewee answers all of the questions via video record, and then all of those video clips are put into a database. Anyone can ask you basically any conversation. Most of them are open-ended conversations. If there are shorter, like, let's say you've only [inaudible 02:03] questions, and it's kind of a focus, you have a point, and it's a focused line of questioning, then that's obviously going to be you can't ask anything.
But we usually have the individual introduce it and say, "For example, this is my bio. I've answered a few questions about my life and my career and me personally, so feel free to ask me anything about my career or my life." Then the individuals will know what the parameters are for that conversation. And you could just ask anything, learn anything anytime you want. So it's in real-time for you.
No going on Google and searching through 20 pages to get an answer anymore. You should be able to talk the ideas. You should be able to talk to someone who's lived that experience or has that knowledge, ask them a question, and find out the information that you want to find out, or get to know somebody that you would never have the opportunity to talk to.
VICTORIA: What an interesting idea. And what led you to think that this was a product that needed to exist in the world?
HEATHER: Well, they say that necessity is the mother of invention. I happened to be in Holocaust education back in the early 2000s. And one of the main things that the entire field was concerned about is what are we going to do when the Holocaust survivors are no longer alive? They had spent over 60 years in the public telling their story, talking to students, for example the public. They've done documentaries; they've done books; they've done interviews. The Shoah Foundation at USC has 55,000 narrative interviews. So it's very well-documented.
But the one thing that we weren't able to replicate yet, and this is what we were worried about, was they couldn't make that personal connection. And how do they make that personal connection? It's through people asking their own questions and actually engaging with those individuals that that's when the real magic happened. I mean, that's when people felt connected to these individuals and that story, that history. That was what I didn't want to lose after they had passed away.
And so I thought to myself, there's got to be a way to replicate the Q&A, you know, the question and answer conversation where I can ask my own question, which leads me to learn deeper than if I was passively watching a video or even listening to a lecture.
So I went to the Shoah Foundation, and I said, "There's got to be a way to do this." They said after many conversations, "Okay. You might not be crazy. [laughs] or as crazy as we thought you were at the beginning. But we still don't know how you're going to do it. So go away and figure out how you're going to do it, and then come back to us when you've figured it out." That was my challenge.
And luckily, I found an amazing team to help us all figure out how to do it. And we got to the part where we had to take these individuals, like, the video recordings, and we had to have people actually ask them questions and have these conversations so that we could populate the database for a more accurate conversation. And so I was in the public for a couple of years all over the world.
And the one question I kept getting the most was, "This is amazing. Can I do this myself? And can I do this with my parents? Can I do this with my grandparents? Can I do this with the founder of our company?" And people came to me, and they had so many ideas. "This would be great for this. Oh my gosh, could you imagine doing this?" And after a while, you say to yourself, okay, what would it look like if we did this for everyone? What would it look like if we made it ubiquitous, allow everybody to replace their FAQs?
Every leader in this country, every CEO, every influencer, or any individual who's got something to say that we can all learn from, which, by the way, is pretty much everyone on the planet. They can tell their story, and they can talk about their experiences, and we can learn from that. Even saving time on interviewing future candidates in person. You narrow it down to 10 people. You have them do StoryFiles. You actually engage with their StoryFile, and then you just choose two that you want to meet in person, possibly saving you hours and hours of time.
It's just about asking questions and getting an answer in the moment when you need it, not waiting for an email, not going through 20 pages of Google. And it's also about connecting with a real person instead of these chatbots that everybody's trying to move away from. And I think they're trying to move towards avatars because they're more visual, but it's still not a human being. So it's still kind of an automated voice, and they're not real. And there's no emotion, and you don't have any body language.
So what if you could just ask a person? You probably get asked some of the same questions. And in the next 2 minutes, you could probably think of 10 questions that you get asked almost daily. So what if you did a StoryFile? You answered all those ten questions and maybe more, and then you never had to have that conversation again. Think of all the time that those people now, if they get in front of you, they don't have to waste time asking any of those typical, basic questions. They can just get right into a deeper conversation with you.
VICTORIA: I love it. Yeah, I'm already thinking in the back of my mind, like, oh, I could use these for what if you're trying to show what it's like to work at thoughtbot? And you just want to ask someone at thoughtbot a question, and you could play with StoryFile. Yeah, I think it's enormously useful. And I love the story starts with a hugely impactful mission of capturing those stories. And I wonder how that experience of the importance of storytelling has had on your ability to get funding and get this project through as a founder.
HEATHER: It's been a journey. [laughter] First of all, let me say that I think it has been slightly more complex than most startups because, from the onset or the get-go, or whatever you want to call it, this technology has been meant for consumers and businesses alike. So you've got a B2C play, and you've got a B2B play, which is very complicated for investors to understand maybe and really get the vision in its totality.
So it's been a struggle to communicate it in a way that people really understand this can be done. You're creating a whole new medium. This is not an I'm creating a new rocking chair type of thing that's better than the other chair that you had. I'm creating a chair. It's a new kind of chair. And you have to take these people on a journey to understanding how much better their lives can be and how much time they can save if they just invest a little bit of time, which they kind of have to do anyway.
I mean, look at it, you spend so much time writing FAQs for a website and finding all the answers, and then putting them all together and putting them in the website. You could spend the same amount of time actually getting all those questions, recording yourself answering them. In fact, it probably would take less time. Record the answer, and then, bam, you have it. Everybody can actually talk to you, ask you those questions, and you can guide them. And they get the benefit of actually feeling as though they've talked to a human being. They've connected with you emotionally, and everyone's better off for it.
The investors have been...they either absolutely get behind you 100% and love what you're doing and want to be on the journey with you, or they are a bit we'll wait and see. There hasn't been one investor, though, that has said, "You're not onto something. I don't believe in what you're doing, and your idea is not going to work," not one. So we know it has legs. And we just have to build the body and get it from the walking stage, walk to run.
VICTORIA: Right. And I see you have quite an impressive client list already. And you recently won an award for best software as a service product for education and nonprofits in the learning and CSR category, so that's impressive. And I want to hear more about how that process has been scaling from you had one initial customer who was the Holocaust Museum, and now you've expanded, and what kind of lessons you might have about that experience, getting to the walking stage, and what you have planned coming ahead.
HEATHER: I don't know if I have much advice, actually. [laughter] I could probably use more advice than I can give. Every day, you know, you take it one day at a time, and you move forward. We haven't forgotten where we started, which was in enabling audiences through museums and public spaces to enable them to have these conversations with people that they would not normally get to talk to.
There's this studio professional services side of this as well. Then you have, all right, we had to have a back end. We had to have a platform in order to run our business. What if we made that platform available to other companies? Okay, what does that mean? And how does one build that? Then is it built intuitively and easily enough for people to actually do what they want to do with it, which is create these interactive conversational video AI modules (We call them StoryFiles.) for a variety of different cases?
I mean, think about every kid can talk to one of the best teachers in the world and learn from them. Every possible person that wants to go on a date could actually talk to potential people. And those people don't even know that they're having these first-date conversations with them, so it saves you that first meeting, that awkward first date. But it also allows you to make a better choice for that first date or, like I said, screening or even onboarding and corporate training.
All those manuals that people have written everything and all the information that's in there, nobody wants to go to a manual and look up an answer. No, you're going to go to someone that you think knows the answer, and you're going to ask them. So why not just pull out your phone and do that on your phone, you know? Like, Walmart has this amazing thing that they call financial mentor. They did StoryFiles for new store managers. It's all around answering those questions that you would get as a new manager that you would have running the day-to-day of a Walmart store.
So they can literally pull out their phone. They've got their own Walmart learning management system on the phone, and they can talk to a financial mentor and ask them questions. So, what do I do if I have a register that's this? Or I forgot what the form is that you use for this. Or what do I do if my endcaps aren't really churning enough buzz and businesses I think it should be? All those questions that you're going to ask in the first couple of years of taking on a new position. So it's basically anywhere that you have questions and people normally give you answers, you can do a StoryFile.
VICTORIA: Yeah, it sounds like a real change to the way people do business and how you can automate some of those conversations and provide a more human touch too.
HEATHER: Yeah, it's all about that human touch, isn't it? The one reason I think that people now, you know, for the last three years, everybody's been obsessed with these avatar chatbots, but they're not really solving the problem. The problem is the chatbots don't seem real. You don't feel as if you're having a conversation with an actual person, and that's what frustrates you the most because they don't understand. They don't seem like they're being empathetic. They don't seem like you're relatable. And there's also the uncanny valley, and then the automated voices, and the cadence, and all of that. So this solves all that.
VICTORIA: 80% of communication is non-verbal, right?
HEATHER: Yeah, yeah, exactly, exactly, but nobody really thinks about that. [laughter] We do digital recreations; notice I'm not calling it an avatar because we do an authentic version of an individual. And most of the time, 99% of the time, the person's not alive anymore. But we work with the archives; we work with the foundations; we work with the families. Nothing that we have that digital recreation say is anything that we've made up. It's always based on what they've actually said and the way that they've said it.
So we review, like, we did one digital recreation that we reviewed over 1,700 hours of video. The key thing was getting an actor that physically looked like the individual, and it has to be a method actor. The method actor also reviews some of those videos and really gets a sense of who that individual was. Then they form the basis for the digital recreation for the body language, for the facial expressions, for the cadence of the voice.
And then, you do the face mapping and other special effects that you might have to do to the body. Then you do the voice cloning so that you get the person's actual voice. So it's a really detailed process. And what you end up with is probably the most authentic version of an individual that can be created.
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VICTORIA: You mentioned avatars. But that process also sounds different than what I've heard about deepfakes as well. Do you want to --
HEATHER: Yeah. Well, our digital recreations are based on more authentic...they're probably as authentic as you can get to the actual individual. It's not based on, you know, avatars still; even if you do one that's based on 10 minutes of video of yourself, you will still have the uncanny valley. You will still have the broken cadence. You'll still have an automated voice where it sounds automated. They are getting better, and they'll continue to get better.
But there's no avatar that you can honestly tell me is going to accurately convey emotion and those non-verbal cues. They can't do it. A computer cannot intuit it. You have to have the individual. You have to have something based from the actual person in order to get the most accurate you can get. An avatar who you're basically treating as a visual chatbot you're just typing in the answers. So there's no emotional connection. There's no body language or cadence that you can connect with in that.
VICTORIA: That makes sense. And I can clearly see the...we've talked about the business use cases a little bit. But on the individual consumer side, I'm thinking about making a StoryFile of my grandpa from Pasadena and the value what that would be like to have that family member have a realistic portrayal of them for future generations to interact with.
HEATHER: It's priceless. And he's still alive, right?
HEATHER: So it's not a realistic portrait. It is him. You could do a StoryFile life. You'd go to StoryFile life. You'd pick out all the questions you wanted to ask him, add your own questions. Every family has got those five stories that individuals always tell at the dinner table during Thanksgiving or something. So you want to make sure you capture all of those.
Let's say that he responds to a question that you've asked. And the beauty of it, by the way, is these are questions that you probably would not normally ask somebody in daily conversation. So you really get a sense of who they are from day one, you know, from their childhood all the way through their life today.
If they say something that you're like, wait a minute, stop, [laughs] you've got to explain that, you can add a question, add a follow-up question and just say, "Can you tell me more about that?" or "Explain yourself. Like, how did you come to that? How did you make that decision? What went into this move and this shift?" or whatever you want to know more about. "Or how did that affect your family?" you know, so many questions. So it allows you to ask all of those questions.
You record your grandfather, which, by the way, is an amazing experience for you; forget him, [laughter], but it's an amazing experience for you. And I guarantee you; you will learn something. To date, I have not had one family say that they haven't learned something or heard a story that they never heard before.
So it's a really interesting process. And you feel bonded to that individual after you're done talking and doing this interview in a way that you didn't before. Then you have that recording of this individual that your grandchildren, your great-grandchildren will be able to get a sense of who this individual was, and what their life was like, and who they were to you even.
That's priceless to be able to give, you know, we hang on, you go into ancestry.com; you pull up a ship's manifest. And you see your relative's signature. Okay, fine. But what do you really know about that person? Nothing. You know they came over on a ship. [laughs] And you see maybe how their signature looked, but that doesn't really tell you anything. So we want to change all that. We want to flip it all out. We want you to know all of your ancestors. We want your kids to know everybody and learn from them.
VICTORIA: I love that. And it's an interesting intersection of this very core human emotion to AI technology or this leading-edge technology. And I wonder, what has surprised you in the technology building side about what ways it easily supports making this human connection and other ways where it's still a challenge to make everything connect?
HEATHER: I would have loved to have gotten at least three PhDs [laughs], and then I can think over the last 12 years. Okay, so I started this in 2009. So you got to remember there was no Skype, really. I mean, Skype came into its own...it existed in 2008, but it didn't really come into its own until 2012.
Speech recognition wasn't really a thing. We knew it was going to happen, but it wasn't there yet. That was one of the big things that people had to really take a leap of faith with me that we could even get this to work. We didn't know if it would do what we thought it would do. And we were doing this completely...it was a passion play. It was; let's see if we can do this type of thing. We actually did. It did fulfill what I envisioned it being and doing. It did finally fulfill, and I realized that in 2016, so it took that long.
And in order to make it ubiquitous for everyone, and you know this because you build software, and you help people with products: to do something for the general public and to make it ubiquitous, and make it scalable, that's a whole nother ballgame. We're taking a process that was incredibly manual...everyone says, "Oh, AI is going to take over the world." No, it's not. No, it's not. It's not even close. It's still so manual. It's based on data. And whatever you manually put in is what you get out.
In order to take that and make it automated in whatever ways you can and then keep dreaming about a day where, for example, the follow-up questions that I talked to you about. One day on our roadmap, God willing, next year, you will be able to get that follow-up question actually suggested to you because the computer will know what that individual has said. And the computer will figure out here's a question that you might want to ask, which has never been done before.
And there are several things that we have on our roadmap that haven't been done before, but we've been in this zone where you know, other companies have tried. One of our advisors was president of Google Americas. And when she came on board with us, she said, "Google tried to do something similar to this in the early 2000s." But it was just a little too early, and they couldn't figure it out. So they scrapped the whole thing.
And with software, timing has a lot to do with it. Your expectations and what you think you can do and when you can do it have to be constantly monitored and constantly re-evaluated. And do the best you can with what is technically available at the moment, and then plan to see how you might make that evolve or improve that or add to that. For example, the field of natural language processing it's at one stage right now, but we have things that we want to do with it and advances that we'd like to see happen. And we're going to have to make those happen if we want to see those happen.
VICTORIA: You had both the timing and the need and just enough technology progression to make something happen when you did, and you were able to grow it. It sounds like your family is also involved in helping you along the journey. And I was curious to hear about how that has been for you and --
HEATHER: Okay, so it's not really fair because I grew up in a family-owned business. I'm totally used to it. Everybody asked me, "What's it like working with your husband, and what's it like?" You know, along this journey, we've had various family members working for us, and honestly, that's mostly been a necessity. They happened to be the most skilled and the most talented people to do the job at the moment that I had access to. They got it, you know, it's sort of like the game, okay, tag, you're it. [laughs]
Some of them have gone on to do other things; one started her own app called Camber. The other started a PR agency and is doing very well. The other went on to do structural engineering, and the other one is still working for us. And Stephen's my husband's oldest, and I have told her many times even though she does want to go to law school at some point, I said, "No, I'm never letting you leave. [laughter] You're never leaving me."
Yeah, it's kind of not fair because we happen to have the ideal situation where Stephen and I are both passionate and have a very clear vision of what we want to do and how to get there, which I think you do need. We respect each other tremendously. I'm in awe of him almost every day. I can see where in a lot of families, it would be problematic but somehow not for us. It worked really well.
With investors, it is kind of tricky because you don't want to seem like you're a mom-and-pop shop, either. That's definitely not what we are. We're very focused, and we're very intentional. To some investors, it might seem like we're all over the place because of the B2C and the B2B thing, but it's really not. We explained to them that we're actually building one thing, and that's conversational video. That's what we're doing. It's a big vision, that's all, and it's a massive market.
VICTORIA: Yeah, I believe it. I mean, having people in your corner who believe in your vision and you have respect for working for each other, whether they're your blood family or your chosen family, that's what really you need to be successful. And I think it's a common theme we see across people who are able to create these products is that they have a team around them. [laughs] It's never just one person.
HEATHER: Yeah, no, it's never just one person. And I've been really, really fortunate. You talk about family that you've chosen. I've been really fortunate to have a lot of the team members who were on this journey with me back in 2010. So that's how far we all go with this and trying to evolve this technology and build this medium and this way of communicating. We're in it. We're all in it for better or worse.
VICTORIA: Yeah, I agree. And I assume that that amount of loyalty from your team over that long time is a pro point for investors as well. And I'm curious, so if you could record a StoryFile for yourself now to send back in time to when you were first starting this up, I wonder what questions you would ask yourself [laughs] to be able to give you the advice you needed when you were just starting.
HEATHER: To give me advice now?
VICTORIA: If you were going to create a StoryFile for when you were starting out if you could be able to ask yourself questions from the future. [laughs]
HEATHER: I think it would probably be very interesting to see where I was at, and what I was thinking, what we were dealing with at the time because I think it's some of the things you forget, you know, how you were feeling. We did a lot of video recording back in the early days, especially around different milestones and then different lows and highs.
But if I could give myself some advice now, knowing what I know now, it would be your typical don't give up. There are days when you feel like that's it; I can't go any longer. It's not sustainable. You just don't know how it's going to turn out. And you have customers that you're really, really...we're very customer-oriented, so we work really closely with them to make them successful. And there have been times when what they've wanted to do hasn't been something that we were able to achieve entirely.
So I would say just keep your head down, keep doing the work every day. Keep moving forward, and just believe in how you're ultimately going to change the world with this. So I think that I believed that 100% ten years ago as well. [laughs] I probably would have said the same thing, actually.
There was a woman that had told me she wanted to do a StoryFile with her 10-year-old. And then she wanted to do the same script every five years, but especially do the same thing right before they go to college and then when they come back when they've finished college and do the same interview. I said, "It's a brilliant idea, but why specifically before they go to college and when they get back?" She says, "I want them to see how much they've changed." That makes me cry every time. It's so true.
I don't know if you have kids; between Stephen and I, we have five, and they're all 20 to 31. And that time in their lives, from 17 to 22 to 24, you change so radically. I mean, it's almost like you go back, and it's almost like you've got a one-year-old to see how much they changed by the time they're six. It's that radical. I thought that was just a beautiful thing on her part to think of, you know, think of doing.
VICTORIA: Yeah, that sounds great. I don't have any kids myself. I do have a two-year-old and a one-year-old niece and nephew. Maybe we'll create one for them when they get a little bit older.
HEATHER: Well, then you have to do...is your grandfather their great-grandfather?
VICTORIA: No, he's my husband's grandpa, actually.
HEATHER: Because when you do your grandfather, then they'll get to know them. You know, there's something about our identity, and it's made up of our parents, you know, our lives, our influences on our lives, and everybody that lived before us. So our point is, why not get to know those people the best way you can? And is that by reading their story? Is it listening to a voicemail that they left you before they passed away in order to get a sense of who they are? Or is it a video of them on a vacation, you know, a video clip? Or is it a story?
Or would you want a StoryFile where you can actually have a conversation? You can feel as if you're sitting down at a kitchen table, talking and asking them questions about their life. We want you to do it with everybody, [laughs] even your boss.
VICTORIA: Right? I think it's a hugely powerful way to connect with people. And if I can get my grandpa to stop watching tennis for long enough to do it, I'll do it. [laughs]
HEATHER: I definitely guarantee you can do that. [laughs]
VICTORIA: Right? I think we can. I think we can do it. I think you'll enjoy it as much as I will. So I really appreciate you sharing this capability with us. And is there a way you want to shout out how people can connect with the tool?
HEATHER: Go to storyfile.com. If it's for your family, for you personally, go to StoryFile Life from that website. And if you're a business, you can go to Conversa also from that website and ask for a free demo.
VICTORIA: Excellent. And is there anything you want to give as a final takeaway to our listeners today?
HEATHER: It's easy to do. And it's always better to personally connect with someone if you can. Give them the opportunity to really see you, and listen to you, and hear you, the real you. And it doesn't take a lot of time. Everyone has a story to tell or knowledge to impart, experiences to talk about. There's no one on the planet that doesn't, honestly. But you probably doing these podcasts every one you talk to you learn from. It's sharing our knowledge. It's sharing humanity's experiences and knowledge so that we absorb that and we have that. It influences us, hopefully, in a good way.
VICTORIA: I think that's beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing with us and being with us here today.
HEATHER: Thank you for having me. Keep up the great work, you guys.
VICTORIA: Oh, thank you. You can subscribe to the show and find notes along with a complete transcript for this episode at giantrobots.fm. If you have questions or comments, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can find me on Twitter @victori_ousg.
This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot and produced and edited by Mandy Moore. Thanks for listening. See you next time.
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