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. James Robin­son in­ves­ti­gates

Idealog - - Contents -

Pic­ture this: You’re a tourist, walk­ing 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, but ecosys­tems are im­pos­si­ble to see when 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 bought 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.


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 Lord­oftheRings 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

The story of STQRY starts with a se­ries of co­in­ci­den­tal hap­pen­ings, a silent snow­ball in the back of their minds that ex­ploded into a ge­n­e­sis mo­ment prompted by a pel­i­can, of all things

Google a sat­is­fy­ing an­swer,” he says. It was the very pro­to­type of a light­ning-bolt mo­ment.

Visi­tors 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.

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.”


With the Wellington Zoo their first cus­tomer and im­ple­ment­ing the app suc­cess­fully for its visi­tors, the com­pany, 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

‘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’

there is a lot go­ing on in an area it be­comes even more pow­er­ful to use,” Smith says.

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 $40,00050,000 to launch, he es­ti­mates, and re­quire leas­ing hun­dreds of de­vices, with costs around cre­at­ing con­tent and main­tain­ing hard­ware.

With 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.


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.

The com­pany has a staff of nine, which swells and takes on con­tract staff as re­quired. All of the com­pany’s 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 ver­tigoin­duc­ing. 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.”

The STQRY app show­ing the Long­shore­men’s & Ware­house­men’s Union Me­mo­rial in San Fran­cisco.

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