From Dragons' Den to global success
In this episode, Rutger Bruining, founder and CEO of StoryTerrace, shares his inspiration for starting the company. He talks about how his grandfather's stories inspired him to start StoryTerrace, which matches clients with freelance writers to create biographies in book format. Rutger also shares his experience of being on Dragons' Den and how it helped his business gain exposure.
Charles Brecque: Welcome to the Tech Story Podcast, a place where we interview successful entrepreneurs and people in tech building really interesting businesses. Today I'm very excited to welcome Rutger Bruining on the show. Rutger is the founder and CEO of StoryTerrace, a company which will write your biography. Thank you very much, Rutger, for joining us.
Rutger Bruining: Great pleasure. It was a nice walk coming out.
Charles Brecque: We’re with neighbors. Would you like to please share a bit of background about yourself and how you came about to starting StoryTerrace?
Rutger Bruining: Yeah, that sounds good. Yeah. My professional background is quite different from why I started Storytellers. I mean, I started off in management consulting, then I moved into private equity. I worked in many different kinds, many different kinds of businesses. None of them actually related anything to creating books. So StoryTerrace goes back before that. When I was in school, I was, I think, quite noisy as a kid. So my mom worked from home as an academic, which meant that over the holidays, I think it was good for her if I wasn't around all the time playing tennis or football against the walls of the house. So she would send me to my grandparents. And my grandfather was a great storyteller, so he told me lots of stories about the Second World War. He started a small resistance group in the south of the Netherlands, how they moved to the Caribbean after the war to start a GP practice, how he played sports. They traveled. And I was fascinated by their stories. But when he passed away, they faded much quicker than I expected. And I regretted that I didn't record them and I could never get that same record back. And then I've been thinking ever since about why we lose the stories of the people that we care about, why we have so much technology, so much opportunities. We lose our own stories, even. And then at some point, I came to the realisation that all writers had gone onto freelancer platforms. I was looking into the Ipofreelancer.com, and specifically on those platforms, there were a lot of writers, and I saw that their hourly rates were reasonable to start maybe a B to C type service.
Charles Brecque: That's really fascinating. And it's true that I guess our grandparents have the most interesting stories, but if you don't spend time with them, you don't often know about the stories. And ultimately, I guess, a service like yours allows you to record those stories in a format that you can then carry with you.
Rutger Bruining: Yes. Now, the book is a very unique format because it gives a lot of comfort to people to be able to tell their story, to edit the way they describe things. Everyone has things in their life that they find more difficult to talk about or that they find more difficult to connect to things. And I think it not being a video interview like podcast like we're doing today, creates that space for people where they can talk freely and then take the time to make sure that the words are really precise and that ultimately their book is their legacy, which will be there for their kids grandkids and great grandkids, hopefully.
Charles Brecque: That's fascinating. And how long does it take to record and capture and then write a book?
Rutger Bruining: So we try to do it in seven months. So we start by matching someone with a writer. We work across the UK and the US with around 600 freelance writers. We really try to match people with a writer that fits with their professional background, but also their cultural background and their personality. That's the process of depending on if it's a very specific requirement with maybe a second language or something. But normally that can be done in a week. And then we start scheduling the conversations between the writer and the client and they get not a draft, they get an outline of the book and a sample chapter. They approve it, then they get the draft and upload photos on our bookmaker platform. And yeah, when that's done, hopefully after seven months, the books get delivered to their home.
Charles Brecque: And do you find that you have young clients who are also interested in maybe they're in their twenties and they're interested in writing a book? Or is it typically the elderly?
Rutger Bruining: Typically it's people that are older or they're at a specific stage in their life where they've maybe sold a business or something has happened that they want to capture. But most people are older. Our clients are half people that give it to their parents. So they are, let's say, Gen X normally. And then the people we write the books with are normally baby boomers and they either buy for themselves or they get it as a gift. The youngest client we've had graduated from Oxford, and it was a gift that he received. And he put a pasta in front of the book because he was very happy that he learned how to cook.
Charles Brecque: It's a great story and I know you've grown the business and it's been quite a successful journey. You were also the winner of Dragons Den. What was that whole experience like and has it helped your business?
Rutger Bruining: It was a crazy experience just because I actually never really wanted to be on TV. A friend of mine, Alex, who runs Pasta Evangelists, it's also a London based business, like the fresh pasta business. He was on Dragons Den. He kept telling me it's a great fit for StoryTerrace. He kept telling their staff and they started calling me. I said, I don't know if I want to be on TV. And then they called and he told me how much impact it had on his business. And I thought, well, obviously I'm trying to do everything to make StoryTerrace successful, to reach our mission where we want to make it normal for people to capture their life story of and of the people that they care about so why wouldn't I then go on TV? So that was sort of step one. And then actually being there in a room where you're waiting from 07:00 a.m and you're being moved around by lots. There are so many people involved in making a TV program. I had no idea. And it builds a lot of pressure. And I was there with a colleague, Theo, and we behaved quite differently. I started talking to all the other people to relax a little bit and he was just pacing around. And then we prepared very well. We felt that we did the best we could, so we kind of lost our nerves very quickly as soon as sort of we started. But it was a big experience and was very helpful for the business. We still, even today, someone I'd never met. They asked if we were on Dragons Den because people do somewhere it sits in the back of their mind if they've seen it.
Charles Brecque: Yeah and I remember you made a decision quite quickly about working with the Dragon. I mean, did that also help?
Rutger Bruining: Well, we actually never ended up working with them, no, but the exposure was still very positive but actually we never agreed. Basically the legals, you could say.
Charles Brecque: Seems like legal is a hot topic.
Rutger Bruining: Exactly, I'm saying that especially for this podcast just kidding.
Charles Brecque: And I'm also a big fan of Pastor Evangelists and I'm trying to look for the discount codes that they sometimes offer, even worth it without them.
Rutger Bruning: Well, we actually shared an office with him. Yeah, it's all made with real love.
Charles Brecque: For people, we can tell and obviously you've been on this journey, what do you wish you'd known before starting StoryTerrace?
Rutger Bruining: I mean so many things in a way but then would have been less exciting if I'd known everything. I always think, “would I start another business if I do?” I still feel as excited as the first time because part of the excitement is also not knowing what you're coming across and every year is quite different but I could have benefited a lot if I'd worked in someone else's startup before. I mean I moved from private equity to starting StoryTerrace in an area where it's very difficult to say you need to hire this or that person or make them a co-founder and that brings so much knowledge from the industry that you're going to compete against with your SaaS platform sort of thing. So I always felt like if I had worked for someone, maybe Series B, I could have sort of seen that path a bit clearer, where to go and then there were a hundred other things I wish I'd known.
Charles Brecque: Yeah, I have only ever worked in startups and I was employee number three at a startup and then saw the company grow and learnt a lot about what not to do, what to do but in hindsight I also wish, well, maybe if I stayed a bit longer before starting a company, maybe I would have learned more. But I also think, as you said, it wouldn't be as fun or exciting.
Rutger Bruining: When the itch gets too big, you have to do it right. You feel like, this fits with me, this is what I want to do. And then ultimately, then it's too late to start in your head saying, oh, now I'm going to try to get some experience somewhere else first.
Charles Brecque: You've just got to do it. And I guess what's been your favorite moment so far?
Rutger Bruining: Well, there are lots. I think a big one was actually Dragons Den, but also afterwards, they're often the very small things. But just before Christmas, I went to Sarah Davies, one of the Dragons, to her business. We did a book about her father and I went to hand deliver it and I hadn't hand delivered a book for a very long time and it's like a two and a half hour journey up north and it was raining and I walked from the train station. I was kind of wet as I arrived to her office, but I was so excited that I could actually give someone that physical end product and it's really nice. That what we do, which is all online platform, we work with hundreds of writers, so it's sort of a marketplace element to it that ultimately you have that physical thing and that I find really enjoyable.
Charles Brecque: That's great. And with your company, you're in the UK, US, and I guess in the Netherlands as well. What sort of growth or reach have you sort of achieved today? And where do you sort of see the company going the next five years?
Rutger Bruining: Yeah, so we're still very focused on the US, on the UK, because still, most of the growth is to be had here. Our brand recognition is negligible. We did a deal with the BBC Media for Equity deal with UK TV BBC subsidiary and as a part of that we did a ugov survey and we haven't really had a dent into basically within the UK even. Where we've been on Dragons Den, although it's been a few years and sort of more social asset we've done in terms of brand awareness. So we feel it's more important to focus on the markets and build out that brand awareness in the markets here, rather than adding lots of languages at this stage.
Charles Brecque: So I guess piece of advice to an entrepreneur looking to expand is focus on your home market first.
Rutger Bruining: Yes, I think because maybe we're the biggest, but we're still quite small, there is this urge, let's start doing other languages, whereas maybe if you're more competing with others, you're trying to make sure that you kind of win and then do that. So I do feel like you want to do everything, obviously, as a founder, and you have also sometimes creative ideas. It's probably one that going back to your earlier biggest lessons, is we definitely tried to do a few different things at the same time with probably without the budget and maybe the size of the team that we needed for certain things, specifically around product, I would say, and design in the early days. And that was just a waste of time.
Charles Brecque: Yeah, I definitely feel I mean, especially me with product. I'm always thinking of things to do and I can tell everything to the tech team and say, yeah, that's great, that's great. And then there's always this. I won't say there's a lag between when you think of something and when it can actually get done. And if you haven't actually finished what you're doing, then it overwhelms. The tech team. But also, you can end up wasting tech resources.
Rutger Bruining: Yeah, we've definitely had where we thrown too much change onto our frontline staff and that came back in employee surveys. So now we have for our frontline staff on the editorial site so they manage the projects for our clients. We basically have a theme a month and we try to do a lot of change within a theme rather than lots of different changes all the time.
Charles Brecque: Great piece of advice. And as a founder and CEO of a successful business, what are maybe the key contracts that you interact with or that land on your desk?
Rutger Bruining: Well, they all land. No, not all land on my desks. But I guess my mom was a judge. My sister is a lawyer. So I think there's this idea sometimes in my head that I think I can read a legal contract. And I guess I've been in private equity, where you do read a lot of legal contracts, but it's very difficult. What I find most difficult. Start we have all the types of contracts you'd expect with some of our clients. Our terms and conditions are important because not all of our clients sign contracts and they have to have big or special projects, of course, employees and then the options, agreements, finance related deals, suppliers NDAs we have our writers, then we have three jurisdictions that we work in. So in the end, it's quite a few different things. And especially on the copyright side, you sometimes can get different advice from different people, which ultimately means it gets to your desk and it becomes you have to investigate it to make sure you make the right call.
Charles Brecque: For example with copyright, what is the key thing that you need to be careful of when looking at copyright?
Rutger Bruining: So ultimately we don't really want to own copyrights, we're a bit of a strange position. We're actually not trying to protect ourselves by having copyright but what we are trying to protect ourselves against is basically libel or defamation that seeps into our books while we're actually not publishing books ourselves, we're providing a service to people. So that's sort of where if you compare us to a mainstream book publisher, we're quite different. We are more like a service where we help people. So we don't want to take that responsibility of the legal content, and we want to make sure that the clients are aware of that. So the clients that want to self publish many of our books are for family and friends. They go by our terms and conditions. When people want to self publish, we make them additionally aware of the risks that they're taking or that they can get a legal read themselves if that is what they think they need.
Charles Brecque: That's something I hadn't considered, but makes perfect sense, especially if you're not a professional writer. I guess you need to make sure that you understand what you're getting into because it's your story. And if you're not happy about the story, then you need to make sure that you understand that it's not your fault or not StoryTerrace fault, basically.
Rutger Bruining: Yes. Ultimately we believe what people tell us and we're there to help them write their story. And it's very difficult for us to judge whether someone is telling the truth, which can obviously have consequences if something will be published very widely. Although most of our books are just going to family and the tens of copies, it's great.
Charles Brecque: And it is also you're a remote company with mixed mix. Okay. Mixed mixed remote hybrid, I imagine, with people and employees in different jurisdictions. How do you sort of manage that from a legal perspective?
Rutger Bruining: We only employ in three countries and we actually work with local staff because of what we do. It's very close to the culture and not just the language. So our sales people as well as our project managers, they're all local. So that's why we don't have like dozens of jurisdictions. And then we work with an agency in Ukraine for development, but there we don't employ anyone. We go through an agency.
Charles Brecque: Well, it seems like you've got things sorted and that's the right way to do it.
Rutger Bruining: I wouldn't say that there's always something, but that's the way we're set up and hopefully we don't have to change it too much.
Charles Brecque: Yeah, I mean, we were speaking with a founder of a 100 person company, but fully distributed and employment laws in, I think, over 30 different jurisdictions. And that was obviously something that they understood and were handling properly. But it can become quite complex.
Rutger Bruining: Yeah, but even in the US. Because every state has different employment regulations and different things you need to file and form. And we work with Gusto, I don't know if you're familiar with the platform. It's a pretty good platform, but still we spend quite a lot of time on it when we have a new state that we want to employ someone. So even there, we try to employ people in the same states just because it's administratively easier.
Charles Brecque: Yeah. No, I can imagine. And if you were to receive a contract to sign today. What would impress you now?
Rutger Bruining: A handwritten note with it, maybe? That'd be nice. I mean, in general, you obviously get everything digitally days, so that's maybe not sure what you mean by what would impress me. I guess if it's concise and simply worded, which we obviously try to do ourselves towards our clients because we try to have quite logical rules. But as you grow as a company, you do come across more cases and things you need to solve for. So I think it's always a chance to make sure that even as contracts expand a bit over time that you keep the language really simple.
Charles Brecque: Yeah, well, that's something that we do try to do at Legislate. We do provide or we have in the past provided templates where we've simplified the language not just because it makes it easier to read, but also because a lot of our users are not lawyers. They're sort of business people in companies that need to create contracts. And even if they're creating contracts, they might not necessarily understand what the contract is fully about. I'm not a lawyer and although I've read lots of contracts, I still can't really read contracts. But yeah, simple language also makes it easier. And I'm also a big believer in handwritten notes. For each of our investors, I write a handwritten note when delivering the share certificate, which is I also print out the share certificate and give it to them.
Rutger Bruining: Definitely get people's attention if you do something handwritten.
Charles Brecque: Yeah, but I've noticed now that there's also a lot of handwritten agencies where either they will handwrite or they'll use AI to make it look handwritten.
Rutger Bruining: So that's also done then. You have to paint now, maybe.
Charles Brecque: Yeah, paint, yeah. That's a good one. Although my painting skills aren't that good.
Rutger Bruining: Great.
Charles Brecque: Well, thank you very much Russia, for taking the time for being on the show.
Rutger Bruining: Sure, yeah.
Charles Brecque: It was really fascinating learning about your journey and story and best of luck. Growing StoryTerrace.
Rutger Bruining: Good, thanks.