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The Storybird has flown the nest

Toronto-based platform Storybird has rapidly accrued millions of users and high profile investors. How can images set the imagination alight? Our children’s editor Miranda West caught up with the hit website’s founders to find out.

This week is the Bologna Book Fair where the great and the good of children’s book publishing will be gathered. As per the two previous years, the event kicked off with the Tools of Change conference on Sunday 24th March focusing on digital developments. One such development, or should we say spectacular, is a website run by a small team in Toronto that is known to its 2 million global members as Storybird.

Back in 2010, this fledgling startup was a little-known bootstrapped venture. Since then it has attracted some serious investors – the same backers as Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Tumblr, no less – and grown into a successful storytelling platform and community. The basic premise is that members add their own words to professional illustrations to create a story which can be shared on the site and/or turned into a pdf or printed book.

What is hugely exciting is that this platform is now being embraced by teachers as a way to engage reluctant writers and readers in the classroom. To date, 125,000 schools have signed up. It seems that having an illustration to play with works wonders for story ideas and development. Perhaps the blank page isn’t the best way to get young children into writing stories after all.

We decided to do a quickfire Q&A with Storybird’s founder, Mark Ury, to find out a bit more about the site, its origins and future plans.


The Literary Platform is interested in digital storytelling. Would you say Storybird fits the bill?

We unite artists and writers in an online community focused on visual storytelling. So yes, I’d say so.


When did you come up with the idea for Storybird?

My son and I wrote and illustrated a story for my wife’s birthday several years ago. The process of working with him stayed with me for years and eventually had me thinking about publishing, collaboration and the cloud. Our lives are increasingly fragmented and disconnected from each other and stories seemed to me like a way to bridge the gap.


Tell us about the process involved in creating a story.

The premise of Storybird is ‘art-inspired storytelling’. We curate narrative artwork and use it to inspire writers of any age to tell stories by crafting stories around the images. It’s reverse-engineering the picture book: starting with pictures and unlocking the stories within.

The process of making a story on the platform is trivial. You choose an artist, load their images into the editor and shuffle between writing and image sequencing. Eventually, a story emerges. The best ones are where the writers tease out the narrative potential of the artwork rather than force fitting images into a pre-determined arc.

Writers tell us they go through an addictive phase when they encounter Storybird. The artwork has an emotional impact on them while the un-puzzling of the images into a coherent story engages their mind. The mix of heart and head is powerful.


Can you expand on “reverse engineering the picture book”? Why did you take that approach?

While we were exploring our user experience we came across several picture-book services. Mostly, they allowed you to upload your kid’s drawings or vacation photos and turn them into books. None of this interested us. There was either too much friction or the source material wasn’t particularly inspiring around which to write stories. And I couldn’t see any network effects from these services. Just the single use case.

At the same time, we were thinking about how to jump start the process and get people invested quickly. The more we turned things over, the more pre-installed art made sense. Most people can’t draw (well), so “comes with art” removed a key point of friction and served as a jumping point for a writer.


Did artists understand what you were building?

Not really. But we convinced five talented people to trust our instincts. They joined our beta and that got the ball rolling.


Do artists get paid to join the site?

Artists get paid royalties when members download or order printed copies of their stories or poetry. And it’s 100% gross margins, so it’s rather lucrative for some.


If people want to print their book/story, can they?

Yes. You can purchase PDF downloads to print at home and rather gorgeous physical books in soft and hardcover.


When you were setting up, how did you draw on your background working in digital agencies? 

My co-founder and I spent a decade at large UX consultancies and worked with brands like Apple, Nike, and Starbucks to design digital products and services. You’re at the intersection of brand, market strategy, technology, and user experience — all of which overlap and create an ever-shifting series of requirements and decisions. Being comfortable with the resulting chaos is definitely an asset.


Were you confident the idea would take off? Were you working purely on instinct at that stage?

We weren’t sure what was going to happen. But we bootstrapped for the first 2 years which gave us the confidence to just watch and learn from what we had built without economic pressures. Generally speaking, startup ventures are a cycle of instinct and testing. You form an opinion about something, craft a tangible version of it, and then watch when it comes into contact with people and study the outcomes. Over and over. And over.


Did you envisage the site being used by children on their own or as something that a parent and child would do together?

The initial premise was collaborative storytelling – like I had done with my son. But because it’s simple to make a Storybird, the use cases have flourished – and certainly the independent writer is the dominant meme, regardless of age.


Were you targeting a particular age group or demographic on launch? Has it changed since then?

We had the notion of “families” in our mind when we launched, and they’re one of our three key demos. But the strongest demographic is teachers and their students and tween and teen girls. Both those groups are voracious users.


You’ve got about 2 million users now – congratulations! – what, in your view, is the key attraction for children and teenagers? Do you think children are more inspired to produce a story when they have a visual hint as to a possible direction from the illustrations? Is the process easier for them?

The key attraction for *everyone* is the art-inspired approach to writing. That and the social reinforcement of the community. But if you back up a bit, you can see that we solve some highly specific problems for our members. Teachers from K-12 love us because we inspire their most reluctant writers and readers to write and read more. Families adore us for our stories and the safe, nurturing community we’ve built for their kids. And teens and tween girls find stories – both writing and reading them – an important currency to navigate the tricky aspects of their lives.


As a startup, did you need investment to grow? If so, how did you find that process?

Most web-enabled startups don’t need investment to get started and test their ideas. You can bootstrap your way through the early months to determine if your service works and then gauge what kind of a business you’re building: a boutique, lifestyle business or a web-scale business that needs VC backing. That’s our story. We bootstrapped for a couple of years as we sorted through the tricky questions about the user experience and the business. Once we believed we could grow to tens of millions of members – and had some metrics to prove our point – we sought VC backing. The actual process went remarkably well and we’ve had the opportunity to surround ourselves with some amazingly smart people.


How do you monetize the site?

We’re a freemium-based business focused on subscription and digital sales. We also have a growing commerce angle, which is art and book printing.


I understand that schools and teachers now use it. How does that work?

We created a series of free tools that let teachers onboard their students, dole out assignments, and cultivate a class library. On top of that we offer some premium tools that enable faster workflow, grading, and unicorn sprinkles.


When working with schools, is there a different payment structure?

The premium tools for teachers are a bit different than those in the everyday memberships, and the price point is $100/year.


I like the fact that the site is helping illustrators get noticed and to drive traffic to their websites or Etsy pages. Given the numbers involved, do you have more illustrators approaching you now?

Yes, there’s a growing interest in how we create awareness, traffic, and revenue for artists. We accept applications on the site, but also continue to scout for people who we think will succeed with our community.


Do you know of anyone using the site as a resource to find illustrators? Publishers, for example?

Agents and publishers regularly scour the site. They’re foxy.


Do you have many users in the UK?

A few hundred thousand and growing. Fank you!


I read that Storybird has inspired marriage proposals? What’s the story there?!

It’s true. We know of a dozen or so marriage proposals via Storybirds, and several vow books that were used during the ceremony. We have photos:


Can you share one of your favourite Storybird stories with us? 

I have so many! This author—a Brit no less—is likely my all-time fave:

This poem is by a teen, but still catches my heart:

And this is rather marvellous too:


What does the future hold? 

The stuff you might expect: better storytelling tools, algorithms, internationalization. Whatever we do, the big picture is staying focused on helping people make, read, and share visual stories. Stories are a vital currency that keep us alive and sane. Making them accessible and easy is a great mission to pursue.


These birds are a busy bunch. Since the Q&A, Storybird have announced a new app called Poetry. The app has an even simpler storytelling format: once downloaded, users slide preloaded words (developed by a seasoned book editor) onto artwork to create a poem. Having this app to play with on a phone means that members can produce illustrated verse whenever the mood takes them – and in less than a minute. As Ury says, ‘We want visual storytelling everywhere, because people and their stories are everywhere.’


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