S6 Ep. 5 — Inside Refinery: Bernadette Butler, StoryTap
Tim Schigel: Welcome to Fast Frontiers. I'm your host, Tim Schigel, managing partner of Refinery Ventures. In this episode, we're talking with Bernadette Butler, co- founder and CEO of StoryTap in Vancouver, Canada. StoryTap's a video platform that helps brands give their customers a voice by sharing video stories to increase brand engagement, conversions and retention. In this episode, we're going to dive into Bernadette's background in advertising and marketing, and seeing huge budgets and time dedicated to video production, and how she came up with this idea of StoryTap as a better solution. The biggest theme or so- what that I hope you can take away from this conversation is the power of tapping into the knowledge of your customers and understanding your customers. Please enjoy this conversation with Bernadette Butler. Bernadette, welcome to Fast Frontiers. It's so exciting to have you on. I just can't contain my excitement. Can it be contained online? I don't know.
Bernadette Butler: I'm so excited to be here now. No, you can not contain it.
Tim Schigel: Hopefully this medium's not too limiting for all the energy you're going to bring.
Bernadette Butler: Exactly. Let's do it.
Tim Schigel: All right. Co- founder and CEO of StoryTap, a Refinery Ventures Fund II, the first Refinery Ventures Fund II investment in Vancouver. We're in Cincinnati. How did we find out about you? Well, let me tell you. It was an introduction by Michelle McBane of StandUp Ventures in Toronto, who's also an investor in Tealbook with us, and she kindly made the introduction. And StoryTap was a perfect fit for where we like to invest. And you and your co- founder, Sean Braacx, did an excellent job getting the company to where it is at the time when we invested, by heavily bootstrapping, not raising much money. So we'll get into all of that, but first would love to just dive a little bit more into the origin story, and not only how you came up with StoryTap, but your career path and what led you to that moment, if you would.
Bernadette Butler: Oh yeah. Yes, I would love to. Earliest memories, I always wanted to go into advertising. I wanted to make ads that made people laugh. I wanted to do video storytelling, earliest memories. So I just had laser vision all the way up, marketing, advertising. Landed first at an ad agency, B2B, and then moved over to B2C. And it was all about videos that made people laugh, videos that gave the agency clout and won us awards. And then once you've done that, you move over to client- side, some people do. And that was the first time client- side, so that was where I worked for a massive telco and I had this awesome opportunity where I got to run all the advertising and marketing for this value brand and within this massive... It wasn't Sprint, but think that kind of size in Canada. And I was like, I had an incredible budget, like three to six million per quarter minimum to do what I needed to do. But these ads had to work. They didn't have to be funny. There was nothing about... I don't care about the agency's awards for the first time, it's like, they had to drive sales, they had to do fundamental movements with this brand. And so I was-
Tim Schigel: And were these all broadcast or were they also repurposed online?
Bernadette Butler: Oh yeah. So I was responsible for the whole kit and caboodle, from the IBR, the call center, all the way through to the national advertising. Every aspect, every touchpoint of the brand came here. And how did we build it up and shift it and how did we... It was a youth brand at the time I started, so we were producing videos like crazy, 150, 300,000 per video. And you'd run it on a cinema maybe for, I don't know, 10 weeks, or a TV spot, 13 weeks. And then you'd have one social post that live on YouTube and that's it. I thought," Ah, there's got to be a better way. We are spending so much money. And if you don't get it right, ooh, that's a big gamble, you've just burned through..." At the height I think I did 15 in a calendar year, which is a lot to do high production, and it takes 10 weeks to pull them off, minimum. If I was under the pump I would have to pull one off in seven weeks and then I've gained 15 pounds. I'm a shamble, it's a lot of work to do that. And they had to be incredible, of course. And I just thought there was a better way to do it. I thought," Well, wouldn't it be incredible if our customers could do videos for us?" And so I put some of the spend behind that and incentivized and out it went. And I was a little cheeky internally with," This is going to be incredible." And it was a big failure. I got three videos, unusable. There were people lying on their beds, talking and rambling, nothing I could even chop up and use. It was just a total failure. And my personality is never give up so I thought," I'm going to do this again. I'm going to spend more money. I know what's wrong." I changed the incentive, I gave more direction. I tested it with a small group and thought," Okay, I've got it." And it was another failure. And so I just stopped after that and went back to calling the agency. I got three ads I got to make, and you've got no time and it must be hilarious and sell more stuff. After I left I had this hypothesis, I'm like," Wouldn't it be incredible if there was a way that I could actually nail this and have big brands collect incredible stories from their customers?" And the origin of StoryTap intersected with my personal life, and that was, I had a grandmother who was turning 80 and I thought," Ooh, her life story. I want to capture her life story." So I started doing family members, got all this film equipment and started, how do I extract the best story from somebody in a watchable way that was meaningful, something that I wanted to watch? So I, being a marketer, I love storytelling, what is that story? Because somebody can talk for days, months, how do you get it in a succinct way? So that was actually the origin of StoryTap, was life stories. Our MVP was all about having average people grab their cell phone, tablet, desktop, and share a life story. I think we were way too early for that in the end, but what I love about our origin is starting there, working with elderly people, folks in their 80s, with technology, our software had to feel not like tech, it had to feel so not technical. And I think that is part of the genius of what we have today at StoryTap is that the end user experience, it doesn't feel technical. It feels like they're FaceTiming their family. But yet, the story we capture is on point and varied and incredible for marketers.
Tim Schigel: Where did you meet Sean, Sean Braacx, your co- founder?
Bernadette Butler: Good question. When I started I was super excited and had mapped this all out, and I'm doing wireframes and writing and spreadsheets. I actually met an early angel investor who wanted to invest in us, so then I had a bunch of money and I thought," Oh, I get to build this thing. This is exciting." And in my journey in Vancouver, I had several people say," You should think about a co- founder. This is going to be a big thing that you're building, you should really think about a co- founder." And I was like," Slow your roll. You don't know, I can do this." But I talked to enough people and started actually meeting with female CEOs and they're like," You should really think about a co- founder. One plus one does equal two. Think about that." And I thought," Oh that's really interesting." And on that journey people said," There's this guy, Sean Braacx. And he does a bunch of stuff, but you should just meet with him." I actually hired Sean originally to do UX of the first MVP and I had this incredible developer. And Sean then came to me and said," I'm a self- taught full stack developer. I could probably take this on." I was like," This is interesting, are you?" And we worked so well together. And so he met with our then dev and they had a technical discussion, and I just sat there listening and being overwhelmed by their technical discussion. And then that gentleman said," He's good. Yeah, this is awesome." And then that was it. And Sean and I, we just worked incredibly well together, and it was I think maybe four weeks in, I said," Do you want to be the co- founder?" He's like," Yes." And that was it.
Tim Schigel: That's awesome.
Bernadette Butler: The rest is history.
Tim Schigel: He does a great job and the product is terrific. And like you said, the key is to be invisible and the technology's basically invisible.
Bernadette Butler: Yeah.
Tim Schigel: Just to explain to people a little bit more what StoryTap is, but then also let's pull back and talk about the big trends that it's capturing.
Bernadette Butler: Yeah. StoryTap today, we've come a long way from that early idea of capturing a story. And I'd still say the keystone of StoryTap is incredible stories from average people, and our tech democratizes that ability at scale. What we do today is we really are transforming brands who currently have websites that are text- based, text reviews, text FAQ, really like 1999, 2004 technology. And we upgrade them, so to speak, with data- driven video. And so that takes the form of video reviews, video FAQs, those are the thing, but what propels that is the data and what stories are selling more and how they're organized. And we organize them as they come to life on these websites in a very personalized way. To go back to talk a little bit about trends, video was always hot when we started. COVID it started exploding. Zoom, as we all know, everybody's on Zoom. Everything started transform. Remote was hot obviously. And for us, we were so early and double- down on patents and double- down on the failures. And then the learnings from those failures, of how do you actually capture these stories at scale in high volume and have them not have to be edited. That's a big part of it. You don't want to have to edit every video, it has to be ready and it has to work. It actually has to produce high conversions, lower call center volume. It has to do its job. And that's where we focus all of our development. And now we're into integrations, integrating with TikTok. And again, it's about the data on TikTok, integrating with Salesforce, with Instagram. So it's kind of, as a marketer, marketers or anybody in the E- comm, any shade of marketer today, and they take so many different shapes and sizes in a massive organization, they're time- starved. They constantly, their team gets reduced, they have to do more. Their list is massive, it's completely overwhelming. And so when we started with StoryTap it was always a bit of a North Star that would it be incredible if we removed several things on their marketing tech stack and it became StoryTap. Because it can be an all- in- one video, although let's call it 30 megs per file. It's a lot bigger than text. It is so much more compelling and tells and shares and convinces more, so they can do a lot more with less.
Tim Schigel: There's a rumor going around that text is dead. I don't know if you heard that.
Bernadette Butler: There is. There is a rumor going around that text is... It is dead. Nobody's reading. Everyone's watching, no one's reading websites.
Tim Schigel: And so I tell people about it. One of the other questions they say is," Yeah, but I wouldn't upload a video, talking about my experience with a product."
Bernadette Butler: I love hearing that.
Tim Schigel: Oh, why do you love hearing it?
Bernadette Butler: Because I see the videos. I mean, a lot of marketers are like," I wouldn't do that." Because as a marketer of any shape you're like, you have lived in the world of perfection. And when we introduce dat- driven video there's this interest of," What does that mean?" It's like, imagine a world where you have-
Tim Schigel: Imagine a world.
Bernadette Butler: ...the data behind the video... Imagine a world-
Tim Schigel: Imagine a world.
Bernadette Butler: ...where your business is growing, powered by your customers and your staff on video that you love. That has never been done.
Tim Schigel: One may be thinking," Oh, so you mean influencers, right?"
Bernadette Butler: No, these are just real people. Yeah, not influencers. And influencers, they have a place, I just don't think it's... They're not the king of the castle. And they can't be, they're not scalable. They're expensive, they're slow, and occasionally dangerous for a brand. There's some brand safety concerns. Now you could say the same thing with real people. You could say,"Pfft, you want my customers to go on video? Talk about brand safety." But again, with the right software like StoryTap, that's a huge focus for us. We built tech around that. That's part of what you get is that incredible brand safety at velocity.
Tim Schigel: Hey, we love this idea of video. We want to get real people videos talking about our product. We want to put this on our brand pages, et cetera. Then your head starts to hurt with all the complexity of what's involved. This is not just putting a text comment section on a website. So what's involved?
Bernadette Butler: That's an awesome part. And I think," Gosh, I just have the right co- founder," who's passionate about product UX but just can do all of the other stuff. And we've got this incredible dev team that sits below him. And it was always important to him that it was 10 minutes, it's not big. And then we have people say," Oh come on, that's BS. Like 10 minutes?" It is, it is copy and paste on your master. And we go deep by skew. These aren't just testimonials. We go deep, deep, deep. And it is as simple as that, it is... I mean maybe half an hour if you're talking about current affairs, I don't know, but it's not very long.
Tim Schigel: Literally within minutes or hours a brand could have consumer videos, that consumers generated, inaudible their hand and did on their own, within hours.
Bernadette Butler: Hours, minutes. Yes.
Tim Schigel: Submitted and then the brand could repurpose them on their page or on their YouTube channel, what have you. And the user can also publish them on-
Bernadette Butler: That's it.
Tim Schigel: ...TikTok or somewhere else.
Bernadette Butler: We're all about the virality of it. The ownership is the brand, which is paramount, that the brand owns these assets. And that's where it comes to doing more with less. We've got YouTube integrations, video SEO comes with it. And then when you think about your social calendar, how incredible to have a plethora, a video that you know from the data, are working for you. These are your assets, it's not a guesswork. When I started out, every video I produced, it's a guess. It's a giant leap of faith of," Oh, I hope this works." And when it doesn't, there's hell to pay because you spent so much money on it. This is totally shifting that. And you actually see in the dashboard," Oh yeah, here are our top performing videos by this ICP." Not only that, it tells you your site visitors need more Gen Z men showcasing the product or unboxing, or talking about how heavy or how complex it is to put together. That's the kind of stuff that we get into.
Tim Schigel: That's what I love about the video, is so many times... Because my wife's big into reading reviews. Any time we go somewhere, whatever it is, she's got to read the reviews. And of course she wants to go find the negative reviews and they say that that's helpful. But she'll read to me what they say. I'm like," You don't know what their experience is. You don't know that they stay at the same type of hotels you do normally," et cetera, et cetera. This video seems to break down that barrier because you can... Especially if you match with somebody who kind of looks like you, talks like you, whatever.
Bernadette Butler: The thing, we've been living with text reviews for so long and they are garbage. And I know that's a strong word but I'll say, it is wild thinking where we are today in the world we are today, that brands are still spending so much money on text. They hire an army of people to then monitor the crap that comes through to remove swear words and sentiment and all the scary things that come through from anonymous people smashing away on their keyboard. When you think through video, when you see these people, we've had obviously many negative reviews come through for our customers, but they're not awful. They're articulate. And the brand has a dialogue, people are... Their face is on there, they're not bad.
Tim Schigel: They have to own it.
Bernadette Butler: They own it.
Tim Schigel: They have to own it.
Bernadette Butler: It's just like-
Tim Schigel: Yeah, it seems like, when you give them text and they can have anonymous profiles, it's like giving your customers guns and knives. They just-
Bernadette Butler: Well, and a lot of it's fake, it's just BS. There's a whole other... Most text review companies, they introduce you, they sell it like" Don't worry, we've got a community of people that are going to kick- off your text reviews." As a consumer you should not like that, because that means they have 100, 000 people... When you ship them your high heel product or whatever it is, you've got men in their 20s reviewing high heels under an anonymous name. That is garbage. We've all bought stuff and we read the reviews that were great and that what shows up, you're like," Man, I got to return this. This sucks." And we can just do better. This video does it better. You can see it, you can find... With every purchase decision, in the end of the day, we're in the confidence game. Whether it's your video FAQ, you're trying to ask a question and get a video answer about something, or you're looking at other people that are relevant to you with stories that are relevant, but it's about confidence. What do you need to understand and to know about this product or service that's going to make it a comfortable buying decision online. And that's the inaudible.
Tim Schigel: That's what's amazing. I mean, when we met and I thought about," Okay, yeah. How many products do I go on YouTube and I look it up and I try to see a review, see somebody using it, what have you." And you know everybody's doing it. Everybody you talk to says that's what they do. They do some research on YouTube. And the fact that brands don't have creating those or helping consumers create those, or just being part of it in some way to say," Look, we have millions of customers. Let's encourage them to submit videos and let's have more videos that are helpful and useful." It's just amazing to me.
Bernadette Butler: And I love when we get on calls and we say that to our prospective customers. We say," No, these are your real customers." inaudible like," What do you mean real, like our influencers?" I'm like," No, the people. You have..."
Tim Schigel: People buy your stuff and they use it.
Bernadette Butler: You haven't even tapped into your biggest resource. It's actually your customers, and how incredible and how passionate. It's neat.
Tim Schigel: Yeah. Some of the videos that you've shared, they're just hilarious. And people's creativity just boggles your mind, it's amazing. And you've worked with some brands and some products that are probably ones that would be the least expected to have people submitting a video review for.
Bernadette Butler: Yes. I can tell you right now, I hid under my desk when we got K- Y and then Durex, and I was like," No, this is it. This is it. This is the end of the company."
Tim Schigel: What are they going to submit?
Bernadette Butler: I'm like," The entire company's going to have post- traumatic stress disorder. This is going in a direction that I was uncomfortable with." And I will tell you, I was really honest with our customer, and they said to me, they're like," Stop it. We're all big people here. This is a really serious thing, sex education and sex," blah blah blah." And I was like," Yeah, mm-hmm. Okay. Video, we're video, we're video. Do you know we're video?" And it's incredible, those stories that come through across those brands and products by all different ICPs, as you will. And you'd think it would be one category that people would be shy to talk about on video and uh- huh, we have 20- year- olds, grandmothers, everything in between, husband and wives, you name it. And the relevance is there for the audience that wants it, and that's what we're proud about.
Tim Schigel: Which makes me think, one of the, again, macro trends that you are really tapping into is in this age of the internet and social media and the focus on relationships, but actually the erosion of relationships. They're led to believe they have all these relationships and they have all these followers, but that we, as humans, we crave relationship and-
Bernadette Butler: Connection.
Tim Schigel: ...stories and connection, and stories are one of the ways we do that. We identify and relate to characters in a story, et cetera. And so the fact that you are tapping into that latent desire for people to say," Hey, I want real stories with people like me that I can learn from," I think is a big piece of what's propelling you.
Bernadette Butler: And it is the story. When you think of a text review, it's like, you get what you get. And they say that in kindergarten," You get what you get, you don't get upset." I have two kids. And I just think that's crap. For any brand that is stuck with text reviews," Oh look at all these variety..." Ew. But with video it's like, let's get to the stories that are relevant and there's so many. Our tech is really, we spend a lot of time figuring out variety of storytelling. When you think of A/ B testing in tech, think of that in storytelling, A, B, C, D E, F, G, you don't know what stories are going to sell more for you. You don't know if it's a barbecue. The fact that you don't have to put it together is going to sell more, or that it's so light, or that you don't have to lay the propane tank or whatever. You don't know until the data tells you, and I think that's really eye- opening for a lot of customers that start working with us.
Tim Schigel: Tell our listeners who some of your customers are.
Bernadette Butler: We planted at several different verticals. Higher education, I'd say the most well- known would be UCLA. We do a lot of work with UCLA with their fully employed MBA program. There are many different programs, five or six different programs there. Retail in Canada, one of the biggest names, and maybe in America too, Canadian Tire,$ 12 billion company. They own Helly Hansen. Usually people are surprised to hear that. We have Racket, so we have all different types of consumer packaged goods. For a global perspective, we're with Danone. Danone we have so many different brands and so many different countries, from Italy, to Spain, to France, Australia.
Tim Schigel: Wow, so international. So it's not constrained to North American culture or what have you.
Bernadette Butler: And I love that on video... When you come to text, another reason I think we're such an incredible melting pot society. Only if you're really strong in text are you able to construct a sentence, or you feel comfortable enough typing something. With video, if English is not your first language, you grab that video. Oversees, any language, it comes down to, for us, culture and that story. So making sure that brand safety echoes the culture and that. But anybody can grab their phone and talk in any language and it's captured. Right away that doubles the amount of content that can come in.
Tim Schigel: That is a good point. I hadn't thought about that actually. That actually removes friction. What's it been like running a startup in Vancouver?
Bernadette Butler: We were once in- person, now we're fully remote, and really leaning in hard to how do you build great culture remote. And I think in our future there's a hybrid model. I think you can only go so far and you've got to have that in- person connection. I think it's great. I think early days with us was super involved in the community at all of tech- based co- working spaces and events. And since COVID I think we've definitely stepped out of that. We look more of it as a North American endeavor, really focused on where we have to go. Still keeping some ties but really being a lot more careful with our time and growing the business.
Tim Schigel: There's I think a lot of people moving, moving out of places like California. And Vancouver's one of those places that I've heard is receiving a lot of folks, which is terrific.
Bernadette Butler: A lot of developers up here. Yeah.
Tim Schigel: So what's on the horizon for StoryTap?
Bernadette Butler: On the horizon? Oh, so much is on the horizon for StoryTap. I'd say the focus for StoryTap, and we're super excited, syndication. When you're dealing with such massive files, 30 megs, we've been investing a lot in our tech in syndication. And that's something that text does well because it's not big at all, teeny- tiny. So that's one that just amplifies our growth, et cetera. And then also PLG, so product- led growth. We've been up market for a long time and we're now swinging down, and just having that groundswell of offering freemium product. We're starting with Shopify, really focusing on one of the hottest entry points of StoryTap, which is our video FAQ. And a lot of brands go,"Oh, that's so easy. It just makes so much sense." And the plus of that isn't just awesome customer care, it is the video SEO side of it, it's like owning the question. And there's so many more upsides when you shift to video, so that would be our entry point. Yeah, so PLG on the bottom half and then syndication on the top half would be the two-
Tim Schigel: I think there's huge opportunity there. I could see just thousands and thousands of merchants plugging into this, and maybe even coming up with new use cases and being innovative themselves with how they could use your technology. Appreciate you being on Fast Frontiers, Bernadette.
Bernadette Butler: This is awesome. Thank you having me, Tim. I've been following along and so pumped when you asked me to join. This is awesome.
Tim Schigel: All right, best of luck.
Bernadette Butler: Thank you. Bye.
Tim Schigel: Join us next time when we bring you my conversation with Joseph Hanna, founder and CEO of ENGAGE Talent, an AI- driven SaaS platform to empower talent acquisition, engagement, and retention. ENGAGE was acquired by Workforce Logiq in 2019, which was then acquired by PRO Unlimited in 2021. Thanks for listening to Fast Frontiers. If you like our show and want to know more check out our website, fastfrontiers. com. If you've enjoyed this episode, please share it with others and leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform. The Fast Frontiers podcast is brought to you by Refinery Ventures. Our producer is Abby Fittes, audio engineering by Astronomic Audio, and our podcast platform is Casted.
Bernadette Butler of Storytap sits down with Fast Frontiers host Tim Schigel to discuss the power of storytelling and connection. Bernadette is the CEO and Co-Founder of Storytap, and in this conversation discusses her path to creating the company, it's goals working with clients to help them gather stories from customers, and what her experience of bootstrapping the company has been like.