StoryTracks is on an epic mission to bring local stories to life

27 Nov 2017

Form left: Dublin City University president Prof Brian MacCraith with StoryTracks founder Fergal Nealon, who was awarded Best Pitch at the recent DCU UStart Demo Day. Image: Nick Bradshaw

Our Start-up of the Week is StoryTracks, an audio guide designed to delight, enchant and inform tourists.

StoryTracks is a modern heritage audio guide which brings local stories to life when out and about on a user’s own smartphone or tablet,” explained founder Fergal Nealon.

“Users can both listen to stories exactly where they took place, as well as create their own StoryTracks by uploading their own tales through the app.

‘We’re planning to connect visitors and locals alike with the real Ireland and help them discover hidden gems off the beaten track’

Nealon describes StoryTracks as “a virtual passenger who will bring the villages, towns and cities of Ireland, and hopefully the world, to life”.

The market

StoryTracks’ ‘sweet spot’ customer is the independent, tech-savvy traveller who journeys by car and has an interest in the history and culture of Ireland.

“Based on figures from Fáilte Ireland, we can see that by focusing on the overseas and domestic holidaymakers who fit this criteria, we have an overall niche target market size of 1.69m potential users in this country alone.

“We’ve got very positive feedback toward the app from this sector.

“There’s a gap there with official tourist guides tending to be very heavy on facts and figures. We’re planning to connect visitors and locals alike with the real Ireland and help them discover hidden gems off the beaten track.”

The founder

Nealon’s background is in visual storytelling.

“I trained and worked in the television and film industries as well as creating award-winning music videos and short films. Around 2008, I moved back home to care for my elderly parents and, during this time, I was introduced to the game of poker.

“With a lot of time on my hands and hungry for the challenge, I ended up competing at the highest levels of the game, going on to play at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas on numerous occasions and featuring regularly on the European Poker Tour.”

Nealon said that there are a lot of crossover skills you can draw on between the world of poker and entrepreneurship.

“Obviously, being comfortable with working for yourself is key to both areas, and keen risk management skills is a must as well as having the patience and confidence to know that if you keep making the correct decisions in the long term, that you will be rewarded regardless of the short-term variances of any given tournament.

“That’s a great skill to have in the start-up world, where immediate rewards may not always seem obvious and revenues can take time to grow.”

The technology

Nealon explained that two-to-three minute stories will be triggered on the app by a user’s geolocation once they are in a set radius of where the event took place.

“The upload function will allow users to add their own stories and pin the location to the map, add a picture and brief description, and categorise the story. Once saved, it will be go to a holding tank, where it can be added to the app once approved by a moderator.”

He said that StoryTracks is built on Google Cloud Platform (GCP).

“GCP is a fully managed platform as a service, which means that Google look after the details of the hardware, networking and operating systems, leaving us to write the application,” Nealon explained. “GCP will scale the StoryTracks service up and down as traffic demands, so the system can always service any number of users while at the same time ensuring that we are not using (and paying for) more resources than we need at any one time.

“Rather than relying on a traditional relational database, StoryTracks uses Google’s NoSQL datastore, which provides for extremely high throughput and availability with minimal latency, and is replicated for redundancy across multiple data centres through Google’s private fibre network.

“The audio for the stories themselves is stored on the edge of the network to ensure that they get delivered as quickly as possible to users. StoryTracks supports logging in via Facebook and is integrated with push messaging for both Android and iOS to notify users of new stories. All services are based in the cloud to provide for lowest cost, least maintenance, maximum uptime and, ultimately, the best experience for users.”

Nealon said the ultimate ambition is to see StoryTracks emerge as the global brand leader in story content generation as well as create a new way for tourists to travel, engaging with the local culture and people in a fun, interactive way.

This is how you gather momentum

Nealon explained that StoryTracks has been gathering great momentum with the project.

“This time last year, I was successful in applying to Dublin City University’s [DCU] Open Education course on software systems and entrepreneurship. The final part of the entrepreneurship module was to create a business plan. I got some great feedback from my mentors throughout the year on the project, so I decided to run with it. Through this course, I got nominated for an entrepreneurship award and, from there, managed to get accepted onto the DCU’s UStart accelerator programme run by the DCU Ryan Academy.

“Around the time college was finishing up, I got accepted to phase one of the North West’s New Frontiers programme. I really have been very lucky in the mentorship and teachings I received in the past year. They have helped me reach a position where I have received feasibility grant funding from the Sligo LEO office, and have just got word I made phase two of New Frontiers, which will be based out of the innovation centre at Sligo IT.

“This funding has allowed us to begin app and website design and development as well as engage the services of a marketing consultant.

“We’ve been busy gathering stories around the north-west region to be ready for app launch. Once the minimum viable product has launched, I will certainly be looking to attract further investment as we seek to scale up our services, add some features and roll out the stories, first in Dublin and then along the Wild Atlantic Way.”

Nealon said StoryTracks has been in discussions with potential partners in the tourism field and is developing an exciting feature known as StoryPacks, where commissioned audio guides from tourism and community groups will have their own place on the app, highlighted on the map.

“We are also developing interesting B2B markets, which we see as having huge potential.”

A leap of faith

Nealon that there were a lot of hurdles to jump through to put the minimum viable product into development.

“I took a leap of faith in the idea and many others have taken a chance on me. This is a great motivating factor. I suppose one of the biggest challenges so far has been going through the application form process on multiple occasions.

“It was quite daunting at first, but they do get easier as every one you complete seems to look for different boxes to be ticked, whether it is samples of work done or financial statements/quotes/projections. So, each time you get through the process, you’ve added another string to your bow for the next time.”

The Sligo surge

Having been fortunate to have received some fantastic mentorship from DCU Open Education, DCU Ryan Academy and the North West New Frontiers programme based out of Sligo and Letterkenny ITs, Nealon said that the start-up scene is developing.

Sligo Startups hold regular events with guest speakers as well as social meet-ups. The Building Block has opened in Sligo town, offering open-plan hotdesks, and I’ve got to give a special mention to Tracy Keogh, who is doing sterling work throughout Connacht as the Bank of Ireland innovation community manager.

“There is certainly a growing start-up scene and I’ve found most people I’ve encountered have been very enthusiastic and helpful. This level of support isn’t available in many other countries and we really are one of the best places to help get a start-up off the ground.”

Nealon’s advice for other founders is to be open and willing to collaborate with others.

“I think the tech world is so unlike traditional industries that may have tougher ceilings to break through. I don’t feel there is the same need to be overly protective and secretive about your product. I’ve learned so much from asking the right questions to the right people and, to get into that position, you really have to put yourself out there and get involved.

“I’m building a tech product but I spent a day at an old market fair in Tubbercurry with a large cutout mobile phone image of the app beside me. I certainly stood out beside the butter-makers and the food stalls but I made some great contacts, recorded many fascinating stories and managed to get interviewed about the project on local radio.

“People by nature want to help and will support you if they can, so get out there and get talking.”

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years