Saving Storytelling with Lean Startup

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Photo by The Lean Startup Conference/Jakub Mosur and Erin Lubin

Long before we had apps, metrics, user experience or testing tools, storytellers would travel from village to village, perfecting their craft by observing how live audiences responded to their stories.

That’s why Prerna Gupta, founder of the storytelling app, Hooked, says that in some ways, the idea of using data to tell stories isn’t actually that revolutionary. But it is highly valuable, to authors, publishers and studios alike, if you look at some the evidence from the past few years.

In her presentation at the Lean Startup Conference 2015, Prerna gave the example of The Martian, one of this past summer’s highest grossing blockbusters. The Martian started as a blog, then became a book and was eventually made into a movie. Its success was no accident, but rather, it was the result of ongoing market validation and customer feedback. Essentially, the blog (and each blog post) was the MVP, and by building out his ‘product’ based on input from his audience, author Andy Weir was able to launch something the market loved.

Prerna, a writer herself, recognized that this kind of customer validation could be applied to storytelling, which is how she got the idea to build her app, Hooked. She realized that by bringing the idea of scientific experimentation to storytelling, she could improve the experience for both the author and the reader.

When she and her team were building out the product initially, they used data to determine the best UX for the app. Noticing that there was significant drop off around 35% of the way through a session, they set about innovating the format. Adding images or changing fonts didn’t seem to make a difference. What they landed on was an app that tells stories via text messages. To continue reading, the user has to click ‘next.’

Completion rates went dramatically up. They had discovered a way to reformat fiction to suit reduced attention spans of the modern reader. Hooked put out a call for stories to MFA programs, offering to pay for creative writing. With UX now in place, they used data again, this time to evaluate the quality of the stories.

Prerna shared one example in which a story they thought would do well was failing to engage users. She reread the beginning, realized it had some confusing elements, and edited it. As she hoped, the story began performing significantly better. Essentially, what Hooked is doing is giving authors the ability to create ‘lean fiction.’ Not only does this format help authors refine their craft and their storytelling abilities, it also ensures that users consume the product, even ones that aren’t likely to sit down and read a hundred – or even a dozen – pages.

Prerna herself is a huge believer both in the power of fiction and the power of the Lean Startup methodology. She says that following a data-driven and customer-driven approach to product management was one of things that helped her to gain traction for Hooked in Silicon Valley, where fiction is not exactly the flavor-du-jour. Being able to prove the concept, take things one step at time, and consistently back up assumptions with metrics was critical.

By merging the creative and technical, Prerna has been able to create an app that serves both creators and consumers, without compromising on the core values of storytelling. Hooked stories have characters, plots and complex ideas: everything that makes fiction so valuable to read. But it does it in a way that truly takes into account the experience of the user, rather than an unfounded whim of the author or a publishing house.


Continue learning with Lean Startup Co. in 2016. We have a new series of smaller, subject-specific Lean Startup Labs, starting with an enterprise summit in February in New York City, in addition to our flagship Lean Startup Conference in the Fall in San Francisco.

Written by Rachel Balik, contributor for Lean Startup Co.

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