Making museums and airports buzz: the story of STQRY

Plugging in your headphones at the museum, you begin to walk around. As you approach one display, you start hearing mosquitoes buzzing in your ear. 

As you approach the noise gets louder. And louder. Until you’re standing right in front of the malaria exhibit, consumed in the buzz. 

Your phone vibrates twice in your pocket, like a kid tugging on your jacket. “Mister, mister,” he begins, and starts to tell you about the problems he is facing with malaria in his country.

Part way through, you get distracted – another exhibit catches your eye. You move towards it, the zizz dies down, and the sound of running water starts to get louder. 

“Bye!” you hear the boy say as you move towards the water exhibit.

This is the new museum experience that Wellington-based company STQRY (the Q is a magnifying glass) is pioneering.

“This type of exploration caters to the uniqueness of the person,” STQRY founder Chris Smith says.

“Some people want to stand and listen for half an hour, other people only want to listen for 30 seconds, so the traditional way things are done are not designed for a smooth transition.” 

Smith and Ezel Kokcu founded STQRY, a “storytelling mobile experience company”, two years ago after a trip to Wellington Zoo. 

Both were new in the city, studying at Victoria University.

Smith, a softly-spoken, Seattle-born developer had moved to Wellington to study international business after two and half years working at Microsoft in his home town.

Kokcu, a Nelson native, was just 19 years old when she moved to Wellington to study computer science.

So the story goes, the pair was reading about pelicans at the zoo and wanted to know more, sparking the idea of an app where people could garner more of an experience from an object.

“With Chris’ development background it was really easy for him, once the idea started flowing, to just be like, ‘Ok, yeah let’s do something!’ And so we created something,” Kokcu, now 21, says.

While the pair was still studying, Smith went to Wellington Zoo and pitched the idea.

 “They absolutely loved it – they gave us the chance to actually develop this,” Kokcu says.

Gareth Morgan was STQRY’s seed funder, and two years on the company has grown from just Smith and Kokcu to having 17 staff across Wellington and Seattle, with seven new hires expected before Christmas.

STQRY’s client base has exploded as well.

After starting out with Wellington Zoo, the company now serves more than 350 clients including the Walt Disney Museum, Te Papa, the Philadelphia Museum of art, and most recently The Smithsonian – the largest museum in the world. 

“It’s exciting. We’ve got two staff out there out there right now and were working on a whole range of products with them, platform and solutions, some of which are live and available to the public now,” Smith says.

At the beginning Smith and Kokcu would sit down and plan what institutions they wanted to target, but now they say have tonnes of businesses coming to them, especially being in a space with little competition.

STQRY has also recently started working with airports in Seattle, Denver and Vancouver and Portland to make navigating those environments easier.

“It’s focused around way-finding – so being able to help people navigate the craziness of what an airport is,” Smith says.

The new mapping technology is supported with more than 60 different languages, so it’s a real aid in breaking down barriers with language and signage at foreign airports, he says.

But STQRY didn’t necessarily see itself providing these kinds of services when it started out.

“We didn’t set out to be a bespoke development company, we were just a storytelling mobile app,” Kokcu explains.

But after meeting with institutions they found many were keen to hear STQRY’s ideas on what the exhibition environment would look like.

“As we started creating these relationships it would become a creative brainstorm with our customers, and they would want to trust us to create their bespoke project. 

“So overnight we became an innovative creative experience company, which is really exciting, and it’s opened all these verticals for us, so basically anyone who has a story to tell we are the storytelling platform to do that,” Kokcu says.

The next step for STQRY is building out the app so any institution or airport anywhere in the world can map their own indoor environment and build their own stories. 

In practice, the company should only have to upload a floor plan and the STQRY system “does some magic” to map the space.

The technology is currently in beta release and STQRY expects to launch to the general public by January 2015.

“The stage we want to take this business is where it’s truly an automated scalable product where we can launch into any vertical market or geographical area without having to hire staff to support it,” Smith says.

Just in time, the company has been awarded half a million dollars by Auckland University through its Entrepreneur’s Challenge.

“It was just that extra little bit of support and padding to get us to that stage. It really couldn’t have come at a better time for us,” Kokcu says.

“It allows us to accelerate our growth from where we’re at now to take us to a large scale investment round next year, when we go for our series A investment round,” Smith adds.

STQRY is hoping to bring in up to $5 million investment.

So STQRY is a company that started out building a mobile app, before becoming a bespoke creative experience company, now on the verge of launching a fully scalable automated story-building app?

It’s a pretty incredible story in itself, if not a little confusing.

“Fundamentally and at our core we are a storytelling mobile experience that enhances the visitor experience at a business,” Smith explains.

“But we’re trying to stretch the limits of our technology to create really new ways of interacting and exploring environments.”

Coming from Seattle, Smith says New Zealand has been an unbelievable place to start a business.

“It’s a different environment [in Seattle]because it’s much more competitive and it’s a lot harder to start a business over there. A lot of people say it’s a business to start a business and it’s a lot harder to find the support networks and stuff when you’re at that early stage,” he says.

“The New Zealand community is not just forgiving but helpful – when you make mistakes or you need help there’s an amazing community here to actually help support you.”

And Wellington is the kind of environment where you can meet somebody for a coffee (or in the Koru lounge) and suddenly have that person open their entire contacts book to you, Kokcu says.

“They want to open your expertise up to their network, and in America and other countries people are a lot more restricted with how they share their contacts.

“Everyone should buy Koru Lounge memberships, you just meet crazy people there, and a lot of our opportunities have come from just waiting for a plane!” she laughs. 

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