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Interview: Aliaa Remtilla, Co-Founder & CEO of StoryTiling

StoryTiling co-founder & CEO, Aliaa, spoke to us about how her background in anthropology and filmmaking inspired her to launch a start-up.

by hao-nguyen on September 28, 2021

Aliaa Remtilla is the co-founder and CEO of StoryTiling, a start-up on a mission to keep family stories alive by capturing life experiences and family stories with rich videos, voice and narratives.

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Hey Aliaa, it’s great to have you back chatting with us. For those who may not know about StoryTiling, do you mind giving us some background on the inspiration behind starting it?

I’ve spent my entire life capturing people’s life stories. When I was a young child, instead of hanging out with kids my own age, you’d be more likely to find me sitting with the elderly, asking them questions about their childhood. I believe that everyone has a story to tell and I love the process of getting people to open up and start talking about who they are – and how they’ve come to be.

This core passion drove my career through an undergrad at Harvard in film production, through to a PhD in Anthropology and then to travelling to over 20 countries collecting people’s life stories. What I learned is that I’m not the only one who wants these stories captured. Children and grandchildren want the stories of their parents and grandparents (and great-grandparents) to be captured for posterity.

Our identity is rooted in our family history – and the rise of tools like ancestry.com is clear evidence of this. There’s a need, however, to capture more than basic facts about our ancestors. With StoryTiling, we’re trying to bring our family trees to life.

That’s quite a career transition! What was the switch like initially, changing from an academic role to a start-up founder? 

I thrive with change! The best part about working on a start-up is the need to continuously learn and grow as a person.

The main transition for me was needing to learn how to “speak start-up”. There was a whole new vocabulary to learn and I needed to recalibrate to communicate more efficiently. In this space, “brevity is clarity”. As an academic, our focus on “nuance” means that a solid research report can hit 100+ pages!

Having said that, my last role also had characteristics that resembled the start-up world. I was the first Executive Officer ever hired for the Aga Khan Council for ANZ – and my main responsibility was to set up the infrastructure for the institution to thrive. I love crafting and moulding organisations to perform in a thoughtful and strategic manner.

You have quite a unique background – first as a filmmaker and then as an anthropologist – how has your past experience influenced the way you’ve built StoryTiling? 

There are so many ways to answer this question! Almost every little decision we make is informed by my experience and training. My whole job has been to help people go beyond the awkwardness of sharing their own story and, instead, open up with deep and meaningful authenticity. I’m spreading this knowledge everywhere in the app. 

Since launching StoryTiling, how has your role changed over the past year? 

The best thing about working on a start-up is that regardless of title, we all need to become “jack of all trades”. For the first few months, my focus was really on fundraising. Now that we’ve nearly closed our round, I get to put a more dedicated focus on product development and spending a lot of time with our users. I’m really loving every minute of it! 

Fundraising, product development, user research – these are all very different activities, do you need a certain mindset going into each one? 

For me, product development and user research are closely related. What our users tell us informs product development. We need to build product features users ask for – but also read between the lines to anticipate needs that might not be consciously articulated by our users.

Fundraising differs slightly, but there are similar principles at play. Maybe one way to explain my experience is that with fundraising, the “product” becomes our company, and I see our investors as “users” or “customers” who have specific needs to be met. So yes – I do need different mindsets going into each one, but they all draw on similar principles so it’s easier than it seems to switch between them.

What have been some of your biggest challenges and the key lessons you’ve learnt from them? 

Great question! One of the challenges with being an academic is that we’re often in our own heads. I love thinking up big fancy solutions and I really know how to dream! What my co-founder, Ben, has taught me is the importance of consistently building together with our users.

This means that we need to distill my visions into their core components so that we can quickly get an MVP off the ground, test the core hypothesis, and iterate from there. It’s a beautiful process once you get used to it. In many ways it resonates really well with the core premise of anthropology – which is to integrate ourselves with the people we’re working with and learn through experience.

One last question before we let you get back to working on StoryTiling. As a start-up founder, what do you think are the key traits that lead to success? 

Grit and passion for learning and growing as a person. Being a founder is an encompassing experience that’s filled with challenge after challenge. Grit gets you through the challenges, and passion for personal growth is what makes the entire experience such a pleasure.

Thanks so much for your time Aliaa, it was really great to chat with you as always, we’ll definitely be keeping a close eye on the StoryTiling journey!

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