The ambassadors of the Startup Nation have invented an app that can bring their children closer to Israeli culture while they’re living the American dream. With the website and app Storyly, children sitting in front of a computer overseas can thumb through virtual pages while keeping their eyes on Grandma.
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“Every Israeli family with a relative living abroad knows this experience. You sit in front of the computer on Saturday night Israel time, which is Saturday morning in the United States, and have the weekly Skype call,” says Ziv Fass, one of Storyly’s founders.
“Grandpa and Grandma want to keep the conversation interesting and work on a relationship with their grandchildren, but the children quickly lose interest. They say hello, put on a few shows, and after five minutes go off to play something. I say this from experience.”
Eight years ago, Fass and his wife moved to Philadelphia to study business administration. Then it was on to the West Coast to work in technology. Their children were born in the States, “so there was this need for a connection with our family in Israel, for Israeli culture and for Hebrew,” says Fass.
Fass has spent the past year developing Storyly with two partners at tech firms in Seattle. “The three of us come from a heavy technology background, work at high-tech companies, have been in the U.S. for seven or eight years and are raising children who are too young to read – between a year and 4 years old. We wanted to create a good conversation experience for our parents, our children and ourselves,” he says.
Fass says his parents would sit with a book in front of the Skype camera, but the kids got bored quickly; it’s hard even if both sides have the same book in their hands. It’s hard to look at both the screen and the book. And an ordinary conversation over Skype just doesn’t interest the little ones.
It’s not just expat families; Jewish schools where the kids study Hebrew and learn about Israel are very interested. “As we work on our project, we’re keeping up with our ordinary work. We’re energetic people. I think our strong emotional connection to this need allows us to do this. And the fact that our own families are an inseparable part of the service,” says Fass.
Granddad writes a story
“My daughter Mia grew up on Storyly for the first year, and every time she sees me working on it, she asks me what I’m adding. She’s very connected to it, and it gives us the momentum to keep going. Through the features on Google Hangouts, we’re planning to do a virtual story hour and host authors on video chat who’ll read from their books.”
At first, the entrepreneurs had to get the rights to the stories. They spent months in talks with Israeli publishing companies; for that they hired their representative in Israel, Amir Doron. “The publishers showed a lot of interest in that audience, of Israelis and Jews living abroad, and were interested in the attempt to connect to the digital world,” says Fass.
The publishers include Keter, Hakibbutz Hameuchad-Sifriat Hapoalim and Am Oved. “Through the books, our children can learn about the Israeli character and not just learn Hebrew with a Diaspora flavor,” says Fass.
Among the books available are “Tiras Ham” (“Hot Corn on the Cob”), “Hamefuzar mi-Kfar Azar” (“The Scatterbrain from Kfar Azar”), “Ma’aseh ba-Hamisha Balonim” (“A Story of Five Balloons”) and “Shmulikipod” (“Shmuli the Porcupine”). There’s also a book entitled “Saba ve-Savta nos’im levaker et Mia” (“Grandpa and Grandma visit Mia”), a book with digital illustrations by Fass’ father in a burst of longing for his granddaughter.
The book begins: “Mia’s grandfather went to the barber, and on the way he passed by a playground he knew. There he saw girls on the swings with their hair in the breeze, who reminded him of Mia, who was in a different country.”
It describes how he misses his son and does errands in the run-up to his trip. It ends with the grandparents meeting with their granddaughter. The book is available for free on Storyly with “Barakevet yoshevet arnevet” (“A Bunny on the Train”).
“At this stage, Israeli publishers want to try this new digital option outside their main market. So the users who registered for the service from abroad can invite their Israeli relatives for a chat and a story, but they can’t do a paid subscription from a computer in Israel,” says Fass. “We’re working on that, and with certain adaptations the service will be available for users who register from Israel.”
Storyly recently added the option for Israelis to buy gift subscriptions for relatives abroad, and new books are added every month. A monthly subscription costs $10, a weekly one $4. The Storyly people considered pricing the service per book because children’s books are read over and over, but they believe in the library model. They’re offering 60 books at the moment, a number they hope to sharply increase.
“We’re working on improving user experience to make it easy and flowing, as with Netflix, because that’s how we consume much of our media,” says Fass. “We see the Hebrew market as a pilot through which we’ll develop the product we want – one we know is needed by people all over the world.”