@The Story Market

The Story Market's founder Lena Späth on her experience joining an accelerator

Our goal at The Story Market is that one day we all read newspapers that represent the variety of people, cultures, and ideas that make our world so unique. We want to read only the best stories, the ones that have been created by experts and people on the ground, no matter in which language. If we’re going to save quality journalism and foster democratic societies, we need to support the ones who create great stories. One of these figures is the Media Lab Bavaria.

 

When I was preparing the PR campaign for my book on interior design in Iran back in 2017, I would have never believed that this experience would lead to the foundation of my own startup. I was happily living in between three countries; Germany, where my family was based, Spain, where I was living, and Iran, where I was working. For generating buzz around my book I reached out to foreign correspondents in Tehran. To my surprise, no German newspaper had a single journalist working permanently in the country. Most people I met were freelancers, and even they were not more than a dozen. Having traveled extensively to Iran since 2008, the limited coverage of Iran in Western media suddenly made sense.

 

"Apply to Media Lab Accelerator!"

At that moment, I came up with the idea of a platform for journalists and photographers to pitch stories to international editors. Spoiler alarm, it later turned into a marketplace to syndicate and translate the work of freelance reporters. It took the US’s withdrawal from the Iran deal and renewed sanctions in 2018 to stop me from working in Iran and think again about this spark of an idea I had had the year before. While working full-time on other ventures, one weekend in the spring of 2019, I participated in the famous Startup Weekend. I wasn’t expecting a lot. I had just recently lost a couple of thousand Euros in Iran due to the currency crisis, so my goal was to pitch the idea and collect answers to the three big questions of any startup: Do people want the product? Can you build the product? Can it generate revenue?

 

After discussions and interviews, our small group pivoted: Why are freelance journalists usually selling their stories only once? It makes perfect sense that a publisher wants to cover a story first and exclusively in his or her language. But why should foreign editorials not publish it in other languages, for different groups of readers? After the final pitch session, I was chewing my sandwich while one of the jury members was hastily passing by. On his way to the exit, he shouted, “Apply with your idea to the Media Lab Accelerator!”.

 

Fast progress thanks to Media-Lab coaching

I had never heard about the Media Lab. Three weeks later, I applied, and by August, The Story Market made it into the accelerator. I was born in Munich and had graduated at LMU in Politics and Middle East Studies, but I had worked most of the time outside of Germany. My professional network in Munich was not existent. It would turn out that the Media Lab Bavaria was the perfect place for a recent repatriate.

 

Since the start of the accelerator in September 2019, The Story Market progressed rapidly, as did I personally. Two months into the fellowship, together with other startups from the Media Lab, I traveled to New York to meet local media professionals and discuss global trends. Many presumptions turned out to be false. I realized that media startups in the US are in a similar difficult situation when it comes to survival as in Europe. The trip helped decrease my feeling of being an imposter by counting the number of failed and often highly financed US media startups. Over the turn of roughly 20 meetings, squeezed into five days, we got a glance at who was ahead of the game. Sometimes you could assess how innovative a publication was by looking into the camera at the security check. One time I found myself in front of an old round external one; at Bloomberg, I stared into the black wall behind the receptionist. The opportunity to meet people like Quartz’s product director Emily Diamond or famous Jeff Jarvis provided the opportunity to share experiences and industry knowledge but also to connect with personalities whos work I respect highly. Like the Chief Operating Officer and VP of Product at The Wall Street Journal.

 

In February this year, after five months of Media Lab, we launched our MVP. It may sound as though the team is enormous or is composed of workaholics. But, until the MVP, the team was Emilia, who helped out with marketing and me. A big part of why we could move so fastly was related to the amount of coaching and contacts that were provided by the Media Lab. The German business publication WirtschaftsWoche joined after a pitch our marketplace. All of us will remember the great marketing lesson by Andy Mura, who worked before at Userlane and now heads marketing for an AI-startup. While the Media Lab itself is struggling with the same “growth pains” as any growing startup, the team managed to place the right sessions and intros at the right time. 

 

A turning point for The Story Market

But the exposure was the game-changer for The Story Market. I had been looking for a cofounder since the beginning of this journey. But it was challenging to find the right fit, someone who worked on a top-notch level, interested in journalism and crazy enough to join an unknown future. The help came in the form of Doris Wiedemann, who had followed the Media Lab’s activities on LinkedIn and contacted me for the first time in December. A former manager at Conde Nast Germany and Axel Springer, she was the perfect match, and by March, we became a female founding duo.

 

Similarly, a VC from London stopped by the Media Lab during Spring and got interested in our work. What looked like a promising fundraising opportunity turned out to be a hiring process. Peter Dresslar got so enthusiastic about the idea of globalizing journalism through data that he switched from being a mentor to The Story Market to become our CTO. 

 

It turned out that the Media Lab Bavaria was the perfect place for a recent repatriate. While the funding opened the opportunity to focus full-time on the idea and the accelerator’s network provided some good intros, the most valuable good at a startup are the people. Today, with an energetic Cofounder with a strong position in the European publishing industry and a CTO with a scientific mindset, our marketplace is live, selling licenses for articles that have appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, Bloomberg, Wired, or Mother Jones. Now, we can push for our mission: To globalize journalism and support journalists worldwide.