You don’t need to know everything. If you’d told me this when was I starting out, I’m not sure it would have helped because I thought I DID know everything. It wasn’t just the hubris of youth; I also bought into the cultural myth that a leader is supposed to have all the answers upfront. A better plan is to stay humble and learn as you go. I didn’t know anything about payroll when I started my company but I probably pretended I did. When did I actually figure out payroll? When the company got big enough that I needed a better system to track everything. Having an actual problem to solve is a perfectly good time to learn the answer.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Benjamin Salka.
Benjamin Salka is the co-founder and CEO of Story Pirates, a renowned media company that celebrates the imaginations of kids. Downloaded more than 30 million times, the Story Pirates Podcast is one of the top kids and family podcasts in the world and is the winner of both the 2020 iHeartRadio Award and the 2020 Webby Award for Best Kids and Family Podcast. In response to the pandemic, Benjamin and his team have launched the Story Pirates Creator Club, a new subscription service featuring virtual learning activities, a weekend radio show, weekly interactive improv shows, and videos to encourage creativity at home and in schools.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I had a complicated childhood. My dad died of depression when I was five years old. It colored my whole understanding of the world around me. At the same time, I felt really lucky because so many other grownups in my life, including my mom, my family and friends, and my teachers, provided an astonishing amount of support. They helped me work through some profound grief with a lot of grace at a really early age.
The biggest effect of my dad’s death was that I went from being a gregarious, theatrical goofball to suddenly being incredibly quiet at school. “Internal” is probably a better word than quiet because the inside of my head was actually loud. While most kids were showing off their letters and numbers, I often sat silently sorting through questions in my mind about mortality, loss, and purpose.
From the outside I probably just seemed shy, bordering on unengaged. Unfortunately, our public education system is not really not designed to engage kids on a deep level, so it was helpful that my dad, who had been a teacher specializing in special needs before he died, had enrolled me in a small independent school where the faculty took pains to teach to each child on their own terms. I believe all kids need and deserve that, but I would have likely been lost without it.
My teachers, free of judgment, gave me the space for years to work things out in my head, even at the expense of doing my schoolwork. Then, when they sensed I finally had something to say, they gave me the opportunity to share my story with the world. In sixth grade, my drama teacher asked me, one of the shyest kids in the school, to write and star in the school play. I was terrified, but I worked so hard on it and I had so much fun. Basking in the applause afterward was a life-changing event. I felt seen and celebrated and I look back on it as the singular moment I reemerged from my shell.
I wasn’t thinking about that story in 2004 when I co-founded the Story Pirates, a company made up of A-list comedians who teach creative writing skills to kids, then adapt the kids’ original stories into sketch comedy. But the experience I had in sixth grade is strikingly similar to the one Story Pirates gives to thousands of kids each year, and that can’t be an accident.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love this passage from a letter Albert Einstein wrote to his son: “I am very pleased that you find joy with the piano.This and carpentry are in my opinion for your age the best pursuits, better even than school… Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those.That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal.”
It’s a great feeling to be so engrossed in your work that the rest of the world disappears. It’s rare to find that kind of flow when you’re doing something out of obligation, but it happens all the time when you’re driven by passion. It’s a lesson I was able to learn early, and I’m obsessed with giving more kids that experience. In fact, the most gratifying part of my job is getting to hear from parents who say their kids used to hate writing before they discovered Story Pirates, but now they can’t stop. We’ve had thousands of parents tell us that.
The Einstein quote is interesting to me not so much because of what it’s saying but because of who’s saying it. It’s beautifully plainspoken. Anyone who believes that desire drives learning will tell you something similar. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just listen to Albert Einstein.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Two answers, at truly opposite ends of the spectrum:
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl is a breathtaking firsthand account from a concentration camp survivor who transformed his deepest trauma into something meaningful, first through the mere act of survival, and later through the healing process of telling his own story. It shook me to my core and it gave me profound hope about the resilience of the human spirit.
Much more trivial but no less eye opening for me was, of all things, the Virgin America seatbelt safety video. When that video debuted on flights in 2013, a spark went off in my brain. Several years earlier, my bootstrapped startup was beginning to make just a bit more money than I, with my communications degree, could keep up with, and I was trying to teach myself accounting and finance principles. Unfortunately, books on financial management were putting me to sleep. I came across a DVD selling online for almost 600 dollars called The Balance Sheet Barrier, a basic finance tutorial starring John Cleese, and I ordered it out of desperation. It was only mildly funny, but it was engaging enough to hold my attention, and I actually started to understand financial statements enough to pick the books back up and learn more.
Story Pirates has always existed at the unusual intersection of comedy and education, so it was also a lightbulb moment for me about the power of virtual learning. A lot of the industry is focused on tech and AI, and those are great innovations in education. But I started to think that a major missing component is just better storytelling. Then I saw the Virgin America seatbelt safety video. They took the world’s dullest information, how to use a seatbelt, and turned it into a highly memorable, over-the-top dance number with lavish production value, humor, and style. It made me realize that the multi-billion dollar (and growing) digital learning sector has barely scratched the surface in terms of its potential to engage reluctant learners of any age.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
We started Story Pirates in New York in 2004. It was a group of friends who were hilarious improvisers and comedians who taught creative writing and then adapted stories written by real kids into sketch comedy and songs. Our first shows were in school auditoriums and a tiny basement theater. The inaugural season was co-produced by Backhouse Productions, a theater company run by a then totally unknown Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail. They were workshopping In the Heights in the same basement.
Within a few years, we were visiting hundreds of schools and playing bigger and bigger theaters. We were invited to perform at the Kennedy Center for both of President Obama’s inauguration weekends, and we opened a second headquarters in Los Angeles in 2010. We also branched into audio with a weekly show on Sirius XM, and eventually started a podcast with Gimlet Media that quickly became one of the top podcasts for kids in the world. Like our live shows, our podcast features adaptations of stories submitted by kids, performed by incredible comedians and special guests like Kristen Bell, Billy Eichner, Bowen Yang, Patton Oswalt, Natasha Rothwell, Claire Danes and Julie Andrews, to name just a few.
In recent years, we’ve published a series of critically-acclaimed middle-grade books based on kids’ stories, adapted into full-length novels by New York Times bestselling authors; and we’ve released several albums featuring amazing guest artists like our old friend Lin-Manuel Miranda.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
While we’ve had a lot of success moving into publishing and podcasting in the past few years, the core of our business has always been in theaters and schools. In March 2020, that went away overnight, and we faced some very real fears that we had reached the end of Story Pirates. I had a three-day panic about our ability to survive for more than a few months with so little cashflow. But a few stars thankfully aligned for us.
First, in the summer of 2019, we had started a strategic planning process with an eye toward moving more of our operation online. In particular, we imagined a subscription service that would be a virtual hub for all things Story Pirates, including downloadable activities and lesson plans, virtual shows and workshops, and a video library of adaptations of kids’ stories. We actually launched a beta version of it called the Story Pirates Creator Club in December 2019. That meant that we were just slightly ahead of the curve when everything around us was abruptly forced to go virtual a few months later. To be clear, we had only taken baby steps in what we thought would be a slow and strategic transition over several years, but it was enough to give us a foundation and a vision from which to work when we suddenly had no choice.
Second, the moment the pandemic started and schools shut down, it was immediately clear how badly parents were underwater with their kids stuck at home. Everyone was worried about too much screen time and too little enrichment. In that environment, we got an avalanche of great press from so many major outlets who pointed to the Story Pirates Podcast as one of the best activities to do with kids during quarantine. Over the course of less than six months, our audience nearly doubled in size from a million downloads a month in February to nearly two million by July.
Finally, we were able to benefit from that rapidly growing audience by working around the clock to build the Creator Club into a meaningful subscription service that now gives our fanbase electrifying new ways to interact with us, including exclusive perks and discounts on all sorts of cool special events. For example, by the summer, we launched a sold-out virtual camp in partnership with Random House Children’s Books in which best-selling authors and illustrators stopped by to discuss their creative processes with our students. It was one of the most successful programs we’ve ever offered.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
Again, the first moment for us wasn’t “aha” so much as “oh no!” And in some ways, the “aha” happened before the pandemic when we recognized that we have a big new audience outside of New York and Los Angeles and we wanted to have a more substantial and effortless way to reach them. As difficult as the pandemic has been in so many ways, a silver lining for Story Pirates is that it greatly accelerated our efforts to meet our fans where they are without the constraints of physical travel.
How are things going with this new initiative?
Great! We just debuted our first-ever virtual theater piece called Sleep Squad. It stars the amazing (and Tony nominated!) Lilli Cooper. It’s a show you watch on a laptop, a tablet, or even your tv, and it’s designed to help stressed out kids get to sleep. We mail this awesome kit to their home before the show, and it has a bed-time journal, a sleep mask, and a star machine to magically transform their room into the night sky.
We’re having a blast making this stuff. We’ve gotten really creative and people have been responding more positively than we could have hoped.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Our first Hollywood agent at Story Pirates was a kid named Max Saines. I say kid because he was only 27, but he was actually wise beyond his years and he was the best agent we’ll ever have. He passed away tragically when he was 28, but not before banging down every door he could for us. He shouted from the mountaintops that Story Pirates was the real deal, and because he had a flawless blend of confidence and authenticity, everyone believed him, including me. I talked to him three times a week for what I assumed was the beginning of a lifetime partnership. I miss him every day and I’ll never stop being grateful for him.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
I got a call from someone who works at the PBS affiliate WNET in New York this summer asking if they could use some of our Creator Club content. It was for a lineup of tv programming catering to kids who are being left behind by virtual learning because they may not have access to wifi or connected devices. PBS reaches 89% of non-internet homes, and many of their affiliates are helping bridge this digital divide with curricular programming. We run a non-profit arm of Story Pirates called Story Pirates Changemakers which works to serve marginalized populations with arts and literacy programs, so this is something we care a lot about. We readily agreed.
I mentioned all this to Nick Melvoin, a school board member with the Los Angeles Unified School District, and he connected me with the folks who run KLCS, an PBS affiliate chartered by LAUSD. They ended up asking us to make a weekly tv show. Despite the pandemic sidelining our ability to be in schools, this show is utilizing fifteen years of Story Pirates’ curriculum, all brought to life in our signature comedic style. We just finished making the pilot and I can’t wait for people to see it. Through this partnership, we’re about to reach significantly more underserved kids than ever before. This pandemic has created an educational crisis in America, and it’s gratifying that Story Pirates can be a real part of the solution for so many kids.
If you don’t live in LA, it will soon be available for anyone with an educator membership to the Creator Club.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- You don’t need to know everything. If you’d told me this when was I starting out, I’m not sure it would have helped because I thought I DID know everything. It wasn’t just the hubris of youth; I also bought into the cultural myth that a leader is supposed to have all the answers upfront. A better plan is to stay humble and learn as you go. I didn’t know anything about payroll when I started my company but I probably pretended I did. When did I actually figure out payroll? When the company got big enough that I needed a better system to track everything. Having an actual problem to solve is a perfectly good time to learn the answer.
- You don’t need to be the solution to every problem.This is related but different. At first, I didn’t just think I had to know all the answers, I also thought the solutions had to originate with me. I assumed that as a leader, my value to the company came from being right more often than other people. That attitude is backwards, and it blocks out important perspectives. Now I see my job as providing direction but not necessarily answers. I still have a lot of opinions, but I’m much more open to other people’s approaches. The result is that I’m less exhausted, others are more invested, and the organization has a more rounded leadership team.
- Your leadership style can change. It was hard for me to let go of controlling every detail and give others more responsibility, but I hit a point where I was so burned out that it was essential. I went from being a serious micromanager to trusting others to do their jobs. More recently, during the pandemic, I’ve put myself back in a more hands-on role. Why? Because we’re evolving at warp speed and at least for now, it requires a steadier hand. The bottom line is that leadership doesn’t have to look any one way, and it doesn’t have to be consistent over time.
- You are not your company. When love your work to the point of it becoming an obsession, it’s easy for your job to become your identity. I wish I knew at the outset that it’s possible to be intensely passionate about your career without getting fully lost in it. I know now that it’s a good and healthy boundary to set.
- Get more sleep! Overworking yourself and being exhausted doesn’t make you a hero, it makes you sick. If someone would have told me that in 2004, maybe I wouldn’t have run myself into the ground ten years later. Pace yourself and take a nap if you need one!
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
Oh boy, I’d be lying if I acted like an expert here! I have two young kids and a company that could have easily gone under during this pandemic and this has just been a really, really stressful time. I wish I could say I’ve optimized my mental wellness during this period, but honestly, I’ve just been really stressed! The best I’ve managed in terms of wellness has been to enjoy my work and to be as generous as possible with myself and keep remembering that I’m doing the best that I can.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I want us to rethink our cultural understanding of childhood. In our society, childhood is about consumption when it should be about creation. We have a top-down model where we’re trying to cram as many ideas and stories into kids’ heads as possible.The result is that we’re suffering from a paucity of wonder, and it doesn’t just affect kids, it also affects the adults we become. By the time we’re grown, we’ve had a lot of our curiosity and sense of play systematically removed, and it causes more of humanity’s collective pain than I think people realize.
And it’s a problem that permeates other systemic injustices like inequality and racism. When we withhold status and resources from entire groups, thereby marginalizing them, we also rob each new kid in every generation of the childhood they deserve. Every kid is a creative genius. Every kid is a full person. And every kid deserves to feel safe and seen and respected for who they are throughout their childhood. I’m sure most people agree with that sentiment on its face, but as a society, we don’t really act on it. If we did, the world would look a lot different than it does and there would be a lot more joy.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
I can’t think of anything more exciting than a quick bite with Sal Khan! He’s a trailblazer and his impact will last for generations.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!