Rutger Bruining of StoryTerrace: “Swim or sink is a bad strategy”

Swim or sink is a bad strategy: We’ve always promoted people from within. That often meant they needed a completely different skillset, for instance to go from sales agent to sales manager. As I only received on-the-job training in my own career, it took me a long time to realize we needed to do more […]

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Swim or sink is a bad strategy: We’ve always promoted people from within. That often meant they needed a completely different skillset, for instance to go from sales agent to sales manager. As I only received on-the-job training in my own career, it took me a long time to realize we needed to do more to set people up for success. It’s not fair to them — nor good business practice — to just let them get on with things. I’m proud we have now developed our own first-time manager training to help more people have successful careers with StoryTerrace.

Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.

How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?

In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rutger Bruining.

Rutger Bruining is the Founder and CEO of StoryTerrace, the leading global memoir writing service that pairs people with an accredited ghostwriter to turn their life story — or that of a loved one — into a treasured keepsake. Originally from Rotterdam, Bruining was inspired by his grandfather’s tales of adventure and adversity serving in the Dutch resistance during WWII. In 2014, Bruining left behind a career in private equity to focus on his love of capturing precious stories by founding StoryTerrace.

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 was born and raised in Rotterdam, a major port city in the Netherlands. I grew up with my mom, brother and sister. Besides raising three kids, my mother worked as an academic in Leiden University’s law department. I didn’t see my father, who was a doctor leading the Rotterdam emergency department, until I was 18. As my mom had to keep quite a few balls in the air, I was lucky to be able to spend a lot of time with my grandparents. I loved listening to my grandfather’s stories as a child about his role in the Dutch resistance during the Second World War, how he met and fell in love with my grandmother, and tales about his work as a doctor in the Caribbean. That’s where my love of history and storytelling began.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“A day without laughing, is a day without living.” Perhaps because I have a serious, ambitious side I feel quite strongly about the meaning of this Dutch expression. While I like to work hard, you also need to enjoy life and laugh. As long as you balance those two, you can live a life well lived.

You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

Problem-solver: I’ve found throughout my job and personal experiences that for every problem, there’s a solution. When I was in management consulting working on complex projects with various stakeholders, I learned to gather as much information as you can quickly, analyze this and then make a decision decisively, despite the uncertainty. However bad something might look in the present, there’s always an optimal path to the future.

Collaborative: I continue to encourage a collaborative working environment, even while we are all working virtually. I hold regular one-on-one meetings with all of my direct reports along with a weekly all-hands company-wide meeting where we share a “story of the week” and other important news items. My team has also implemented a program called Donut where employees from across the globe get randomly paired together for a coffee break to learn more about one another. Virtual socials or happy hours have also been hosted twice a month. My favorite was a song-writing course with a Nashville based artist, Wildwood. I found that fostering this type of interaction helps build confidence and in turn increases productivity throughout the company.

Open-Minded:I’m constantly challenging myself and learning new things including best practices as a leader. Over the past year StoryTerrace has more than doubled our number of employees, with the majority of new hires joining remotely during the pandemic. It’s been a challenging but wonderful experience because I’ve been able to learn new ways of managing effectively under unique circumstances. I’ve kept an open-mind and listened intently to the StoryTerrace team about what can be improved upon and what we’re doing well.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?

I had an entrepreneurial itch when I was younger. My first business was selling marbles at age 11 and I had a variety of jobs growing up, from working in kitchens to delivering newspapers. But I started my professional career in 2004 as a strategy consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton after earning a degree in Business & Economics from the University of Amsterdam. Working on complex projects with different teams in a new location and industry every three months seemed like the best learning opportunity. Three years later I moved to New York to complete an MBA at Columbia University and later became Investment Director at a 4 billion dollars private equity fund, Arle Capital in London. Among others I sat on the board of a theme park operator with 50 locations, an aerospace company and an energy services business.

And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?

While I enjoyed my career in private equity, I couldn’t shake one of the biggest regrets in my life — not recording my grandparents’ life stories before they passed. I realized that the stories I loved listening to as a child were fading quickly and that there were questions I wished I had asked them.

Over the years, I had several ideas to help people capture their stories, but none seemed scalable. During this time, I read that, an Australian based company described as “the world’s largest marketplace for outsourcing,” announced their IPO. I realized that, with a small team, they were able to manage millions of freelancers on their platform. Writers with great degrees and impressive publications offered their services at affordable rates as they competed for content writing jobs. This gave me the idea to make a writer available for anyone to write their life story. It was time to start StoryTerrace.

Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?

It wasn’t until I spent a few weeks in Africa in 2013 to do charity work in a remote area near the stunning Lake Naivasha that I had more time to think and gained clarity to leave behind my career in private equity to create StoryTerrace — a platform for people to chronicle their life stories, and those of their loved ones.

I knew that I didn’t have the experience, and my peers weren’t so certain that there was a market for something like this. I felt the need was there and therefore didn’t bother with market research and took the plunge. The first year I mainly spent learning by talking to writers, editors, advertising professionals, entrepreneurs and a few friends that immediately offered to buy our service, without there being real clarity as to how the process would work yet. I also took some courses to learn about digital marketing to drive the first traffic to the website which I had set up by Bulgarian developers.

What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?

While I’ve always been a doer, I did procrastinate at times in my previous jobs. Having many stakeholders to please and align stifled my desire to drive initiatives forward on a few occasions. Hesitation is a sin when, as an early stage founder, you wear multiple hats and everyone looks at you for direction. As a result I’ve become more confident to turn ideas into action and become more productive than I ever thought possible, not just at work but also at home.

How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.

StoryTerrace has now written over 2,000 life stories with 10,000s of copies printed. There has been a surge in those wanting to preserve the memories of their loved ones — especially due to the pandemic. In 2020, we saw a significant increase in customers searching for ghostwriters to write memoirs for themselves and family members. As a result, we more than doubled our number of employees last year and have also employed more ghostwriters. Currently, we work with more than 650 professional writers globally.

Given the hardships over the past year, StoryTerrace wanted to honor and celebrate the Unsung Heroes of COVID-19 — those who have gone above and beyond to help others or to lift community spirits. We received over 300 entries from those looking to nominate deserving heroes in their lives. Our judging panel, consisting of prominent journalists, broadcasters, a literary agent and charity founder, selected 25 nominees to be featured in a beautiful Unsung Heroes compilation book. The Unsung Hero with the most outstanding story, 94-year-old Opal Lee, was also gifted a StoryTerrace biography package to capture her heroism forever in a professionally written book.

Opal, who is also known as “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” has been providing food to those in need for over four decades, after starting her own food bank and farm in Fort Worth, TX. And this didn’t stop during COVID-19. She put others’ health before her own and continued to hand deliver food boxes to the sick and shut in throughout her community. In addition, Opal Lee has organized Juneteenth in Fort Worth for over 40 years and is on a mission to make Juneteenth a national holiday.

It’s been extremely rewarding to see how StoryTerrace has resonated with people, especially over the past year. Recently, we appeared on the show Dragons’ Den (the equivalent of Shark Tank in the U.K.), where we received an overwhelmingly positive and emotional response, and investment offers from two of the Dragons.

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?

There have been many important figures in my life who have helped shape me and the person I am today. I had a wonderful history teacher in grade school. History was a subject that I already had some interest in, but I became really passionate about it because of his engaging classes. My brother was also a big inspiration to me. He is eight years older than me so has always been someone who I’ve looked up to (figuratively and literally). He and my grandfather ignited my love of traveling. I’m also grateful to my mom who taught me important values such as loyalty and hard work.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

I’ve come across the most interesting people and had so many friends come through for me. I stayed for weeks in my friend Ryan Petersen’s house in San Francisco. Other founders would drop in and out to stay over while in town for meetings. We’d work on our laptops on the couch while eating, talking startups, and watching the hit show Silicon Valley, which our own setting perfectly resembled. On some days I’d work from Ryan’s offices. One day Alexis Ohanian came to share his startup experience with the Flexport employees. I ended up taking the elevator down with him and selling him a book package by the time we hit the ground floor!

Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?

While my mom and stepdad wanted to see me succeed, they also were hesitant about the idea of me leaving my full-time professional career to begin this business in unknown territory. A common question among people I used to work with in finance was “how long are you going to give it?” which fueled my motivation even further to make StoryTerrace a success. I never had a doubt there would be a market to help people capture their loved ones’ stories and knew I could make it work as long as I made progress. Although the journey has certainly had many tough moments. An early one was when I found the very first website lead in my junk folder. After four days. Not very professional and to make it even worse, this was someone asking about our service urgently for his terminally ill father. I certainly felt like I screwed everything up in that moment.

In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?

I was not accustomed to asking for help. I’ve always liked figuring things out myself and tried to avoid owing people. In a way, I have focused on being self-sufficient from an early age. The startup world is really unique and helped me break this habit. People are keen to help as long as you are serious about what you do. And many are very smart about making the right introductions. So I’m eternally grateful to those friends and strangers that offered to help me and in some cases even pushed me to accept their help. That was really what I needed. After a while I learned to ask for help myself and sometimes it feels like a day job to reach out for advice and introductions!

As the business grew, it was very important for me to surround myself with those that bring a positive energy and are collaborative. I always thought that I had to be the quarterback of my team — you get the ball and make the decisions — which worked when I had a smaller staff, but quickly changed when we grew exponentially. I now have a strong team including a board of directors, advisors and executives who I can depend on to continue to grow StoryTerrace.

Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?

From the start I have been driven by our mission: to make sure that we preserve the stories of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. So many have regrets and no one seems to do anything about it. I’m not sure I realized I was completely out of my comfort zone when I first embarked on startup life. I just wanted to learn all the aspects that I needed to get right to compensate for my lack of experience. In the beginning, I did everything from interviewing writers to creating our standardized questionnaire to setting up our first marketing campaigns (after taking courses at General Assembly), to taking all sales calls. It wasn’t sustainable though, so I slowly started to build a staff of writers, editors, website developers, sales people and marketers. I probably felt the most uncomfortable when handing over processes I was handling myself to a new hire, however more qualified they were than I was.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. 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.

Swim or sink is a bad strategy: We’ve always promoted people from within. That often meant they needed a completely different skillset, for instance to go from sales agent to sales manager. As I only received on-the-job training in my own career, it took me a long time to realize we needed to do more to set people up for success. It’s not fair to them — nor good business practice — to just let them get on with things. I’m proud we have now developed our own first-time manager training to help more people have successful careers with StoryTerrace.

Don’t be cheap: Not spending enough to learn from a marketing campaign, having your website hacked, settling for an average hire. None of these saving mechanisms have a positive return on investment when you have an ambitious goal.

Do what’s right for you: When I first started out as an entrepreneur, I got advice from anyone who would share with me. My peers would tell me what type of marketing channels brought them success and that it would work for me too. I certainly didn’t follow the advice blindly and it was overwhelming at times so it taught me to be more strategic when asking for advice.

Keep things simple: I had big ideas for StoryTerrace and tried to do them all from the start. For instance, we tried to make books in several languages early on, we took on Airbnb as a client to write content for them using our writer network and we created a crowdsourcing platform. It was a great learning experience, but these ultimately distracted us from our core mission so we let them go.

In the US, pitch like Travis: With investors and people I was comfortable networking with, I pitched my business in a laid back way, explaining pretty rationally how it would work and what the risks were. Then someone in the US told me that I should pitch more like Travis Kalanick. Even though I haven’t adjusted my style that much, I know he was right.

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 believe that if people would know more about their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, the world would be a much better place. Besides bringing families closer together by understanding their choices and sacrifices, learning about their ups and downs can help anyone to gain perspective when they are going through a rough patch. So I really hope to help to create a world in which it is part and parcel for everyone to turn their life story into a book, whether they write it themselves or seek assistance from a ghostwriter.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂

I’d love to have breakfast with the inventor of the printing press, Gutenberg. As he is no longer with us, you can wake me up really early to have breakfast with Steven Spielberg. Besides remembering watching Schindler’s List with my mom (the only movie we ever watched together in a cinema) and not being able to talk the rest of day, I’m incredibly impressed with how the USC Shoah Foundation has recorded over 100,000 hours of testimonies of the Holocaust and how they are helping to develop new storytelling methods to make sure the Holocaust is never forgotten. My favorite project allows you to ask two survivors anything in a virtual, immersive environment using AI. I’d love to make this accessible on a much wider scale.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow me on Twitter (@rutgernow), LinkedIn and Clubhouse (@rutger). For StoryTerrace news, you can visit the website or follow us on Instagram (@story.terrace) and Twitter (@storyterrace).

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Thank you for the opportunity to share my story.

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