The odds of surviving stage III Hodgkin’s lymphoma are about four-to-one. The odds of two people beating that cancer and going on to create a successful startup together are harder to pin down, but we imagine they’re pretty slim.
That unlikely string of events tells the story of Splainers, a Seattle-based startup that creates shareable explainer videos for companies like Microsoft, Adobe, and MasterCard.
Years ago, Mark Smith, who serves as Splainers CEO, met Seth High at a party in Seattle. They learned they had both survived the same disease by undergoing the same experimental treatment.
After getting to know one another, High decided to join Splainers as creative director after spending 15 years in Tokyo as a copywriter and ad specialist.
“As a result of our health scares, we set out to create an atmosphere that encourages employees to flourish and realize their creative ambitions,” Smith said. “Splainers’ culture recognizes that everyone has something to offer, and past professional experience isn’t as important as a person’s passion for storytelling.”
That approach led Splainers to take on another cancer survivor, Ross Ishikawa, as Splainers’ lead animator. Before joining the team, Ishikawa was an architect who wanted to transition to a career in visual storytelling.
“As a company, we take an unconventional approach to storytelling, inspired by the life journeys of our ‘talented survivors,’ our three-member executive team who all beat cancer,” Smith said. “Through our experiences, we came to understand that great stories can only be considered successful if they achieve measurable results.”
We caught up with Smith for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “We help people and organizations tell memorable stories — usually through short videos.”
Inspiration hit us when: “Inspiration hit us when we were students and young professionals going through cancer treatment. We saw that metaphors and simple explanations of complex medical procedures actually increased our comfort and confidence. We were inspired again when we saw the amazing video Seattle’s Common Craft created for Twitter a decade ago. We realized that any idea or innovation is only as good as its explanation — it’s ‘story.’”
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “Definitely bootstrap. The need for our product was immediate, so business was coming in right away. This has also allowed us to grow organically and at our own pace instead of overextending ourselves to meet the demands of investors. Bootstrapping has simply allowed us to follow all of our creative whims and make discoveries that go beyond business demands.”
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “Our ‘secret sauce’ is storytelling. Ninety-nine percent of video companies are started by video producers and animators. Splainers, on the other hand, was started by writers and journalists. If the story isn’t compelling, no amount of flashy graphics will save your video.”
The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Our smartest move was taking our product beyond marketing departments. Though we still help plenty of businesses tell their product stories, 70 percent of our business now comes from HR, training, internal communications, and PR divisions. We’ve made a massive effort to show organizations the tremendous value in engaging and energizing their workforces.”
Always try to look at what you’re doing from other people’s perspectives. The story of your product starts with the people who will use it.
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “The biggest mistake we’ve made so far is not cultivating a dedicated marketing and sales team. We’ve survived thanks to great market demand, word of mouth, and our passion. However, we don’t see this as being sustainable in the long run and have taken steps to fix that.”
Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “My vote is for Zuckerberg because of his dedication to delightful content and storytelling platforms, while Seth would rather have Bezos due to his commitment to consumers and his relentless pursuit of better metrics. So it’s pretty much a tie.”
Our favorite team-building activity is: “Our favorite team-building activity is definitely our twice daily runs to Top Pot for coffee (and my occasional donut). We always come back laughing about something. Soon after that, everyone is locked back in on whatever projects they are working on.”
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “Curiosity. Without it, our wheels would stop turning.”
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Always try to look at what you’re doing from other people’s perspectives. The story of your product starts with the people who will use it.”
Monica Nickelsburg is a contributing editor at GeekWire, covering technology-driven solutions to urban challenges and the intersection of tech and politics. She previously served as GeekWire’s Civic Editor and worked for The Week, Forbes, and NBC. Monica holds a BA in journalism and history from New York University. Follow her @mnickelsburg