In 2019, Johanna Forsman and Andreas Jansson of StoryTourist stood as the winners of the Swedish Creative Business Cup. At the global finals a month later, they championed their category. We sat down with Johanna Forsman to talk about CBC, StoryTourist, and the importance of cultural entrepreneurship.
StoryTourist is the brainchild of Johanna Forsman, a Malmöite with a passion for literature and storytelling. Described as an app with “self-guided walking tours for famous books”, StoryTourist blends reality, fiction, and history to create immersive literary experiences right at your fingertips. For instance, imagine solving crimes with Sherlock Holmes in London, exploring the deep sea with The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, or stepping into Hjalmar Söderberg’s Stockholm – all with the help of an app on your phone.
In this interview, Johanna Forsman takes us through the journey of StoryTourist. Taking us all the way back to the beginning, we talk ideation, entrepreneurship ecosystems, and Forsman’s entry into the Creative Business Cup.
Where did the idea of StoryTourist come from?
It all started when I was 15 while reading Franz Kafka’s The Trial. It’s a difficult book to read as a teenager, and I just couldn’t understand it at all, which really made me frustrated. The book is famously set in Prague, and when I was trying to get a better sense and understanding of the story, I realized it’d be so helpful to actually visit the city, walk the same streets as Josef K. – the main character – and to truly immerse myself in its fictional environment.
A couple of years later, I met my business and life partner, Andreas, and I decided to revisit the idea with him to see how he’d react. We’d planned a trip to Berlin, so I brought one of my favourite books that also happens to be set in the city: Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin. Andreas is not a bookworm like me, but he’s really interested in history; and Isherwood’s story is set in Germany, in the 1930s during the Weimar Republic. During our trip, I set up the first rendition of StoryTourist, a real-life treasure hunt for him to enjoy. I’d give him clues and tell him to go certain places and read specific sections of the book; while I would spy on him from far to enjoy his genuine reaction. He loved it – and thought, like me, that it was a great way to travel and experience the city. So, in 2014, we started StoryTourist together.
Was the format of StoryTourist thought out from the beginning?
When Andreas and I started working on StoryTourist, we discovered that it was a great way to promote reading among youth. We had this idea of StoryTourist being like Pokémon Go, but for books. It combines the two things that parents are always nagging their kids to do more: exercise and read. That’s where we got the idea for making it into an app. We realized that creating an app, it would have allowed us to consolidate all sorts of things – text, sound, video, illustrations – and of course, also to integrate a GPS and add elements of gamification to make it all place-specific and fun.
Our first prototype was in collaboration with the Malmö public library. We hosted a hackathon, a short story writing competition, and learned so much throughout that project. That’s also where we came in contact with Lars Mattiasson and The Creative Plot for the first time! We all realized that building an app like this, while having a lot of potentials, proved to be a quite difficult and costly endeavour, so we were constantly looking for investors and worked with different business incubators. Then suddenly, it dawned on us that, out of the blue, we had entered the start-up world.
… and how was your entry into start-up ecosystem? Did you have an entrepreneurial background?
Well, I had a sole proprietor business before, so I knew a little bit about running my own company, but it was all very limited and different from learning and understanding the whole entrepreneurial ecosystem. Suddenly, you’re thrown in this whole new world of lingo: pitching, venture capital, investors, shareholder agreements, and so on. It took some time to adapt, understand, and navigate it all, that’s for sure.
Do you have any tips for other people who look forward to breaking into entrepreneurship?
I think it’s really important to consider and make the distinction between a start-up and a company. Running a start-up and running a company are two completely different things and they both have very different journeys. If you want to run a start-up, then definitely find an incubator to help you. The help we’ve received from business incubators and accelerators has been invaluable, to be honest the least.
Let’s talk about the Creative Business Cup. You were the winner of the Swedish finals in 2019 and went on to win the Tourism category in the Global Finals. Tell me about your experience!
I stumbled across an ad for the global finals of CBC and thought it seemed like a really fun and exciting opportunity for StoryTourist to grow and gain international investments. Funny story: when I was preparing for the global finals after winning the Swedish one, there was a lot more administrative work than I expected it to be. I was going through all of these applications thinking “Ugh, is this even worth it?” but it really was! After having been in the start-up-loop for a couple of years now, I can still safely say that the CBC has been my most fun and treasured experience as an entrepreneur. It was just such a good event: meeting creative people from all over the world was incredible and the atmosphere was just so friendly and… unpretentious. In both the cultural and entrepreneurial sector, people sometimes tend to get snobbish and exclusive, so CBC could’ve been a disaster… but it wasn’t, at all. Against all odds, it really brought together the best of two worlds.
What has been your biggest takeaway?
I think the competition and Creative Business Network could really play an important role in a bigger discussion that needs to be held in the Cultural and Creative Industries; which is the fact that we are… an industry – and a big one too! The turnover from the CCI is huge, which is sometimes hard to fathom considering how many cultural workers struggle financially. Right now, money in the CCI is concentrated within a few big corporations, meaning a lot of smaller start-ups and sole proprietorships fall behind. There’s also this expectation, because you’re working in the creative sector, that people should work for free. It’s disheartening, and the CCI really needs a paradigm shift. The CBC is such an important reminder for everyone that cultural entrepreneurship is a thing and that it needs to be taken seriously and valued appropriately.
Where is StoryTourist heading next?
We’re always trying to break down the barriers between “high culture” and “low culture;” the distinction between the two just seems so silly. At StoryTourist we’re just really interested in discovering the things that people truly like to get nerdy about; for some that’ll be Kafka, for others, that might be Jersey Shore. To us – none of that matters! What truly matters is passing down cultural heritage. There are a lot of exciting things happening for us right now. We’re looking forward to working with freelancers, podcasts, and branching out from literature to history. We just released our first historical tour in Lund, based on the true story of the murder at Locus Peccatorum. We’re really excited to continue working and expanding our product.
StoryTourist is available on all mobile platforms and has tours in Copenhagen, London, Lund, Stockholm, and Ystad. Learn more about StoryTourist and Johanna Forsman on their website.