Episode 236 – Unpacking stories with Shuhrat Ashurov


Shuhrat AshurovThe best business books include powerful stories that get across key points in a memorable, engaging way. What if we could make those stories accessible to more people, more easily? That’s the vision that prompted Shuhrat Ashurov to create Storypack, a microlearning app that gives people in business access to a library of stories from business books and also encourages them to add their own. 

Shuhrat talks about how he personally recognised the power of story-based learning, the difficulty of getting people on board in the early stages, and the way he and the team have worked with authors to extract the various types of stories in their book from the context of the book so that they can stand alone and reach more people, more easily. 

Whatever the future for business books, this is surely a part of it. 


Storypack site: https://www.storypack.co/

Storypack on Twitter: https://twitter.com/StoryPackapp

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge January 2021: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=proposal-challenge-jan-21

Virtual Writing Retreat wait list: https://alisonjones.lpages.co/virtual-writing-retreat/

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Shuhrat Ashurov, who is the co-founder and  the CEO of StoryPack, an innovative microlearning app for businesses, which takes short stories from business books and makes them more discoverable and accessible. Welcome to the show Shuhrat.

Shuhrat Ashurov: Thank you Alison for having me. I’m very excited to be here.

Alison Jones: Hi, it’s great to have you here. And I love what you’re  doing, I think it is so innovative and interesting and so important for business and business books. So just start by telling us a little bit about StoryPack. Just introduce StoryPack to us.

Shuhrat Ashurov: Yes. So StoryPack is as you have already introduced a microlearning app for companies, and we are on a mission to help companies teach their workforce through stories from external experts, as well as internal experts. So the whole core of the idea of everything is short stories.

Alison Jones: And that’s interesting when you say from experts and also themselves, just tell me a little bit more about how that works.

Shuhrat Ashurov: What we are doing is we are partnering with publishing houses, and working with published authors, to take short stories from their business books. So that would be the expert stories that we will be providing. Right now we are focusing on the topics of leadership and sales and inspiration, and the platform also allows the employees to write short stories internally.

So the web app that we provide for companies helps them and guides them to write and to share their knowledge in a story format. Then that makes it more inspiring, memorable and accessible.

Alison Jones: Yes. And engaging of course, because we’re hardwired  for stories, aren’t we? And as we’re speaking, which is September 2020, it’s very exciting because you’ve just launched, haven’t you?

Shuhrat Ashurov: Yes. We have just launched this month, 1st September, actually. And, yes, the feedback has been great so far. So we’ve launched on  App store and Google play so  users can already have access to it. We’ve launched with two publishing partners, Practical Inspiration Publishing and Icon Books.

And the feedback has been pretty good and we have been obviously promoting it through different channels. And one of the channels was Facebook and we have received a lot of feedback from there.

Someone sent me a DM, which was interesting. Someone sent me a direct message and said, ‘Oh, this is really cool, I have a hard time reading books because I am slightly dyslexic, but this will help me remember the knowledge and retain the knowledge from experts and from books’. I’m like, wow, cool.

Alison Jones: ‘That’s exactly what we hoped for.’ Yes. Isn’t that brilliant. And it’s about a year, isn’t it, since you and I met when it was a twinkle in your eye and we were at the Frankfurt Book Fair and I went, that is actually, that sounds fantastic. You know, where do I sign? Just talk us through the past year, well, not in real time, obviously, but some of the highlights and also the issues that you’ve faced. Because it’s interesting, obviously from a book story point of view for this podcast, but I think also generally, just a kind of quick look at the entrepreneurial journey is going to be interesting for people.

Shuhrat Ashurov: So you want to hear the misadventures?

Alison Jones: We do,  that’s exactly what we want but we want the short version.

Shuhrat Ashurov: Yes. That’s the episode that I was listening to, the Misadventures of Entrepreneuring.

Alison Jones: The Misadventures in Entrepreneuring. That’s right. Yes.

Shuhrat Ashurov: I’m remembering my misadventures, but yes, so, I started it last year, but I started it as a side project and one of the events that I went to was a Frankfurt Book Fair, that’s where we met. And there my goal was to speak to as many publishers as possible to talk about, what we are on a mission with StoryPack and get their feedback. So all of the publishers, all of them, said that they really, they love it, it seems very timely. And it would help them discover the books. And  if you add this button, this would be like more exposure for us and this and that.

So they were giving us ideas, as well as they were very curious, but at the same time they were saying, okay, do you already have an app? Do you already know how many people are using it? And these were questions that I could not answer back then, because back then I was more of, okay, I need to get at least a letter of intent from publishers that they are interested so that we could start building the product  .

And then I met you, you were very curious to know more and were one of the first ones to to sign a letter of intent with us, which made me super happy. And, I was able to get two more publishers to sign that back then. And, yeah, in January, I recently wrote a post, I think on LinkedIn where I said that it’s not only believing  in the idea of, wow, this sounds interesting and cool, but at the same time, it takes courage and innovative mindset from the publishers who are so to say, early adopters, so, so thank you so much for that Alison.

Alison Jones: You’re welcome. No, I could absolutely see the potential, but also, you know, I’ve been, you know, in, in bigger publishers in the past, I’ve been that person approached by startups and just reluctantly having to say, well, you know, it sounds really interesting, but it’s risky or it’s going to take too much overhead or we, you know, it’s not a model we know and understand.

And I think that is a real problem for, I guess for any innovation, isn’t it, is that if it relies on other people buying in, nobody wants to be the first, they all want  it to be up and working before they buy in, but you can’t get up and working until you’ve got people on board. So, you know, that’s that sort of perennial entrepreneur’s problem, isn’t it?

Shuhrat Ashurov: Yes. Yes, definitely. I mean, I’ve faced it myself in so many different areas, not just with publishing. Right. So when you are starting and building a company, it’s not just one side of getting the content, but at the same time, getting other parties interested, bringing  in co-founders who are also excited about the whole idea and the whole journey and working together on the same mission.

So everyone is kind of like, wow, that’s interesting, but I want to see it in action. I want to see it like actually being there and getting feedback. So yeah, I mean, I think that’s why there is this whole early adopter mindset and I’m thinking, that is different from the general public or people I would say.

Alison Jones: And let’s talk a little bit about the concept behind it, which as you said, you know, when you talked to me about it at Frankfurt, I immediately got it. We are hard wired for story, and we remember them. We take the learnings from them. So just tell us a little bit about how you extract the story-shaped nuggets from the books and how you then make them available to people and why.

Shuhrat Ashurov: Yeah. Okay. Before I go into the details of that, is it okay if I share, why I started or where this all came from?

Alison Jones: Oh, absolutely. Always start with why. Yes.

Shuhrat Ashurov: Okay. Great. So around 10 years ago, I was back home, I’m originally from Tajikistan. So, I started a small training center with a few friends of mine. And the goal of that training center was to help youth learn about leadership, public speaking and time management skills. And at the time we didn’t have a lot of experience ourselves.

So what we would do is read a lot of books on this topic, mostly business books, personal development books, and share that knowledge with others in our training and seminars. And that worked really well. And that was my first time actually realizing the potential of stories and how it hooked the whole audience and everyone kind of leans in to listen, to learn more, to find out.

And that’s the way we  shared ideas and lessons back then. And, at that time, I used to read quite a lot of books, but the last five years have been very, very busy with my family and I also had a B2B sales job, and didn’t have, so to say enough time to read as much and to learn and grow, so to say,

And, also I have been using this whole storytelling unintentionally, to be honest, in my sales meetings, in boardrooms, in other places in meetings that I’ve had. Basically I would go and tell them stories of how we helped other customers achieve a certain goal. And it wouldn’t be too much about the technology because we were selling a very complex technology, but it would be more of like, the stories of how this company in that industry was able to achieve their goals.

So then I was able to see the effectiveness of stories in my job there as well. So that’s how kind of, the dots connected when I was coming up with ideas.  The whole idea of StoryPack, came from like, okay, why don’t we share short stories from books and experts and make them discoverable.

So for example, right now you could go to StoryPack and, search for, of course we’ll have a limited number of stories right now, but a search for a certain topic let’s say creativity and the idea would be, we want to have short stories on creativity from different experts or different books and each story would be up to three to five minutes.

Alison Jones: Which is so consumable, isn’t it. Even in the busiest day.

Shuhrat Ashurov: Yes, definitely. Yes. So that would be the idea that like it’s a microlearning platform that you are on a journey to continuously learn and grow, but not necessarily setting aside two hours each day, but, like on the way to work or while you’re doing something you’re listening to a story or, you’re reading it, and it’s easier.

And, so back to your question of how we extract it, right now we are working with the authors and, with the authors and publishers. So we are looking at their books and, basically taking up to 1,200 words of a story.

When we say a story, we mean that there is. basically a three-act formula in the story. So there is so, yes…

Alison Jones: A start, a middle and an end.

Shuhrat Ashurov: So there’ s like a Netflix movie there. So in the beginning, there is something, like there’s a hook, then the problem is introduced in the beginning. And then the second part, the second act is more the journey of how that problem is solved or what are the things that, that has helped them solve it.

And then the last part is what we call a story punch, is the takeaway or a lesson that the author gives to the reader or listener.

Alison Jones: And then of course, if they love the topic or the way the author writes, there’s the information about the book and they can go and sort of look in more detail at that.

Shuhrat Ashurov: Yes.

Alison Jones: What I really like as well about this thinking, is the way that it makes books more granular. I mean, if you think of a book is an entity of its own and it has a start and an end. A start, middle and an end of it its own.

And within it, there are chapters. And within those chapters, there are stories and there has been no way, or we haven’t looked in the past particularly… I mean, in the past, I know when I was doing an ebook platform, we looked at taking out individual chapters. But it didn’t always work so well because chapters are written building on the one before them and leading to the one that comes after and they don’t usually read that well in isolation, but stories are extractable.

I mean, with a little bit of, I know you’ve done quite a lot of editorial work actually on this, but by picking them out and kind of recombining them and presenting them a different way, you’ve effectively unshackled them from their context and created them as assets in their own right. It’s really interesting.

Shuhrat Ashurov: Yes, it’s also, to be honest, it’s also a bit of a challenging task sometimes because some of the books, I remember when we were going through some of them, and we said, okay, these two or these three books, we cannot feature them because we cannot extract stories from there because it’s more practical tips, rather than…

Alison Jones: They’re more instructional.

Shuhrat Ashurov: Exactly, more instructional, but we couldn’t really take any stories from there. So there are times when we pass, that’s the thing, we are not summarizing or we’re not doing any other format, it’s mainly stories and it has to have that kind of a story structure. Otherwise we cannot feature it.

And during this time, we have realized that there are three types of stories which are present. I mean, if you look at most of the bestselling books they are full of these short stories. and it has worked out quite well, with your authors that the majority of them are full of stories and it makes it like way easier for us.

Okay. Well, okay. We have even a choice of how many of them to feature, so…

Alison Jones: An embarrassment of stories.

Shuhrat Ashurov: Yes. So the three types of stories we found, are: first is more of a personal story, when the author talks about a certain specific instance, for example, they say ‘In 2005, I was doing this and this happened.’ So there is these elements of story of like, there is a timestamp, there is a hero, there is all this journey. So it’s a personal story is one type.

The second type is when they talk about working with their clients. So that’s why we call them experts because most of the authors have certain expertise in a certain area, that they have their own consulting , that they also share experience from. So working with clients, and how the client reacted to a certain thing and what they learned and what was the, this whole, dynamic and everything.

So that’s a second type and the third type, which is also pretty good and one of my favorite types, is these scientific experiments which are presented in a story way, that for example, in 1990, this experiment earned a PhD from Stanford for the author, and this is what they did.

And they had two groups of people, then they did this and they did this. So this is also a very nice story structure. That when presenting an idea, they have this experiment that they show. So this is like the three types that we have come across so far.

Alison Jones: And that taxonomy of stories in itself is fascinating. And, what’s also really interesting is, obviously from the intellectual property perspective, which I know you and I have talked about a lot, because this is one of the big concerns of publishers – they are custodians of intellectual property, that’s one of the things that they do – you have to have the author on board with this don’t you?

And it was great when I talked about this at the Practical Inspiration Author day back in December last year, you know, when we could all meet together, remember those days and, just sort of say, you know, who’s up for this and a sea of hands went up in the room, they all could immediately see the value in it and wanted to be part of it, which I thought was, you know, shows you’re onto something really, doesn’t it that from the author’s perspective, as well as the end user.

Shuhrat Ashurov: Yeah. From the author’s perspective it has been great, to be honest.  I reached out to all of the authors from both of the publishers and none of them said no. All of them were like, sending me these nice messages saying, Oh, this is a great idea. I’d be happy to be featured in this application.

And, one of them recently also, I think, yeah, from both publishers, they were sharing it on social media multiple times and saying that, Hey, I’m featured in this app, without us even asking them yet, but, saying like hey this is a, and then putting a full disclosure saying that I’m not getting anything from promoting this app, but I just love this idea. And it also helps me that I am featured there, but check this out.

So, all of them were very happy to be there. Yep.

Alison Jones: Yeah, that’s absolutely brilliant. And you mentioned, although we didn’t spend much time on it, so let’s just come back to that, you mentioned that, in a company that’s bought the package, that’s bought access to the content, people in the company can upload their own stories as well.

Do you think that story writing, you know, being able to formulate your own stories and draw on your own experience and so on… okay, this is a really leading question but I’m going to, I’m halfway through it, so I’m going to finish it. Do you think that’s a valuable skill for people at work?

Shuhrat Ashurov: Yeah, it is an extremely valuable skill, especially when it comes to leaders, because their job is to engage, inspire, motivate their team and solve problems for their team and stories and storytelling could be a great tool for them. But what we are trying to do might be a bit challenging in general, because not everyone is going to be able to do that, right? So not every person is able to write and craft stories. So that’s something that we are taking as a challenge to ourselves and saying, okay, how can we make this process as easy as possible? And one of the things on the horizon for us would be to make it with a voice, that you could easily press a button on your phone, it will ask you a question and you press a button on your phone, and then you just record a couple of sentences and then it will ask you another question. And once you’re done, then it puts together the story itself. So then, it would be easier for the person basically answering questions.

And then the whole story will be put together  and shared with other employees.

Alison Jones: Yes, and of course, this is a great example of, you know, AI working with human intelligence. Isn’t it. To put it together

Shuhrat Ashurov: That’s where, that’s where we want to get to

Alison Jones: Yes, absolutely. But I think, I mean, clearly it was a leading question, but the point I’m making is I think that writing, storytelling, you know, these are really important things, almost wherever you are in a business, because actually what you’re doing is communicating in an engaging way and also structuring your own ideas in that lovely three-part structure that sort of taps into how humans think

Yes. Yes, definitely.

Really valuable skill. So. Usually of course, what I’d be doing is asking an author, what’s your best tip about writing a business book.

But I think what I’d love to ask you for is, what was your tip for authors who want to write stories that you could include more effectively in StoryPack, for example? So how can people approach story writing in a way that makes those stories as memorable and complete in themselves as possible?

Shuhrat Ashurov: That’s a great question, Alison. And, it would definitely help us to onboard more authors in the future and have some of your listeners with us as well.

So, In general, I would  suggest to try to have these standalone stories, and make them in a way that you can, so there are ways of talking about a certain concept or certain idea, and then with a story making it more powerful or the other way around, that you start with a story and then talk about the concept or the idea as a takeaway from that story.

A lot of business books and best-selling books do it in a really, really good way. For example, a really good one is Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. The book has about, I think,  I actually counted each story in the book and there are like more than 30 stories in that book.

It’s a combination of personal, as those three types that I mentioned: they have experiments, they have personal stories, then they also have the ones that they worked with customers. And what makes it challenging to extract them is when the story is intertwined within two to three different chapters.

So that makes it, I mean, that’s also fine. I mean, there are a lot of books which do it that way, but that makes it very challenging to take the story because we would like to keep the original text and the original voice of the author so that we are not editing it. But of course we have to provide certain context. It has to have some context, because as you mentioned, you cannot just take one chapter and put it in there because then it doesn’t make sense.

So yeah, my only tip would be to figure out a way to make them standalone. So in some books, what I noticed is that, they talk about these different ideas and concepts in their book. And then, they have a part which is called the case study. And that case study is the one that we would be very interested in. So what we were doing is basically taking the case study and then at the end of it, from that chapter taking a couple more sentences which gives a bit more context or talks about the idea.

Alison Jones: Yes, brilliant. And it’s actually, I mean, obviously we’re making life easier for you if people write it that way, but actually it’s really good for you as an author as well, because that means you can use that story more effectively in talks, for example, or presentations.

Shuhrat Ashurov: Yeah, definitely in talks, presentations and promoting it across different channels online, or even just shooting a short video of yourself and telling that one specific story. And then, which is only two or three minutes even when you are talking about it, because that’s why we call it short stories  but that really does connect with the audience and make a powerful impression. And then also a very important point is that they become memorable and that’s how they remember your book or yourself, through that story.

Alison Jones: Yes, brilliant. So it’s good for you, but it’s good for them too. Fantastic. Now, Shuhrat, I know you have read a lot of business books, like, I mean, a LOT of business books, especially recently. So I’m going to be really interested in your answer here. Is there a particular book that you would recommend to the listeners as, as one that’s just an absolute classic of its type?

 Yes, I mean, Shuhrat Ashurov: you’re definitely right. So I’ve been going through these different books from both publishers recently, and if I say from the ones that I’m reading right now and the ones that I read, The Monday Revolution from Practical Inspiration from David Mansfield has been really good because it also has a lot of short stories of him talking about different experiences that he had with his customers and also other types of stories. And the other good thing about it is that at the end of it, it gives you a practical tip. So it’s a combination of a story and a practical tip, which makes it great. So, or asks you a question that makes you think okay, how can I implement this now?

Alison Jones: That’s a great recommendation.

Shuhrat Ashurov: And then also from the other publisher that I’ve been reading is Build Your Business on Ideas, it is a book on creativity by Jody Newman.

And that’s been also very good, which is again, I think probably the reason I liked these books is they are full of stories.

Alison Jones: And that’s why everybody likes them of course

Shuhrat Ashurov: Yes, but at the same time they have good practical tips and good ideas and concepts that would make you think, okay and now I can take it and implement it in my business.

Alison Jones: Yes. Fantastic. Great recommendations. Thank you so much. And Shuhrat if people want to find out more about you, more about StoryPack, where should they go?

Shuhrat Ashurov: Yeah, so I’m happy to connect on LinkedIn of course. You can find me with my name, probably you will also include that in the transcript and for StoryPack, it’s StoryPack, Story P A C K dot C  O so that’s where they can find StoryPack. And, also on Google play and Apple, they can find the app and download it and check it out for themselves. And for the authors, because the majority of your audience are authors,  we would be happy to talk to you and also feature some of your books, some of the stories from your book, there is a  section called authors or publishers, for publishers, on our website that guides you how to  reach out to us.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. And I’ll put those links up on the show notes, of course, as usual at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com, along with the transcript of this conversation.

Shuhrat, thank you so much for your time today. It’s such a great project, I think it’s really innovative and interesting, and I wish you every success with it.

Shuhrat Ashurov: Thank you so much, Alison, for having me, it’s been a pleasure and, yes, we’d be happy to collaborate with you and with some other authors from your listeners.

Alison Jones: Thank you so much.

Shuhrat Ashurov: Thank you. Bye bye.

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