Updated 3 months ago
Francisco Cornejo, CEO, 35
Daniela Vega, COO, 35
The Tech: Storybook app (storybook-app.com), Miami
With toddlers in tow, Francisco Cornejo and Daniela Vega packed up their bags and moved to Melbourne, Australia, after Cornejo received a full scholarship to earn a master’s degree there. Leaving behind careers and family support in their native Ecuador, they were now halfway around the world, not knowing a soul and struggling with the language and the 15-hour time change.
The move ruptured their family life. When their children, then 1 and 3, were fighting their bedtimes, Vega started studying infant massage. When her instructor asked how she connects with her kids, “that was my ‘aha’ moment,” she says. “I wasn't really connecting with my kids. I wasn't really enjoying motherhood until we decided to make some changes in our bedtime routine and created this space to bond, to be physically affective through massage, through stories.”
The result: The children were soon fighting over who got their story time first. While Vega’s approach of combining music, massage and stories worked for her, her husband found it difficult to do all those things at once. She suggested they create an app that would direct parents in massage techniques and provide stories and music.
In 2017, they moved back to Ecuador. With a master’s in hand, Cornejo, a chief marketing officer for Honda Motors in Ecuador before moving to Australia, received a number of lucrative job offers but declined them all to work on the app with Vega. They weren’t looking to jump into the startup life. “Storybook came to us,” says Cornejo.
After more than a year of research and content creation, the couple launched the Storybook app publicly in 2019. User reviews confirmed what they experienced: The app, geared for infants to 12-year-olds, helps parents put their kids to sleep, but it also brings families closer, Cornejo says.
“Much, much more important is building a strong relationship, which will support their emotional health. We think the greatest opportunity we have is to help parents raise emotionally healthy kids, happy kids, successful kids," Cornejo says.
With time, the startup’s science department — with child mental health expertise on board — helped the couple learn more about why their app is effective. “Bedtime stories have been used for many decades as a way to introduce early literacy, to have some bonding time and to help children wind down. Massage has been scientifically proven to relax the body and stimulate deeper sleep. When you combine both with mom or dad’s loving hands, you get a really powerful combination,” says Vega. What’s more, she says, physical affection increases oxytocin and reduces cortisol in children's brains, allowing them to develop emotionally healthy for life. Storybook is planning a clinical trial with Florida International University and an Ecuadorean university studying the benefit of bringing together massage, music and screen-free story time.
The more than 100 stories on the multilingual app, all authored by Vega, get more complex as the children age, but all contain messages and lessons such as respecting others, overcoming obstacles and understanding differences. One of Vega’s favorites: “Fantastic Girl” about a girl born with an extra chromosome, which causes Down syndrome. “The story is inspired by a real girl who loves, dreams and lives like any other girl her age.”
A family-friendly ethos is ingrained in the startup’s culture. “Nobody misses school plays or when their kids are sick or when they're just in the middle of playing with their kids,” Cornejo says. The company, which employs 15, also offers three months of paid maternity/paternity leave and uncapped sick time, as well as counseling services.
Their kids, Juan Daniel and Tomas, now 10 and 8, are both Storybook fans, users and creative contributors. They’ve inspired stories, helped with character development, suggested character names. “It's a great inspiration for them to see that we are working on something with such a big purpose. Now they are taking coding classes, and they dream of building their own apps or video games,” Cornejo says.
In 2020, while fundraising via Zoom, the co-founders attracted their first prominent investor, Jason Calacanis of Silicon Valley, who was an early backer of Uber and Robinhood. For a current $2-million round of financing they are raising, Calacanis invested again, and Magma, a well-known Latin American venture fund, recently came on board. Google for Startups invested $100,000.
More than 2 million families globally have downloaded Storybook. This year, the startup is on track to eclipse $2 million in revenue, Cornejo says. A one-year subscription to Storybook’s app is about $50 (there is a free version, too). Storybook also sells subscriptions to corporations and organizations, which offer them as company benefits or in promotions. The startup partners with non-profits and foundations to help get Storybook to those who cannot afford it.
In January, the couple and their children moved to the Miami area to continue growing the company with a goal of reaching tens of millions of families over the next few years.
“At some point, Storybook will not only be that app that you see now. We will also be an e-learning space to help parents learn important things about parenthood that nobody teaches you. It's important for us to have a community to make parents feel a part of something, so that's ahead for us too,” Cornejo says.
The couple has faced tough startup challenges but working together isn’t one of them. “One of the things they tell you is that whoever is a co-founder, it's like marriage. This is truly like marriage — and it works perfectly,” says Cornejo. They share the same values and vision but have distinct roles. Cornejo oversees the business side; Vega, the creative aspects.