Today, the iPad launched in the U.K. And alongside all the apps that you'd expect to see—Financial Times, Murdoch's Times—there was Stephen Fry's FryPaper. A gratis app (are you listening, Murdoch Senior?) that was the second most popular free download on iTunes' app store within a couple of hours. We got in touch with Andrew Sampson, Stephen's business partner in SamFry Ltd., to talk about the creation of the app, their company, and the entrepreneurial life of one of Britain's best-loved polymaths.
"I come up with the stage and Stephen will do the material," says Sampson of his relationship with Fry. "I provide the infrastructure and Steven will build the ideas."
The partnership extends far beyond Fry's Web site. The two have created a cracking little agency called Untied Artists, a nod to the original United Artists, where four actors, including Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, set up a studio to control their own work. "Untied has the same principle as United Pictures," says Sampson. "Artists own the content and distribute the content. They can aggregate content, share in revenue and audiences and help grow another person's Web site." The firm launches this summer, and Samson claims he has 200 celebrities and sportsmen interested in the concept.
40-year-old Sampson is a straight-talking Aussie, who, via video link, looks like a dead ringer for a manlier Tom Ford. He's nuts about Rugby Union, describes himself as a "big" Mac head, but says "the policing that happened after the iPhone leak by Apple was out of control." He resides six months of the year in Sydney and six months of the year in the U.K., although he's about to spend three straight years in the U.K. "Untied Artists needs my full attention. London is full of giant huge ideas—the U.K. I find very entrepreneurial, the British are great embracers of ideas," he says. "It took me a long time to understand the work psyche—I used to think that there were barriers, but instead you get niches."
How he and Fry came to meet is an odd story. Originally a stage manager working in TV and Internet production, Sampson was in New York in 1999 on an online radio show when he came across Fry's autobiography, Moab Is My Washpot, in a Fifth Avenue bookstore. When he'd finished, he contacted the comedian and actor via fax, and told him he'd like to build him a Web site. It wasn't until 2002 that the first-gen version of stephenfry.com went live. And it was not until 2007, when Fry started writing about his love for technology, that the blog went wild. "Stephen wanted to do status updates, but didn't want to use Facebook," says Sampson. So he turned Fry on to Twitter, and then bolted the Twitter API to Fry's blog. "We went in one morning and the servers had melted," he says. That was the turning point.
The two of them work swiftly, making big decisions without any agonizing, alongside designer and illustrator Nicole Stewart, a long-time collaborator of Fry's. "Everything you see on TV is what he's like," says Sampson. "He's got charisma, drive, he can come up with a good concept. He's not a tweed-wearing Englishman."
The iPad app was an obvious next step. Fry appeared at the Apple store this morning to be greeted by a chorus line of waving Applettes—and that was before they'd even seen FryPaper. It was conceived back in January, as soon as Steve Jobs revealed the iPad. There wasn't an iPhone app in the pipeline first? "No, there was no iPhone app, because we were trying to figure out the interface," says Sampson. When I got the iPad, I realized the opportunities." Sampson says that the sheer demand for apps means that there is a virtual coding monopoly, with developers charging three times an app's cost ("Good on 'em!") and he sees it as "a return to the Internet industry circa 1995."
FryPaper cost around $46,500 to develop, but last night a big-name brand agreed to sponsor the app. "You can't sell stephenfry.com to advertisers," says Sampson. "He's too niche. It doesn't matter who they are." But Hitachi Europe saw the viability of the iPad app, and they've given SamFry control over creative, saying to Sampson: "We see the brand, we know what you can come up with, we can trust you."
Sampson thinks that a lot of celebrities are missing a trick with social media, although he cites Jamie Oliver as a great Twitter user. "Lots of personalities have proxies writing for them, but it should be all about performance," he says, although he uses the word "magic," rather like Jobs did at the iPad's launch, saying that personalities need to make sure that not everything is put out in public.
Have a browse through the iPad app store and it does seem very light so far on apps for personalities—FryPaper is the only one I could find. It is, however, fair to say that they will not be far off. Does Sampson have any advice for Fry's fellow Tweeter par excellence, Ashton Kutcher? "It has to come from you. It can't be forced. Be open to platform ideas. Be honest. But it must come from your brain. Content must be honest, accessible, intelligent, and thoughtful."
[Image copyright Katie Ell for SamFry 2010]