Suzanne Xie has long been fascinated by stories and the power of storytelling. Born in China, she moved to the United States when she was four years old and learned how to speak English by reading picture books and watching cartoons. “In elementary school, I would spend hours in my room retelling my favorite stories to my collection of stuffed toys,” she reminisces, quipping, “they never judged my English.”
Given how important stories were to her as a child, Xie decided a few years ago that she wanted to find a way to tell stories to today’s digital-savvy children. “With an entire generation of kids yearning for engaging stories and predisposed to the mobile medium, I saw an opportunity to rethink not just how a story could be told, but the kind of stories being told,” she says.
So Xie got into the storytelling business, founding Hullabalu in 2012. Born in Palo Alto, California, and now based in New York City, the children’s media company is behind The Adventures of Pan, a book series designed to be consumed on the iPad and the iPhone by kids ages five to eight years old.
“When I first started working on Hullabalu in 2012, the iPad had only been on the market for two years. The content built for it was nascent, and [it] still is given the platform’s potential,” Xie says.
While some publishers just turn print media into digital flipbooks, Hullabalu has created a truly interactive experience that enables The Adventures of Pan readers to take advantage of the voice, touch, tilt, and swipe functions on their devices. Children don’t simply read The Adventures of Pan. They control how the story is told to them—they even have the ability to switch out characters–allowing them to feel like they are really taking part in the action as the lead character, a purple panda named Pan, travels the world making new friends while searching for her parents.
Here, Xie–who first made a name for herself as an entrepreneur in 2007 when she founded Weardrobe, an online community focused on street style photography that she sold to Like.com in 2009–talks about how she combined a passion for storytelling with technology to create Hullabalu’s The Adventures of Pan series.
Xie didn’t want to repurpose an existing tale, so she created the entire The Adventures of Pan story. There are seven books in all, and it is a story with a beginning and an end (which is appreciated by parents, according to reviews on iTunes). The title character’s backstory–Pan is born in the clouds and goes on a quest to find her parents–is inspired by Xie’s real life. After she was born in China in 1984, Xie’s parents moved to the United States, and she lived with her grandparents until her parents saved up enough money to bring her to the U.S.
“Sure, it would have been easier to work with existing IPs and established stories, but I wasn’t looking for the path of least resistance. I wanted to create a story that was missing from the world of kid’s media: a strong female hero leading a co-ed group. When we did research on animated movies from the last four decades, we only found one example of a feature film where a female main character leads men–in most cases, they have a sidekick or are a princess in need of saving,” Xie says. “While the narrative has shifted in more recent years with female leads in live-action movies, cartoons and kids’ media still have not caught up.”
“Media is incredibly powerful,” she stresses. “It shapes how we see the world as adults and teaches children how they fit into society. I believe it’s imperative for kids, both boys and girls alike, to see examples of strong female lead characters, particularly ones leading a co-ed group.”
Creating Pan and plotting her adventures has been a fulfilling creative exercise for Xie. “I had come from this background of business and tech and product,” says Xie, who studied economics at the University of Chicago and did stints at UBS and Goldman Sachs, “but it wasn’t heavily creative, and creativity is something I enjoy. I’ve always written stories for fun on the side, but it wasn’t something that I thought I could ever pursue.”
Tapping into her creative side was a bit tricky at first. “As a product person from the startup world, my default was to ask, ‘What do people want?’ When creating this original story, I was forced to stop and ask myself, ‘What do I want?’ Creating something from scratch made me stop and think about my own values, what traits matter most, and what experiences are the most critical,” she says.
The creative process isn’t “all painstaking soul-searching” Xie is quick to point out. “Sometimes, it’s delightful to flex muscles I didn’t know I had. For instance, we do all of the character voices in-house. Creating the voice of Pan is fun, and we’ve all learned to transform ourselves into our characters for recording time.”
Xie encourages others in business to tap into their creative sides. “We live in a world of rapid technological change, where new services and apps are launched daily. If we don’t think creatively or take measured risks, we will either become the companies we are trying to disrupt or just cease to exist,” Xie says. “We make choices by not making choices, so avoiding risk isn’t as passive an act as one might think.”
Initially, Xie thought that off-the-shelf software would be used to create the interactive The Adventures of Pan books. “But as soon as we started to build it, and the first story took nine months, we realized that if every story took us nine months, it was going to take forever to create content,” she says.
“The other thing that was difficult with off-the-shelf tools was they were meant to create video assets. Most animation is meant just to be watched. It’s not meant to be touched or interacted with, so we had to build our own engine that basically allowed us to animate but animate so that it’s also tied to touch or to a swipe or a tilt,” Xie explains.
Out of an internal need, Xie’s engineers developed proprietary tech–an animation and story engine dubbed Pegasus–that has vastly sped up the process. A book can now be produced in a month.
Another plus to creating Pegasus: Hullabalu now has a tool it can use to publish the work of other content creators. “We recently opened up a beta program where content partners can submit their information to us. We’re looking for everyone from the small independent creator with an idea to the large brand looking to engage millions of fans with existing content,” Xie says. “This is super exciting for us because it has the potential to animate thousands of existing static stories and bring completely new stories to life.”
A lot is learned from observing how kids are using the app. “Hullabalu’s stories are designed to engage kids while also teaching us about their reading behavior and storyline preferences. Since launch, we’ve captured billions of digital interactions from the Pan series. This is a new approach to story content development, and allows us to continue evolving Pan in the most interesting way for our readers,” Xie says.
Hullabalu also brings kids into its New York City office–usually, they are friends’ kids or the kids of bloggers–to observe how they read The Adventures of Pan in person. “Something we always do when we bring kids in is we show them new characters we’re working on, then we show them current characters and see the way they respond to certain characters and certain jokes,” Xie says. “Sometimes you have a sense of what they will like, but a lot of times they’re reacting to things you wouldn’t expect.”
The company learns from parents, too. Case in point: Initially, The Adventures of Pan books were released as one full series. When Hullabalu found out that many parents wanted to try out a book or two before committing to the whole series, the company adjusted its distribution options accordingly.
While feedback is important, “it’s always a delicate balance of knowing when to integrate feedback and knowing when to follow your own instincts,” Xie says.
To wit: Early on, Hullabalu was told that the vocabulary in The Adventures of Pan was too advanced for little kids. “When we were told that our vocabulary was too complicated for kids, we understood this perspective but wanted our reader to feel challenged just like Pan feels. It goes back to our belief that stories that challenge and inspire kids are the ones that shape them for the better,” Xie says. “It was, after all, the books and shows with more difficult vocabulary that taught me English as a kid and forced me to ask questions and engage with my parents.”
Obviously, Xie has to think about her customers and what they want, but in building a company, she also has to make sure her employees are happy.
From the start, Xie has aimed to build a company at which everyone feels appreciated for their skills, and everyone feels comfortable collaborating. “Coming from finance, and this is at a lot of traditional organizations, there is usually one department that is the most important department, and then everyone else is under it. I didn’t want our company to be like that. I wanted our company to be–whether you are in marketing, whether you are in story, whether you are in art, whether you are in engineering–everyone is equal. Everyone contributes something important to the product,” Xie says.
To foster an appreciation of what everyone does, Hullabalu conducts regular labs hosted by different teams. The most recent lab had the company’s engineers teaching the rest of the employees how computers work, and at the one before that, Hullabalu’s lead illustrator taught his colleagues how to draw hands. “It’s easy to look at something and go, ‘I can do that.’ Once you see how someone’s process works and what they are working on, you realize how difficult it is,” Xie says, noting, “When you try to draw a hand yourself, you realize how hard it is to draw a hand.”
Storytelling in the digital age means that the team at Hullabalu can never sit back and think, “We’re done!” Their audience is hungry for fresh content, and new adventures featuring characters from The Adventures of Pan, including the Beribolt Scout Pandas, the Karakorum Keepers Bunnies, and the Shadow Springs Foxes, are on the way. “The next series will be a collection of interactive short stories that provide critical world building blocks using whimsical new ways to tell a story,” Xie teases. “You can be on the lookout for familiar characters and locales, all with the consistent thread of new and engaging story tech.”