“It was really a scratch-your-own-itch type of thing,” remembers Graham Farrar of what inspired him to create iStoryTime, one of the first, currently the oldest, and probably the largest publisher of digital children’s books via apps for the iPhone, iPad, and other mobile devices. About two-and-a-half years ago, the Santa Barbara native’s toddler-aged daughter already loved books, but he suddenly realized that she’d mastered the iPhone, too. (And she was just a harbinger of the future, as his son would later follow: “He can’t talk yet,” said Farrar, “but he can use that thing better than my mom!”) If there was an app that read those books to kids, it would immediately eliminate the troubles posed by boring drives and downtime at home while also serving as an educational and entertaining tool.
So Farrar became one of the iPhone’s first app developers, a brand-new market at the time but one that his enviously successful resume — which includes stints at Software.com and Sonos in between sailing trips around the world — made him particularly well qualified to tackle. “I have a lot of experience doing things I have no experience doing,” laughed the admitted “tech-geek at heart.” He soon published his first digital book, Binky the Pink Elephant, written by his friend’s wife, and it was an instant hit, selling 25,000 copies, in part due to a giveaway sponsorship from Yoplait. “Binky still sells,” explained Farrar.
Bigger companies eventually took notice — Dreamworks, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Fox, to name a few — and now iStoryTime offers more than 100 titles as individually downloadable apps, including plenty of stories you’ve heard of, like How to Train Your Dragon, The Smurfs, Transformers, and Kung-Fu Panda. Some are simple stories that read aloud to your kids, others incorporate gaming aspects, and future ones will feature full-on animation. “[Big companies] don’t want to make apps any more than they want to make stuffed animals,” said Farrar of his fortuitous business model. “We fit nicely in that niche.”
Soon enough, Farrar and his partners weren’t able to do it out of their own homes, so last month, he opened a super-cool office on Canon Perdido and Garden streets in downtown Santa Barbara, complete with paint-on whiteboards, AstroTurf as carpet, indoor bike parking, and children’s play areas. “They’re built-in focus groups,” said Farrar of the kids. “They were the inspiration for all this and continue to be.” And now, amid the unending recession, he’s hiring app developers, Internet designers, animation pros, and more.
Today, there’s still plenty of work, but it’s fun as ever. “It’s 2 a.m. and I’m working, but at least it’s not a spreadsheet,” said Farrar. “It’s: What’s the coolest Smurf you can make?” And at the end of the day, Farrar and his office in downtown Santa Barbara are on the cutting edge of a world-changing endeavor. “The market is really just getting started,” said Farrar of the increasingly fast “pages to pixels” trend in publishing. “We are reinventing the art of storytelling.”