Transforming the Self-Publishing Industry | Interview with Areg Vardanyan, Co-Founder of ForgeFiction

ForgeFiction is the first-in-kind platform that delivers original content to the media & entertainment industry by providing dedicated tools, which help multiple people to collaborate in creating full-length fictional stories and worlds.

Startups / Fiction / Books / Technology / Armenian Founders

Episode #3

This Armenian-based startup ForgeFiction offers a new platform for book fans to write and self-publish books. On ForgeFictions the book fans have the ability not only write and publish books but also share the chapters, build community collaboration, and contribute to their favorite fictions. “Like geeks or friends of fiction and fantasy, book fans are forging fiction together,” told the Co-Founder of ForgeFiction Areg Vardanyan on HyeTech Minds Podcast.

Guest

Areg is a Co-Founder of ForgeFiction and a digital marketing expert with 6+ years of experience in the sphere. Before joining ForgeFiction he co-founded AYYO Digital Marketing Agency and is now a professor of Internet Marketing at the American University of Armenia. Areg was also the founder and president of the Armenian Cyber Gaming Association, which was aimed at promoting esport in the country.

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Transcript

Intro

Hi Everyone 

Welcome back to HyeTech Minds, straight talk from successful Armenian founders and entrepreneurs.

I’m Narine and thanks  again for joining me.

This episode I’m going to sit down with Areg Vardanian, Co-Founder of the Armenian-based startup ForgeFiction.

Recently I came across this very fascinating startup on LinkedIn that is trying  to revolutionize the self-publishing industry. Through their collaborative platform, book fans have new advanced technology tools to write and  publish books.

So, let’s get right to our interview and listen to Areg’s startup story and ForgeFiction.  

Interview

Narine:  Hello Areg,

Thank you so much for joining me today. How are you doing? How’s everything there? 

Areg: Hello Narine, 

Thank you a lot for the invitation. Everything is going good. The startup Industry is booming everywhere in Armenia as well. And we are just one of those companies trying to do our best to positively affect our ecosystem. 

Narine: So, I came across ForgeFiction on LinkedIn. The idea of a writing platform instantly got my attention. I’m one of those people who wants to write a book but never goin for it.  So it’s great to have this conversation with you today and explore more howForgeFiction helps book enthusiasts to write . 

Areg: Okay. So first of all, what we are doing is not something is not what everything is doing right now. It’s not artificial intelligence or virtual reality. What we do is basically we created a platform where creative people can form communities together. And by combining their creativity, their different sets of skills, their talent, contributed to the creation of full length, fictional novels and complete stories, complete words are all around them.

 So it’s not just the book, but a bit of people also create a lot of locations, the overall site, the map, and all of that together. 

Narine: We’ll get there. We’ll get there. Before jumping to our conversation I want to know about you, your background? You are the Co-founder of ForgeFiction. You’re an entrepreneur yourself. Tell me a little bit what background you have? 

Areg:  So, personally, I have an MBA from the American University of Armenia. But ever since graduation, I’ve been working in the digital marketing sphere and I’m still working there. Before ForgeFiction, I was a co-founder of a digital marketing agency called AYO Marketing. And after being there for two or two and a half years, I’m not sure, I have to calculate that, I got approached by my current co-founders and who we actually were friends long before ForgeFiction. They came up with this amazing idea and I just couldn’t reject it. So I was instantly hooked and eager to work on it. 

Narine: You have also been a President for Armenian Cyber Gaming Association. Can you tell us a little bit about what this Association is about? 

Areg: Oh yeah,  I’m still very passionate about cyber sports. If someone doesn’t know what cyber sports are, it’s basically sports using video games. And there is a huge debate, which I think should not be up for debate when some people say it’s not sports when it definitely is. So I’m very passionate about that. And my goal was to promote the industry in Armenia. 

And this is why me and a couple of friends were organizing different events. We are organizing competition tournaments. We actually contributed to the creation of the first professional, cyber sports team. 

Narine: That’s super exciting

Areg: But unfortunately after some time I didn’t have enough time to commit to it because it was an NGO and we are just thinking out of passion. So we had to stop working on it. 

But, I’m proud to say that we actually organized one of the biggest events in Armenia up to today, the cyber sports events. And, I think our contribution helped this industry to develop and become what it is now. 

Narine:  It’s really super exciting. So let’s get to ForgeFiction. ForgeFiction is a community driving platform that allows fiction fans to unite their forces and create new original stories. What is the story behind your startup?

Areg: So, the idea came to our CEO and Co-Founder Hrach when he was talking, we are actually four co-founders, with another co-founder Karen and they were together discussing the Game of Thrones finale theories. You might remember it was like 2018 when the whole world was waiting for 2019 for the last season of Game of Thrones. 

Narine: I know it was a fever, Game of Thrones fever.

Areg: It was a fever and we were part of that fever. And, so at the same time, the Star Wars, the new Star Wars trilogy was being filmed and released. And fans were actually very, very disappointed. It was even before the last season of the Game of Thrones. 

And so Hrach had this idea how great it would be if instead of like one person who is just at the top of the company who is not even a fan and does not really know what fans of it want.  Instead of him, the decision-making process was up to the community and people who are actually fans of it . So that they could contribute with their ideas. And at the same time receive some, well recognition and also some monetary rewards for their work. So this was the initial idea to give communities and these people tools to contribute. And then from then on, we brainstormed a lot. Then we came to where we are right now.

Narine: By the way do you have women working on your team?

Areg: Our development team is actually completely female, including our CTO. 

Narine: That’s super cool. 

Areg: Yeah. And at some point we had like three people working in our company named Ana. Uh, so, I don’t know how that’s happened, but, our development team has always been primarily female. And now we also, actually, all the team is primarily female. We have a lot of talent, you know.

Narine: Oh, I love to see women dominant startups. That’s super exciting. So the name of your startup is ForgeFiction. I’m kind of curious how people come up with the name. I remember when I was thinking about my one of my ventures, it took me six, seven months to come up with the names. I wasn’t liking anything. How exactly did you come up with this name? 

Areg: Well, it was actually really hard. We had like 50 other names. The list that already was taken or like the domains were taken and things like that. So it took us a lot of time to come up with the final name, which also has a free domain. But the word “forge” is not like a place where some, I don’t know, swords or hammers are made. Right. It’s a very widely used word in the community that we target. So like geeks or friends of fiction and fantasy. And yeah, basically they are forging fiction together and that’s how we came up with the final name. 

Narine: So your community -driven platform. What I want to ask you, like when you say community collaboration platform. How do people actually get to know each other on your platform and build their partnership?  

Areg:  So there are a couple of ways and we are currently still exploring, adding a bunch of new functionality, a lot of new staff to allow them to meet each other easier and that makes the collaboration easier. 

And a lot of it, it’s also based on the feedback that we receive. So right now there are a couple of ways that they can do that. The writing process is currently done like this. Anyone can basically come to our websites register and start a story, give a short description of it and, they can even start with the first chapter or a couple of them. And then anyone else who likes the premise of it, uh, can comment and continue writing it. And they can meet each other, talk, uh, through the comments section they can just give feedback to each other. And we also have a server on a, on a software called discord, where the majority of the communication happens. But we have also several months ago, we launched a new functionality on the website called group writing, which allowed people to create writing groups, um, invites people and to work together and work on the same chapter together, real time, like on Google docs. 

Narine: So just go back to subscription. So let’s say I want to write a book. I should come to your website and subscribe. Uh, so find my partners to start writing a book. That is correct. 

Areg: So I wouldn’t call it a subscription because it’s completely free for creators. All we need from them is their creativity and time commitment. Yeah, but, you also don’t have to bring your own, well, authors together. You can find those on the website or you can come on the website, find some things that, uh, will interest you and to join already formed groups. 

Narine: How is the search happening for partners to write a book? Like, do you categorize search or? 

Areg: Yeah, absolutely. We have filters for finding the correct categories. You can sort them by books by which one is trending, the new books, obviously tags and some genres that’s, usually how it happens. But also when people create writing groups, our system automatically recommends the correct people to invite to those groups who our system thinks will be a right fit for it, depending again on the generous. 

Narine: So, okay. So I found the right people, we wrote this book, what is happening with this book? Do you provide any options to publish this book or sell this book? 

Areg: Thanks for the question. We actually currently have already three published books written by our community, which are available on Amazon. And, uh, one of those is also available on our websites. So people can buy not just printed versions of it, not just the books, but also printed versions of it. And in a couple of weeks or a month,  we are also going to publish our first audiobook. So, people who created that specific book are getting rewarded for it.  It depends on how many chapters among all the chapters of the book they have. So it’s proportional to how many accepted ones there. Yeah, we, of course we try to motivate our writers as much as we can.

Narine: when you say reward, what do you mean? Like, is it a monetary award or some sort of points they’re getting, then they can distribute somehow? 

Areg: No, it’s right now it’s money. We share some of the profits with them. But, of course we will, one day have some non-monetary rewards as well. 

Narine: You can use blockchain cryptocurrency. 

Areg: That’s actually funny that you asked. Because again, at the same time, it’s in 2018, when we are discussing this blockchain is on the rise. Everyone was doing ICO’s and things like that. So we were considering for some time to implement blockchain, but then we talked with a lot of our potential users and we realized that at least at this stage it would bring more difficulties than well enabled them. 

Narine: Are you partnering or building collaboration with like platforms like Amazon or Good Reads? 

Areg: It’s I wouldn’t call it a partnership, but, all our books are available on Amazon and we just use it as a marketplace. Uh, and also our books are there on Goodreads as well, because it’s basically like Wikipedia for books where people can learn more about it. So, you know, we have those there. But, in terms of partnerships who are more looking for finding, for partnering with media industry companies and license our stories so that they can, um, create movies around those, around the content written on Ford’s Fiction, video games, uh, or anything they like,

Narine: That sounds interesting. What about the copyrights? How people can claim that this portion is mine, this portion is yours. How, is this happening?

Areg: That was also another topic of very long discussions and talking with a bunch of different lawyers. But the end result is that we own all the content that this affords fiction, because it was the only way to secure the, that the books are actually finished because in other cases, like, I don’t know, there are 50 chapters written and then suddenly one person decides that he doesn’t want his character to be used there anymore. So it could become a huge problem, or some people would be able to sell the book without, sharing the commission with the others. So this is why we keep all the rights, uh, both distribution and, like copyrights of the content. And in return we just shared the revenue with the authors.

Narine: What’s happened. If people just stop writing, like you have how you said you have 50 chapters and no other chapters coming. So what’s happening with this book. Is it hard? Is it going to archive or something?

Areg: It’s tase on ForgeFiction, and unfortunately things like that happen, but it’s usually in the beginning. So if people committed to writing many chapters, they are definitely going to finish it. But, uh, unfortunately there are some books that stay at like one chapter or without any chapters, um, which is obviously fine because good ideas attract more people. And we prefer to have like one book with 1000 of collaborators, then have 1000 books with one collaborator.

Narine: That’s really true. You were to have a, you saying one good book, then just a couple of more books that don’t add value.

Areg: Yeah, exactly.

Narine: Are there any interesting projects going on?

Areg: I think we can talk about some of the books that, um, have been published or, um, uh, so one of those is so they all do, the book is going to be the audiobook of the very first book that we published. Um, it’s a paranormal mystery and we created with a partnership, uh, in a partnership with a YouTube channel. Um, and, um, it’s, uh, actually a really great channel it’s called mortise media and they are, and the person was running. The channel is telling some horror, uh, paranormals tourists. Uh, and, um, his fans actually are the people who created, who wrote the book. And now the, uh, the owner of the channel, which his wife is working on the audiobook and we are pretty excited about. Um, and we have already talked with some of their community, uh, his community members, and they are very excited as well. So, um, let’s see how that goes. Another thing that we are exploring right now is, uh, another way of writing, because right now, like one person writes one chapter, then another one continues it. And then the third one. So basically every person has different quantities and chapters and there are some differences. And he takes a lot of tough time to edit those books. So instead we are planning and we are going to implement soon, uh, a subscription model for reading the books of ForgeFiction.

Narine: By the way, this is one question I forgot to ask. After when the book is finished, do you have someone who, who, who does editing or using some sort of platform to do that?

Areg: We do. We work with a New York based company and also, like our last book Journey Through Falador went through,  three different themes, tenses, self editing, and proofreading, because we want the people who get the book to feel like a really good experience. Well, yeah, what are we doing?

Narine: So I want to talk a little bit about the Journey Through Falador. I know that this is your biggest collaboration so far over 40 contributors have invested in this book. Can you tell us a little bit what collaboration is about?

Areg: I would like to say that, uh, this book is basically a role model for us. So, uh, there are so many things that the community itself, uh, organized, uh, together that we are slowly implementing on the platform. Like the group writing. I mentioned the idea of feeds came when the people there, um, started, uh, the people of journeys for follow Don started working on the same chapter together. And they created an entire huge world. Like the book is around 300 hundred pages, but they have like 400 more pages of just content that explores the world of Falah dong. Uh, it’s magic, how the magic there works all day, different races, um, like kingdoms, um, all of it, all those there there’s so much to explore there. And, um, so yeah. Um, and they are, self-organized, they self organized everything. Uh, it’s a community of very passionate people and they do like competitions inside the community. They distribute the work between themselves and everyone is happy to contribute as much as they can. 

Narine: So you want to say this is open source to everyone, which means everyone across the globe, whoever wants to contribute, they just can come and contribute to this book writing?

Areg: Yep, absolutely.

Narine: Oh, that’s really fantastic.

Areg: But then, of course, like on GitHub,  the community chooses whether this contribution is worthy enough to be there or no.

Narine: So the community has power actually, or contributors.

Areg: Yes. Uh, there, uh, we have a voting system, which determines whether they want something to become a part of the book or of the world.

Narine: Very democratic way of writing books. I like it. 

So this health crisis really have been rough for many of us in this is a very unique situation and unique, not just because we never experienced pandemic and when entire country goes through lockdown, but also we are all in the same boat, no matter where we live, like which geography we are in which language we speak or nationality, and people are really struggling with social isolation. 

So I know you have been initiating something called #QuarantineFiction to go through stress through writing. What is this about? 

Areg: When, well, the lockdown was just happening. It was a couple of months and people were not as used to the situation as I guess we are right now. Um, people were a lot more really stressed. There was a lack of socialization, and we know that both reading and especially writing, expressing thoughts helps to cope with, uh, with stress. So it, um, and since we had this platform and we wanted to help people, uh, we organized a campaign, uh, that as your science is called #quarantinefiction, where everyone could share their stories, whether it was a memoir or regarding the situation about quarantining, or just a fictional story that they were writing because they had time now. Um, and so we, um, it was available on our website. Everyone could come give feedback, vote again. Um, and in the end, uh, all the best stories were compiled into a book that is again, available on Amazon, it’s called quarantined fiction. Uh, and all the profits that the book generates is going to, um, sales the children humanitarian organization, because they had a specific field for helping children that have, um, suffered because of COVID-19. 

Narine: This is really great. Seriously, you’re doing a lot of good stuff. So, do you have any statistics so far, how many people are actually participating in this campaign?

Areg: If you mean writing, we had around 300 writers who submitted their stories, uh, but some more. And then we had a couple of thousand people who were just coming there to read. Uh I’m, I’m pretty sure it’s more, I’m just saying the number of, um, newly registered people who came there. Um, because during that period of time, um, we put, uh, all the stories on quarantine fiction, um, uh, as an open access. So it was like more than 20, around 20,000. If we go with statistics provided by Google analytics,

Narine: That’s, it’s really huge. Do you have any number of monthly users of ForgeFiction?

Areg: We don’t have the subscription yet, so it’s just, um, registered users and we prefer to calculate it, uh, weekly, because like that’s how the cycles go of writing the chapter and then waiting concealed voting and things like that. So we have like weekly 1,500 active creators will do something on the platform.

Narine: What about demography? 

Areg: It’s mostly English speaking countries. Uh, the 80% is from us, UK, Australia.

Narine: So ForgeFiction, mostly about fiction. Do you have any plans to expand this? I’m a political scientist. I’m kind of like, I’m thinking of writing a book on politics or something. Do we have something, um, for other professions or other interests?

Areg: Not right now. And, I don’t think we will have anything like that in the near future because it’s a completely different segment, completely different problems and solutions, um, to it. But we have heard that, uh, opinion, uh, many from many people, especially academic people as you mentioned. So I guess there is an all pontificate. That some people can take, but right now our primary focus is to contribute to creation of a very high quality fiction. That is also at the same time market validated by the readers who were contributing during the creation process, not just by providing feedback afterwards and making sure that the book has the best variation it possibly can. So it will also help, the media industry, which is currently, uh, like, um, in the huge need of new or original content

Narine: I mean, I would really love to collaborate with someone or a group of people to write a book in my interest seriously. So I’m looking forward to it. You can create something for us.

Areg: Yeah, absolutely. Maybe that they will come as well.

Narine: So let’s talk a little bit about Armenian startup ecosystem. What’s happening in Armenia is really fascinating for me. I moved to the United States years ago, and I kind of like the progress that I see, it’s really insane. So you have already more than 500 startups functioning in a country, some of our medium based startups already getting, they were able to raise a lot of money and get their international exposure. But I know like in every country, no matter if it’s the United States, it’s friends, it’s Armenia, there are some tough challenges and setbacks for many startup founders. For you personally, as a startup founder, what have been some of the challenges you faced?

Areg: So the first challenge, is I think it was the doubt of everyone, around, and whilst, well, it’s wrong to say everyone because there were also some people that were really motivating us and were seeing the potential in this idea, but because what we’re doing was so different from, uh, anyone else, uh, many people were considering it, a fun thing, but we’re not, um, thinking of it as a business idea. So yeah, it’s a good thing. People will build it to be, some people will enjoy, I don’t know, a ride thing, but it won’t become a business that was the main concern of people, uh, around us. And I totally understand them. I understand why they would have those concerns. Um, and that was the first issue that we were facing. It was definitely not related to just Armenian ecosystem.

It would be everywhere. And we have, uh, we have also did some, um, mistakes that we could avoid, uh, like, um, we could have launched earlier, I guess that’s the most common, one of the most common mistakes that founders to do, um, were trying to find different ways to launch are trying to raise investment for marketing. And then we realized that we actually can launch the platform without any marketing budget and get our first like several, a couple of thousand users. So that was the first issue we faced, the lack of trust in the idea. Then, I would say it’s pretty similar then trying to prove the concept of it, um, trying to win some competitions. 

Luckily in Armenia, there are some, uh, European grants, and the investors, Armenian investors say there is more money than investible startups in Armenia. So, there are opportunities for Armenian companies both to raise investment and to grow personally. For example, I’m sorry, I’m going away from the challenge question. Um, and it’s just, there are also a lot of tough places to grow, like incubators, incubators, accelerators. When we first had this idea, we went to Armenia startup Academy and the guys there helped and are still helping us a lot on every step of our journey. Um, so, um,

Narine: think in this sense, Armenian, uh, there are several, uh, Armenian VCs and incubators. I think they are, uh, critically important expanding Armenian startup ecosystem and those guys are really doing great jobs. So I’m sure you can find good accelerator programs in Armenia, but you should also look outside of Armenia if you haven’t yet, because there are a lot of good programs specifically. I know the United States, a lot of accelerators that are trying to help startups to grow or prove the concept, or just get exposure on an international market.

Areg: Yeah, absolutely. We are looking, um, towards that. And like, one of the accelerators we really want to get into is like TechStars LA, because it’s like the perfect accelerator for the media industry. It’s designed for it, but of course we know like many Armenian companies, but there are usually some more tech oriented go to Berkeley. Skydeck, there are some companies that are, I know, YC companies, so, um, I’m not sure if I’m actually not sure if we have any YC companies. I know that some people I at least applied to, we tried to get there, but not yet, but we’ll try again. And then that’s absolutely. Okay. And I guess that’s the second difficulty for being an Armenian based, uh, startup, because during the later stages, like, yes, we have, um, like pre-seed or even seed stage investments in Armenia, but don’t later stages being, having a presence, um, in the United States is very important. Um, no I’ve heard SCOBY kind of broke that barrier because usually before you were supposed to go meet those people face to face, there are no face to face meetings. 

Narine: Oh, I agree. It seems like we got traumatized, but this COVID, uh, so one question I’m asking all my guests is, um, what is the one thing you want to see change in Armenia that you think can help expand innovation ecosystem in a country and attract more investors specifically from diaspora.

Areg: I see a lot of, uh, positive changes. We’re connecting the diaspora to Armenia. There are more and more programs. They are more, uh, networking places. And, um, I mean, there was recently, uh, uh, our program called Armenian virtual bridge, which had the goal of connecting Armenian startups to, um, Silicon Valley, um, tech companies and also to Armenian in Silicon Valley. So they, this is great and I hope this tendency continuous over the years and we have more and more opportunities like that because I think that will be the, um, the huge push that, uh, our community needs right now, because we have the skills, we have the expertise, we have all our diaspora, which always helps us, not just with investment, but mostly, and more importantly with mentorship, with network connections. Um, so yeah, whenever you want to find the good advice advisor for your company, there is definitely an Armenian person that is an expert in it.

Narine: It’s good. Really, it’s really fascinating to see how transforming Armenia and human capital. We have such amazing tech talent that can compete with software engineers, data scientists from China, India, and really with the help of them, I think we can expert some of these professionals, let’s say the United States or attract more companies to come to Armenia and build businesses.

Areg: And it’s also really great to see that in the last couple of years, we are not just exploring just exporting talent, but a lot of our Armenian people from all around the world beside each tool return to their motherland and start companies here. Um, um, well, uh, I think the biggest motivation for that was the velvets revolution that happened in 2018. Um, but it’s really great to see people returning back instead of just, um, talented people going and working for huge tech giants, um, outside of them. Yeah.

Narine: Forbes already recognizes Armenia as a next tech hub in a region. And I think this is a huge statement that Armenia makes considering we don’t have access to any ports. And he sees what we have in our human capitals. That’s why I admire about Armenian tech people.

Areg: And it’s, um, so mostly true and I’m really happy to be connected. And I consider myself a part of that tech community.

Narine: You know, I don’t have a tech background myself, but I also, um, I’m starting to consider myself, uh, from this tech community. So I’m including myself in this tech community, you know, because this is not about only education. It is also about the way you think and the way you contribute.

Well, Areg, thank you so much. It’s really a pleasure talking to you and I can talk about Poe’s fiction over and over. So that’s why I would love to have you back with more exciting projects and initiatives. So what is the best way to learn more about ForgeFiction or contact you, if someone wants to get in touch with you to learn more about your platform?

Areg: So once again, thanks a lot for inviting me here. Um, it was a really appraiser player to talk to you. Um, I love talking, going and sharing about force fiction and, um, this was a really great, uh, so if people would want to learn more about us, they can visit our website, which is fortune forgefiction.com, uh, and, or contact me on LinkedIn or via my email, which is areg@forcefriction.com. I will be delighted to tell you more about what we do and our vision going further.

Outro

Well everyone, thanks again for listening to this episode of HyeTech Minds. 

As you can see collaborative writing is becoming trending among a new generation of book fans. ForgeFiction is democratizing the self-publishing industry giving an opportunity to the book fans not only self-publish books, but also contribute to their favorite fictions

 If you would like to learn more ForgeFiction go to their website https://forgefiction.com/. You can find more information about FrogeFiction and its ongoing initiatives in Podcast Notes. 

Don’t forget to subscribe to Apple Podcast or Spotify to get notification about the newest episodes. When you stop by Apple Podcasts, please take a second to leave a positive review on Apple Podcast.  That would be super helpful. 

For social media fans, follow us on Facebook and Instagram @hyetechminds

I’m wishing you safe weekend and hope you’ll join me on the next episode 

I’m Narine your host and thanks for listening to Hye Tech Minds

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