Any Kazakhstani can become the hero of a book. It will be written by artificial intelligence

The startup Mystory received $25,000 at Astana Hub Battle this year in the Best AI Startup category. The team came up with an interesting idea – using artificial intelligence to create real paper books where anyone can be the main character! For example, your child, wife, girlfriend, friend, or colleague. Digital Business, as part of the joint project "100 Startup Stories of Kazakhstan" with Astana Hub, spoke with Mystory co-founder Aitemir Mudinov. He talked about who needs personalized books, how superheroes teach children to brush their teeth, and whether artificial intelligence can completely replace human creativity.

"We really wanted to do something with AI."

  • We have an international team – people from different countries, mostly from the CIS, work on the project. It started with just the two of us, me and my partner Nursultan Ashirmatov.

Nursultan had lived in China for eight years before this – he graduated from one of the top universities, started startups, and had his own marketing agency.

Aitemir Mudinov and Nursultan Ashirmatov

Mystory initially started in Kyrgyzstan at the end of May, but we decided to focus on a larger and more mature market. Thanks to the strong integration of the Kyrgyz and Kazakh economies and friendly relations, the choice of Kazakhstan for us was obvious.

  • Why books specifically?

  • We really wanted to work with artificial intelligence – it became our passion. As soon as generative systems gained popularity, and the third version of GPT was released, we immediately started studying this topic, and we liked it. We really wanted to do something too.

And we went into personalization. At first, we tried to create an online fitting room but stopped because the development was very expensive. We realized that we could move in this direction without being tied to any specific product. We thought that books were the right thing. Something new in content personalization.

At first, we made very simple copies – almost without software, you could say, on our knees. Then we saw that there was a good demand and started writing our software to optimize the creation process.

The main feature of all our personalized books is the person in the lead role with their face and loved ones. Whether it's a child or an adult, they look like themselves, recognize themselves. And this creates more attachment and engagement in the story, which directly affects content consumption.

All our stories are written completely from scratch. The book's customer can choose any superhero, the plot of any famous movie (for example, "Titanic"). Or come up with something completely unique.

Spider-Man teaches good habits

  • Who orders personalized books?

  • We have two segments with approximately equal numbers of orders – B2C and B2B. In the first, it's mostly parents who ask to make a book about their child – how they, together with their favorite heroes, save the world and perform good deeds. In addition, we include useful elements in such stories: for example, Spider-Man in the plot talks about how if you clean up your toys, you will be handsome. And children really start cleaning their toys: just because Spider-Man said so. Many parents say: wow, how did you manage that? The child immediately went and cleaned up his toys. Such a strong impact occurs thanks to personalization.

Couples in love also order our books with a love story – to make a proposal through a book or as a wedding gift. For example, there's a plot in the book that ends with a proposal – will you marry me? And blank lines for the girl to write "yes" or "no." An interesting fact – "yes" is written very often in our books. If you think about it, it turns out that we have already married a lot of couples.

In the B2B segment, companies order our books – to give to their employees, partners, clients, colleagues for birthdays, etc. Here, usually, they order at least 10-20 copies. And in the corporate segment, there are many ideas for how our personalized books can be used. Mostly, they go as gifts associated with the company: the story is connected both with the person receiving the book and with the company. And he will never throw away this book but will rather put it on the shelf in the most prominent place because his face is on the cover. For example, the book's hero, using a time machine, ends up in the Middle Ages. Suddenly, someone calls him on a mobile phone. He wonders how someone can reach him in the Middle Ages – and it turns out that Activ also has coverage here. Many stories, like integrating a company's products and brand into the plot, can be devised.

  • Which of these audiences is most promising for you?

  • I think children. Because the market here is huge. And it's free, cool, interesting.

And also, parents are very interested in the psychological well-being of children, so our main direction for development is storytelling therapy. We plan to create books with the participation of psychologists. For example, to help boys and girls break bad habits and instill new beneficial ones.

On the other hand, the B2B segment is also interesting to us—especially when companies order large print runs for corporate events and anniversaries.

Sometimes, the neural network writes complete nonsense.

  • How does Mystory work? For example, I want to order a book from you: what do I need to do?

  • You visit the website or write on WhatsApp, fill out an application, and our manager contacts you to consult on the book order. If everything is acceptable, you need to fill out a questionnaire with wishes and requirements for the story—what should be there, in what style, which characters should appear, etc. There are no restrictions, you can come up with anything—whether it's "Titanic" or the appearance of a werewolf at the end. You also need to provide photos of the person who will be the hero of the book.

We coordinate all of this and set a delivery date. Upon completion, we show the electronic version, can make edits if there are any requests. Then we send the book for printing at the printing house. Now, by the way, a two-week queue has already formed, and we have to wait.

  • What happens in the "black box": how are the books created?

We use several AI models for generation, which we trained with datasets ourselves: ChatGPT for text and Stable Diffusion for images. But to make the books interesting, we run them through our internal editing.

  • And does the software immediately give you a finished book?

No, it's not that simple: to be honest, sometimes AI generates complete nonsense and writes something crazy. It was especially difficult at the very beginning—we had to rewrite up to 80% of the text manually. But then we learned to give it samples of good plots and styles, and now the final result has become much better. So, we prepared our software for scalability to automate everything as much as possible.

In general, we always support creativity and believe that only a person can create a cool creative product. Therefore, we try to combine technology and creativity.

  • Do you plan to create and train your own neural networks?

There is sense in that, but it's expensive. Very expensive. So not yet.

Japanese comics and celebrity merch.

  • Where will the startup go next? At Astana Hub Battle, you said that you plan to focus more on digital content rather than printed.

Now we have already started R&D to create personalized manga—Japanese comics.

In general, we have several directions for development to produce personalized content in a multi-channel way. For example, storytelling therapy should transition to a mobile app for children; we will separately create individual comics, and so on.

There are ideas to start working with bloggers, actors, and other celebrities: collaboratively create and sell merch with their image. For example, to be able to order a book with your idol, in which you and they will travel together and seek adventures. We are currently in negotiations with celebrities, but no contracts have been signed yet.

  • How will all this content be distributed?

Through subscription via mobile applications: you purchase access, and your child will receive new stories with their participation, and you will receive manga issues.

It may seem like a diversification of our activities, but actually, the software that creates this personalization is the same—it can create both children's books and comics.

We raised $100,000 for development.

  • How much does Mystory earn now?

From the very beginning, we have been supporting the startup with our own funds. But in September, we already reached the first profit—our revenue was $10,000.

After that, we expanded the team, hiring additional developers and managers, as we decided to grow faster. Costs increased, and the project is not profitable again. But now we plan to enter the markets of neighboring countries, increase advertising budgets in Kazakhstan, and achieve profitability again.

— Are you currently only operating in Kazakhstan?

— Yes, currently all our sales are in Kazakhstan and a bit in Kyrgyzstan. We plan to expand to neighboring countries—Uzbekistan, Tajikistan. The next step is probably Turkey.

But in general, for substantial growth, the market will be the United States—we need to go there. We are already trying out initial tests. However, it's a challenging market with immense competition—you compete not only with similar personalized products but also with the gift market as a whole. Getting the attention of American consumers for your product is very difficult.

— Can you work for other countries from Kazakhstan?

— Yes, quite. But it would be more convenient if we could arrange printing with local printing houses.

— What do you plan to spend the $25,000 you won at Astana Hub Battle on? Do you need investments?

— We will spend the money on development.

We recently attracted $100,000 with a valuation of one and a half million dollars from Evgeny Matveev, the former co-founder of Therefore, at the moment, we are not seeking investments but focusing on the rapid growth of the project.

In 20 years, AI will replace many. — What do you think about the development of neural networks in the near future? Will there still be a place for human creativity, or will all content be generated by AI?

— I am optimistic in this regard, so I will say this: for now, artificial intelligence lacks the power to completely replace humans. Maybe it needs another fifteen years to be able to perform some actions on behalf of humans. But for something thoughtful and artistic, it will still need a large dataset. I think artists will start working with artificial intelligence—this will help them engage in creativity faster and better.

On the other hand, my startup partner is a pessimist. He says that in twenty years, I won't be needed, and many other people won't be either.

— How do you see your startup in 5-10 years?

— We want to create personalized entertaining and educational content that will also serve as therapy. Currently, it's books, then comics and manga, and in the future, animated series and movies.

In our own childhood, books, comics, and cartoons helped us deal with difficulties. We believe that our product can help children and adults overcome challenging moments, work through traumas, and simply become a bit happier. 

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