From scratch: The city story
Here at Shop Lune, we worship entrepreneurial spirit, especially if it’s a great idea that has blossomed into something less mythical and more real. TheCityStory, an online publication that maps cities (Mumbai and London) through stories is one such idea that has become a reality. With a focus on anecdotal personal narratives from locals, it paints a real image of the various neighbourhoods that make cities come alive. We spoke to two of its three founders, Juhi Pande and Shivani Shah about their journey so far, and how they work together despite being in two time zones.
What made you come up with the idea of TheCityStory?
Juhi: I moved a lot when I was younger because of my father’s job. And even though there was a lot of adventure constantly, what I missed was a sense of familiarity. I was always the new kid. And I moved before I could figure out shortcuts, bylanes, best friends or find any sort of favourites (food/drink/etc). Bombay changed that for me because I ended up spending 18 years there and with that came a sense of belonging. I started TheCityStory with the sole aim of making places familiar. And we do this through personal, anecdotal stories about cities.
Shivani: I’m going to defer to Juhi on this one. TheCityStory was her idea. I had just quit my job to go freelance, and she wrote to me immediately to tell me about her idea and ask if I wanted to work on it. I said yes right away - I love reading and telling stories, and that’s what is at the essence of TCS. It didn’t even have a name when she wrote to me. She gathered a team and together we built on her idea to create the website you see today.
Tell me a little about your past lives. What made you jump ship and try your hand at the digital medium?
Juhi: I spent 9 years working as a TV presenter in Mumbai and for the most part that was a total riot. I was also writing sporadically during this time. It was in 2013 that I decided to move from TV to writing and then in late 2014 is when I started thinking about what eventually became TheCityStory.
Working full time on TheCityStory is equal parts fun and (extreme) hard work. I love the team and I absolutely love what we do, though, and I feel Shivani will agree with me on this, a little less admin work never hurt anybody. That said, I’m really proud of what the three of us have built. We’re a very young publication/city guide and we have miles to go but I feel lucky to have these amazing women in my corner and I’m excited for what we are building.
Shivani: Right before I started working on TheCityStory I was a shipping lawyer. I was at the same firm for 8 years, and for the most part I loved what I did, but at the end of the day it boiled down to this: "Would I be happy if I was doing this 5 years from now?" And that’s when I realised I wasn’t happy even then. Life is too short to spend every day being miserable, especially when you have choices. So I quit my job and exactly one month later started building the website you can see today.
Running a website is difficult. The writing part comes easy - it’s what I have always loved to do. It’s everything else that’s difficult, frustrating and exciting all at once. In any start-up the core team has to do everything themselves in the beginning. Some days I’m an editor. On other days I could be working in Wordpress or drafting contracts. Almost every day involves large amounts of admin. But it’s how you learn and grow, and when you take a step back and look at what you’ve built you start to appreciate the hours you’ve put in, the people you work with, and the many, many cups of coffee that have made it all possible. We’re only just beginning.
In a market saturated with people giving their point of view on every channel, what is the appeal of a personal essay/story?
Juhi: I’ve always felt that anecdotes make a story come to life. Yes, we only do personal essays but we urge our writers to sprinkle their stories with anecdotes and to write about neighbourhoods they’re most familiar with. Our personal essays come with a location specific pin on a map, so when you pull up a City Story map you’re surrounded by stories written by the locals. It’s like having a friend in the city who knows all its secrets. We also try not to do reviews or make any suggestions about spaces, establishments or products.
Shivani: You’re right, people love sharing their opinions. But TCS is not about giving your point of view for the sake of it. We rarely write about current affairs. We’re more interested in things that are more permanent or we think have the ability to shape the city permanently. The personal stories resonate with people because the places we write about are places that readers have memories of or, on the flip side, had no idea existed and are blown away by how much they still don’t know about their city.
Do you consider yourselves as "women" entrepreneurs? Does gender make a big difference in starting your own business?
Juhi: We are three women who run TheCityStory. So, in that, yes we are women entrepreneurs. I don’t think gender makes any difference in starting your own business primarily because we haven’t felt any. The challenges we have had while running a start-up are the same as everybody else – sustaining our business, increasing our reach, learning to adapt and implementing change with speed. Gender hasn’t reared its ugly head with us so far, and we hope it doesn’t either.
Shivani: Not particularly - we’re just two people working really hard to build something we’re passionate about. We have a lovely partner in Genesia Alves too, and we’ve been fortunate to work with people who haven’t disregarded us because of our gender.
You're both based in different cities - how does that have an effect on the way you work together?
Juhi: Absurdly early mornings for me and late nights for Shivani. Since Shivani and I run operations (we call it #AdminLife) and she’s in Bombay (I live in London), by the time I wake up at 6 a.m. my inbox is flooded with emails, so I get to my desk as soon as I can. I do return the favour every night, though. It also helps that we’re friends and usually tend to agree on 90% of the decisions taken. It would be a lot of fun if we shared office space though. Not sure how much work we’d get done.
Shivani: We are always working. I kid you not. I will often send Juhi multiple emails before I’ve even had coffee, then I send her a text apologising for flooding her inbox while she’s asleep. On the flip side, I might be away from my desk at night but there are many days when we’re texting each other to discuss work until well past midnight for me. Always working.
Is there a plan to expand to other cities, Indian or otherwise?
Juhi: We want to get London and Bombay on lockdown before thinking of other cities. We’re just short of a year old and are in the process of making some serious changes to the site. It’s been a rather intense year with a lot of learning and a fair amount of fun. We have a lot more in store just for London and Bombay, but yes, we’d love to expand to other cities and have a couple in mind already.
Shivani: Of course! There are so many stories to tell in cities all over the world. But we’re still scratching the surface with Bombay and London, and we want to get those right before spreading out. So there are no dates for launching in other cities, but we would like to one day add more to the list.