Apr 30, 2013 · 3 minutes

A year ago, Chris Smith was at the zoo in Wellington, New Zealand, looking at pelicans, marveling at the amount of water they could hold in their beaks. Five weeks later, he had built an app, started a company, and signed a four-year contract with the zoo.

They must have been very compelling pelicans.

One of the two plaques at the enclosure told him that the birds could hold up to 13 liters of water in their beautiful bucket-mouths. Smith wanted to know more, but there was nothing else around to tell him. Even the zookeeper couldn’t elaborate.

That got Smith’s mind working. The former Microsoft developer, who has for the last five years lived in New Zealand, went home and drew up a concept for an app that would provide more information about objects, installations, exhibitions – and whatever else – in real-world spaces. The idea was that you should be able to use image-recognition, augmented reality, QR codes, and geolocation technology to unlock such information. The app would also send users alerts when some relevant information was available according to wherever they happen to be.

A week later, Smith took his idea, written on a single page, to the zoo and asked them if they would be interested in such a product. They said yeah, he agreed to build it, and the next week they signed a four-year contract. He built the product, Stqry, over the next four weeks, and established a company with $215,000 in seed money. Now Stqry (pronounced “story”; the "qr" part refers to QR codes) is taking the app global, having already secured deals in San Francisco with the Asian Art Museum, the Walt Disney Family Museum, and the San Francisco Art Commission, among others. While he won't disclose revenues, Smith says the company is profitable on an operational expenditure basis, but it’s not profitable overall because it is investing a lot in research and development.

Rather than simply crowdsource the information provided within the app, Stqry relies on the organizations it works with to upload the content via a content management system. It’s especially targeted at museums, galleries, city councils, and the like, serving as a replacement for audio guides and other individual guide apps. The organizations will soon be able to sell physical items such as art works or books from within the app, as well as solicit donations. For example, if you happen to be nearby the cheetah enclosure at the zoo, you might be prompted with an option to feed the cheetah for a day by donating $10. Stqry will take a cut of those transactions, and it also charges its clients for annual subscriptions, which start at $850 a year.

For now, the company  is based in Wellington, but as it looks to raise a Series A round of funding, it is likely to move at least part of its operations to the US. Founder and CEO Smith is himself an American, having started working as a developer for Microsoft at age 16. He moved to Wellington to study international business at Victoria University, where he co-founded a ticketing company called Dash Tickets, which Ministry of Sound Australia later invested in.

While Stqry is off to a good start in New Zealand and appears to have few competitors – tangentially it competes with the likes of Field Trip, Wanderous, Foursquare, and PAR Works' MARS app – it will face a challenge in reaching large-scale user adoption. In the US, especially, QR codes have never really taken off and are the subject of much derision, which might make it difficult for Stqry to get traction with its point-and-scan approach. Much will depend on its partners and their ability to get users to download the app and then actually use the thing.

But perhaps the pelicans can help with that.

[Photo by bertknot]