What happens when the Silicon Valley startup culture and biblical principles are brought together in the entertainment industry? Ben Chelf, a Silicon Valley technologist and entrepreneur, recently co-founded a new company, The Story Locker, “to produce high quality films with great stories.”
Personal and Faith Background
Chelf was born in Terre Haute, Indiana. He was brought up in a Christian home, read the Bible as a youngster, but says, “I simply adopted the faith of my parents.” In his late teens, his faith waned. “It didn’t seem relevant at the time,” comments Chelf. But at the age of 20, he reengaged with church and his faith was invigorated. He says he even considered attending seminary, but chose to pursue a career in computer science.
He came to the Bay Area to attend Stanford in 1996 where he earned a BS and MS in computer science. While studying to earn his Ph.D. from Stanford, he and some colleagues invented a fundamentally different way to test complex software to speed up the software development process and to develop higher quality software. They decided to leave Stanford to start Coverity to commercialize their research. It caught on.
Coverity – Chelf’s First Start-up
Coverity grew from 2 to 150 employees during Chelf’s tenure at the company from 2003 to 2009. During that period Chelf worked first as the company’s Chief Operating Officer and then as its Chief Technology Officer.
In the process of working at his first company, Chelf also learned an important lesson about himself. He had always considered his value and strengths were in software development and engineering. But as he also had responsibilities in sales, marketing, and leading teams, he came to realize that he possessed skills in business leadership.
I found that I enjoy and am good at casting vision, inspiring action, building teams, and executing a plan to accomplish more than anyone thought possible.
The Story Locker
Chelf now has a new vision – “to bring a Silicon Valley approach to the Hollywood storytelling business.” As a youngster, Chelf loved reading science fiction. He believes that science fiction “is one of our best platforms for philosophical discourse and can have a major impact on culture.” One book he read as a youngster particularly stands out to him – The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons.
I soaked in every last minute with these characters, practically feeling like I was living with them as their story came to a close. Already having inclinations towards the power in the art of storytelling, this experience made me truly realize the influence that stories can have over our emotions and thoughts. In hindsight, it was one of the experiences that led me to start my current venture, The Story Locker.
Silicon Valley and Hollywood
Chelf believes that Silicon Valley and Hollywood are on a crash course and he wants to be in the middle of it. He recognizes, as do many, that streaming technology is changing the way people consume entertainment. This has significant ramifications for the business models that have sustained the entertainment industry for decades. He intends The Story Locker to be at the forefront of content development as this industry changes.
The concept behind The Story Locker is unique. He is working to bring very talented writers and artists together in an incubator setting to collectively create high quality stories. Chelf notes that the highest quality films all start with a great story and generally attract substantially larger audiences and make more money. Chelf plans to have The Story Locker change the existing paradigm through their story development process that draws from principles of the top visual storytellers from the past hundred years.
Building the Company on Biblical Principles
Chelf and his business partner, Ben Patterson, a fellow committed follower of Christ, are building The Story Locker on biblical principles.
As Christians, we’re supposed to treat people well. We are supposed to love everybody. We are supposed to invest in people. And we are supposed to make the lives of people better. We try to do that at The Story Locker.
In contrast to the traditional model for story development in Hollywood, The Story Locker has full time creative employees and gives them an equity interest in the content created as well as in the company itself. This practice seems obvious in Silicon Valley but is atypical in the entertainment industry. Chelf believes that is not only the right thing to do, but it is also good business practice.
The Story Locker creates stories that Chelf describes as “approachable by most families,” but will not be faith-based. Currently, the company’s stories would have ratings from G to PG-13. But he adds,
The best stories are the ones that reflect the realities that we all live through. Sometimes people, and especially Christians, are too fearful of certain types of content. Our goal is to create stories that are true to the human experience when it’s beautiful and when it’s painful or ugly.
The Story Locker has been operating since January 2012 and Chelf plans to launch the company in the press in 2014.
His Purpose and Mission in Life
I ended my interview by asking Chelf how he views his purpose and life’s mission. He responded,
I am figuring that out every year, but the last few years my focus is on the centrality of the communion with God in everything I do. Myles Munroe put it well when he said “The greatest failure in life is being successful in the wrong assignment.” As I continue to figure out my assignment, I’m learning to better love those around me and to use my skills to make the world better. Right now, this is in my work to bring better stories to the world.