With a knack for seeking stories and sharing them with the world, Kopal Khanna has achieved milestones in her life that people can only dream of. With 2.13 million subscribers on YouTube and 116K followers on Instagram, Tape A Tale, the brainchild start-up of Kopal, is a digital crowdsourced story-sharing platform. She is not just the CEO of Tape A Tale but also is the one who believes that every single person on this planet has some story to narrate or an exotic life experience to share. Author of Almost Whole and creator of a public art project ‘WALL For WALL‘, Kopal is not afraid of challenges and believes that everyone wants to be heard.
In a candid conversation with us, Kopal shares her struggles, dreams, aspirations, and motivations to make her ideas come to life.
How did you come up with the idea of Tape A Tale?
Starting Tape A Tale had multiple reasons behind it. One of the core reasons was that I wanted to create an online space where people could come up and share their experiences. I felt that the Internet was becoming a shallow place, where people were not talking about things that mattered to them the most. So with these thoughts, I started Tape A Tale.
The other reason that comes to my mind is that I was in a job back then that I was not enjoying. And I have always been very interested in talking to people and listening to their life stories. With this picture in mind, I started a passion project where people could come forward and talk their hearts out through storytelling. Back then, it sounded like a bizarre idea, but I was really ardent in doing it, and in 2017, Tape A Tale was born.
Tell us about your struggles and the journey to make Tape A Tale what it is today.
The struggles have been different at different points in time. Initially, it was more of financing since it absorbs every bit of yourself when you start anything. I had to give up on my full-time job. Not just handling social media, but also organizing events, managing invoices and bank transactions; I was doing everything as you have to build everything from scratch.
Then the other struggle was the question, where would the money come from? Although I had a revenue model in my mind, it seemed that it would take a long time to get back some amount in my hands.
“When you are in a business, there is going to be some form of struggle; only its form will change, it will not vanish. You need to have a solution-oriented mindset to solve it.“Says Kopal Khanna
So, I had to do two part-time jobs apart from managing Tape A Tale, coupled with anxiety. I used to ask myself if I was doing the right thing because, by that time, I had completed two Master’s degrees, had a good job, and was living in the United States, but now, I was again back to square one, where I could barely pay my rent. However, when Tape A Tale started to get some recognition, and the viewer and subscriber base grew larger, it gave me some relief. Then, another struggle to build a team, hire the right people, and decide their salaries came up, and I overcame that.
Then the pandemic happened, and suddenly, there were no live shows. From the business perspective, it indeed came up as a struggle. So what I believe is that when you are in a business or running a company you are responsible for, there will be some struggle at every stage, no matter how big or old that company is. Only the shape and form of that struggle might change, but it will not vanish. And one should look at them with a solution-oriented mindset that these struggles are phases and they shall pass.
If I have to define myself in a sentence, I would say that I love to see ideas coming to life. If I come up with an idea and it excites me, I love to see it happen in real. I feel many people have many ideas, but what makes Tape A Tale’s team different is that we love to follow through with that idea and love to see it breathe and then remain consistent.
So, ‘Steller of the Year’ was born out of a random conversation in the office – that we could do something in colleges. So we started having this competition. We started ‘Open Mics’ because every day, we would receive hundreds of emails from people who wanted to perform and obviously, we couldn’t give every story a platform.
Similar was the case with our offline event ‘Kahaniyaan’ – we would go to certain cities only and give a stage to everyone, but then we would get calls and emails from the cities and people where we could not go, and people still wanted to perform. So with these reasons, we thought of coming up with something online, and the idea obviously picked up really well in the pre-pandemic times. So now there was a platform for a person sitting in Meerut so they could perform. Then during the pandemic, we thought of creating a platform where we could bring storytellers and audiences together to watch stories, and so ‘TAT Parties’ was born.
I feel that ideas keep coming, but what’s important is working on them and making them happen in reality. There have been ideas that have failed, but yes, that too gives an experience.
“When you are so zealous about your work, your mind constantly thinks in that direction, and that is how ideas brew in one’s mind.“Says Kopal Khanna
Do you feel the art of storytelling can be taught?
One hundred per cent! I feel anything can be taught, but you need to have the knack for it in the sense that you should be curious enough to learn about it.
“There is no recipe for a perfect story. Your authenticity and the reflection of yourself in your stories make the audience resonate with you and your work.“Says Kopal Khanna
We run a storytelling school, ‘Story Circle’, which is three months long, so people have access to open mics, workshops, and feedback sessions, and I have seen people learn and grow there.
But yes, there is no recipe for a perfect story. Your authenticity and the reflection of yourself in your stories make the audience resonate with you and your work. A person can teach you about all the technicalities like metaphors and different beginnings in your story. Still, a lot of improvement in your writing, storytelling, and performance comes when you read a lot, listen to various artists, and attend such shows. You have to work a lot on your craft; for some, it comes naturally, and they get better at it; for some, they have to learn.
Do you feel that the concept of entrepreneurship and start-ups have been glorified so much that people turn blind to the other side of the coin that can show the ups and downs and even failure sometimes?
Initially, everyone, my friends, family, and I, thought that this whole idea of entrepreneurship is all about freedom, doing things at your convenience, and mint huge amounts of money. Entrepreneuring is always compared with the corporate world as the latter is more hardcore.
However, when I got into it, I realized that it is not what we actually think. There is way less freedom, and I had to curtail many things I used to do. However, I do enjoy it sometimes now that I am four years into it. But initially, when I was building Tape A Tale, I did have this constant fear of security in terms of finances, as I did not have any protection or blanket that would save me if I fail. I used to work day and night on weekends, trying to build a company and thinking, today people like it, but they might not like it in the future, what will I do then?
So yes, there is a lot of glorification of this whole concept of the entrepreneur with titles like CEO or ‘Be your own Boss’, or ideas that ‘Love what you do’, ‘Follow your passion’, that it has overshadowed the struggles, fears, ups and downs, insecurities, and even failures that come as part and parcel of it.
You have worked for various organizations like The Moth, Hollywood Health and Society, Shout Out, and many more. Do you think that working at these organizations taught you in some way how to manage Tape A Tale?
Absolutely! The names that you have mentioned here were my internships when I was doing my Master’s. Also, I have worked at some of these places as well. These organizations have taught me a lot.
At that time, I only wanted to make money or keep myself busy, but the experiences, both good and bad, taught me what kind of boss I want to be, how I want to run a team, or how I want to conduct meetings. For example, at The Moth, I learned how to organize events, manage them, and bring them to success. And I would highly recommend that volunteering and internships help us learn and unlearn many things by the experiences they provide, so grab them wherever you find them.
The lowest and the highest points in your life so far?
The answer to this question depends on how one defines the highs and the lows.
For me, this particular phase of the pandemic, where the aim is to survive and make it through it, is the lowest. In fact, I would say it is a very collective low phase, and we are all really sad. I, too, recovered from the Covid-19 last week, so it has really been a testing time. Both personally and professionally, where the business almost stops, everyone has to go through a lot, so yes, this is the lowest phase for me right now.
For highs, there have been plenty of them. I know there are these big milestones to achieve, but the definition of highs is quite different for me. Like after an ‘Open Mic’ when someone texts me that they have been waiting for it for so long, that they had written multiple pieces to perform, or what it meant to them and their families, it counts as my high.
You have written a book named ‘Almost Whole’. What inspired you to write this book?
So, I was 21 when I had written this book. It was the time when I had done my undergraduate from Saint Stephens, Delhi, and I had to go for my Master’s, but I had these three months in between. So, I decided to do some volunteering work for a Lucknow-based NGO called Sanatkada.
For work, I used to go to the Central jail for women on the outskirts of Lucknow, and I used to teach Hindi, English, and Maths to the inmates for three months. The experiences that I had there served to be a life-changer for me. My definition of perspectives, privilege, and freedom changed, and the life experiences of the inmates inspired me.
“There is no other way to feel your completeness without loving yourself.“Says Kopal Khanna
I have been writing since I was thirteen, so when I went to London, I started jotting down the memories of those three months that I had of the jail and made some people characters in the book. After nine months of writing and refining, I had a story that I wanted the world to know.
What does the ‘Whole’ mean to you?
So the idea of ‘Whole’ has also evolved over the years. I strongly feel that nobody else can complete your puzzle and that you have to love yourself and your own company, feel fulfilled in your own company. So this is my definition of whole right now, but this idea might change tomorrow!
You did a double master’s degree in global communications, first from the London School of Economics and then from the University of Southern California. Do you feel that the knowledge you gained there helped you become a better storyteller and story seeker?
I can’t say about the academics but the people I met in both the cities, the places I saw, the travelling I did, the cultures I learnt, has definitely made my life richer. During those two years in those universities, I came across many things that I had experienced for the first time, and I have narrated some of them on Tape A Tale and will continue to do so because I feel those stories should be a part of this world. In a gist, all these have made me a better storyteller and story seeker.
You have also talked about ‘WALL For WALL’. What is the concept behind it, and why did you feel the need to come up with it?
‘WALL For WALL’ was started when I was studying in Los Angeles. I remember I was at a library one day, and I had come across this book Before I Die by Candy Chang. The plot was that she used to spot the rundown walls in parking lots and godowns and then take it up as a public project to make them beautiful and hopeful again by writing the words, ‘Before I die I will…’ and then others would come and complete that sentence. I was fascinated by the book that I sat in the library for the entire day and read it.
I got inspired by this idea, and with the help of my two friends, I made the wall in my college in Los Angeles and called it the ‘Someday I Will’ wall where people would write about their dreams, their will, the reason for living their lives. Some people would come to me and tell me that they did not have any dreams, so I would advise them to go through what was already there on the wall. And then they would write something wonderful about their families or a place that they wished to go to or a hobby that they wanted to get better at. It was all a wholesome experience to give people a happy space to write down their desires. We haven’t done one recently because of the pandemic.
Also, when I came up with the name ‘WALL For WALL’, there was this chaos caused by Donald Trump, the former US President, because he wanted to build a wall of division at the Mexican border. So we thought if he builds this wall, we will build walls of positivity, dreams, togetherness, unity, and love. We have done multiple of them at music festivals, parks, and roadsides, with a permanent one in Mumbai.
“People need an outlet; So when they get a platform, They pour their hearts out.“Says Kopal Khanna
Why do you feel that people want to be heard out?
People ask me how I get people to talk about things that are so close to them. Honestly, I don’t have to do anything. Sometimes I need to tell them that a particular story needs to be heard, but most of the time, people are willing to tell them voluntarily. What actually is the case is that we don’t talk about things like mental health, overcoming grief, and break-ups.
“The feeling of performing in front of people and getting their response is indescribable, and once you start doing it, there is no going back.“Says Kopal Khanna
Sometimes, people want to share their experiences so others don’t repeat the same thing. Storytellers often tell me that they have to let go of relationships and emotions on stage while performing. It is also like venting out their thoughts. People don’t have someone to hear them out. People have also told me how sometimes the stories change their perspectives and train of thought. So yes, this is one of the reasons why people want to be heard.
Any advice on storytelling that you would like to give to our readers?
Try it! Do it! I get so many questions in my inbox and even at the events regarding constructing a story. I tell them don’t complicate the process by overthinking whether they should do it or not, or if they are meant for it, or worry about the audience’s feedback. Take it simple and do it as your heart says. The feeling of performing in front of people and getting their response is indescribable, and once you start doing it, there is no going back. So go and dive into it!