1000Memories Confronts Death by Celebrating Lives

This is the second in a series of profiles of companies emerging this summer from Mountain View, CA-based startup incubator Y Combinator.

When I met the founders of 1000Memories, a new website where family and friends of people who’ve died can create free multimedia memorials to their loved ones, my mind flashed first to The Monk and the Riddle. This Silicon Valley classic was published in 2000 by startup guru Randy Komisar, who’s now a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. The book, which I reviewed at the time for Technology Review magazine, is loosely structured around the fictionalized story of Lenny, a young, driven insurance executive pitching Komisar for an investment in “Funerals.com,” a business designed to “put the fun back into funerals” by selling caskets and other funeral services online.

Digging past the dot-com crassness of the Funerals.com business plan, Komisar eventually discovers that Lenny isn’t the soulless opportunist he first appears to be. With Komisar’s coaching, Lenny realizes that lurking underneath his original plan is a far more compelling idea for a community site—“Circle-of-Life.com”—that would “bring together family members and friends, wherever they are in the world, and give them an opportunity to grieve, remember, mourn, and show their support in ways not possible until the Web.” Komisar helps Lenny recognize that his original Amazon-for-funerals pitch amounted to the Deferred Life Plan: the misguided decision to put one’s passions on hold while pursuing something safe, profitable, and dull.

The young guys behind San Francisco-based 1000Memories are not, as far as I can tell, on the Deferred Life Plan. For one thing, they’ve all given up lucrative careers to build the startup—Brett Huneycutt and Jonathan Good left management consulting powerhouse McKinsey & Company, and Rudy Adler resigned his post at Wieden + Kennedy, the advertising agency for Nike and Old Spice.

For another, all three say they’ve recently lost important people in their lives—out of respect, I didn’t ask who, and to their credit, they’re not hawking the names—and that they found that existing social networking sites such as Facebook don’t provide good ways to share stories or celebrate the lives of the deceased. (Recent stories, including this New York Times piece, have highlighted Facebook’s difficulties dealing with the deaths of users.)

1000Memories photo page for Sal DeBruno1000Memories launched on July 9 with backing from Y Combinator; it’s one of 36 “YC S10” companies now feverishly preparing for “Demo Day” pitches to prospective investors on August 24. I spent some time recently with Adler, Good, and Huneycutt at their apartment/headquarters in San Francisco’s Mission district, and got the sense that while their business plan is one that could have been lifted straight from the pages of The Monk and The Riddle, it’s an idea they genuinely care about.

“We prefer to be working on a business that solves a big problem,” says Adler. “Each of us has experienced the loss of a friend recently and we’ve watched the process play out online. You get the sense that people want to express themselves and share memories of the person online, but there just isn’t a great platform for doing it.”

“People tend to either use Facebook as a default, or create a blog themselves if they’re tech-savvy, but in both cases it just doesn’t work very well,” Adler continues. “We wanted to create a platform that would have a much better design, that would treat the event the way it’s supposed to be treated, and celebrate the person’s life and provide people with the right set of tools for sharing.”

That’s definitely an unfilled niche on the Web. The “Circle-of-Life.com” concept, which seems like a good one to me, has been out there for the taking ever since Komisar’s book, but nobody has ever really tried to build it. There are obituary sites like Tributes.com and Legacy.com, that are attempting to do to newspaper obits what Craigslist did to classified ads, and there’s even a MySpace-like photo and video site called Respectance that boasts it is “the first to use emo-social media, the combination of rich media with relevant content, to provide an outlet for emotional expression.”

But there really isn’t a site that puts the deceased person first, without a layer of advertisements and offers around the personal stories. “We want the person to dominate the experience,” says Adler. “That’s why we’ve chosen to create a home page with a full-screen photo [of each memorialized loved one]. There’s the ability to share photos and videos, the ability to write stories, and there’s a guest book feature, where you can see who’s contributed…The greater ambition is to provide a place to capture people’s life stories.”

One example is the memorial to John Krettek III, who died of cancer last year at age 28. Created by his sister Danielle Krettek, an employee at Apple, the 1000Memories pages for Krettek include more than 250 photos uploaded by friends and family, as well as personal reminiscences both long and short. (From the sound of things, Krettek was a life-of-the-party type and a wicked-smart programmer.) Another example is the memorial to Eual “Yogi” Adams, a fishing boat captain from Half Moon Bay, CA, who died July 9. Huneycutt says the Yogi Adams pages attracted thousands of views after a link to the site was printed in a newspaper obituary for Adams and on his fishing club’s website.

John Krettek III Foundation page on 1000Memories.comJohn Krettek’s pages include one unique feature of 1000Memories: the “Projects” area. Adler and his co-founders say they wanted to give 1000Memories visitors a way to do more than just share memories, so they built the Projects template to give friends and family members a place to coordinate fundraisers and other activities. Danielle Krettek is using the projects area to collect donations for JK3, the John Krettek III Foundation, which aims to provide Apple iPads to help entertain and nurture patients undergoing chemotherapy treatments. The first hospital to receive the devices will be Missouri Baptist Cancer Center in St. Louis, MO. (To process donations, 1000Memories turned to WePay, another Y Combinator-backed startup that handles online group payments.)

The projects pages “will expand over time,” says Huneycutt. “We’re starting with the simplest set of tools we can offer, to help people collect money and give updates about the project.” In the future, he says, 1000Memories may help users with the legal paperwork to set up non-profit foundations.

Huneycutt, Adler, and Good didn’t start out knowing they were going to build a site honoring lost loved ones. Their story is partly a case of a team of would-be startup co-founders looking for a good idea.

Huneycutt and Adler are longtime friends who went to the same elementary school in Arizona. Much later, they collaborated with a third friend, Victoria Criado, on a 2007 photography book called The Border Film Project; it was a compilation of photos taken along the U.S.-Mexico border by both migrants and “Minutemen” volunteers. Huneycutt met Good, a native of New Zealand, at the University of Oxford, where the two both studied as Rhodes Scholars. Both later accepted positions at McKinsey.

After weeks of Skype conversations starting last December, the three convinced each other to quit their jobs, fly to San Francisco, and hole up in a hotel room. All three were approaching age 30, and “it was one of those ‘now or never’ things,” says Adler. “We thought, when were we ever going to have another opportunity. But we decided we needed to be in the same room together for a while to find out if we liked the team and whether we were going to be able to work together. At that point we had about 15 ideas that we slowly started paring down.”

The team hadn’t planned on applying to Y Combinator. But Huneycutt, through his alma mater Boston College, had met Rich Aberman and Bill Clerico, who’d founded WePay as part of the summer 2009 Y Combinator class. (See my WePay profile here.) “They were so positive about the program that we decided to apply,” says Huneycutt. “They’re a couple of years younger than we are, but they’ve been our startup mentors.”

The trio already knew about Y Combinator’s unofficial mantra: “make things people want.” Good says that as the three evaluated startup ideas, they kept coming back to the concept that became 1000Memories, in part because it was the one that seemed to resonate most with everyone they talked to. “One of my brother’s best friends died from meningitis last year,” says Good. “I’d be talking to him about other ideas, and he’d say ‘This is something that’s really important.’ Doing something that has the potential to change the world is a really good motivator.”

Of course, doing something that has the potential to make money is another good motivator. But all the tools at 1000Memories are free—and so far, founders aren’t being specific about how they hope to monetize he growing collection of “memory pages,” as they call the individual sites (such as johnkrettek.1000Memories.com).

Good points out that funeral costs in the U.S. average $10,000, including $1,000 spent placing obituaries. “There’s a real desire to manage down those costs,” he says, and the availability of a free online alternative could bring many people to the site. Says Adler: “We think we’re in a position to create a platform for making a better obituary, because it’s a collaborative obituary.”

But what then? “We’re not too worried about the economics of the product,” says Adler. “It sounds cliché, but we are really focused on making the best product possible, and we think that if we’re successful in that, we will be a good financial proposition.” On August 24, the team will have a chance to find out whether potential investors agree. (I’ll be at Demo Day myself, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for Randy Komisar.)

Before I left, I couldn’t help asking Adler, Good, and Huneycutt how they find the passion to work every day on a project that is, after all, about death, the ultimate downer. Adler—the one with the advertising background—turned my question around, saying 1000Memories is really about life.

“I think the best memory pages are the ones that capture an entire life,” he says. “There are pages where you see a photo of the person as a young boy, and then you see the wedding photos, and then they have kids, and then they reach middle age, and then the last photo is of this really old man. That’s fascinating. So regardless of if they’re old or young when they pass away, the goal is to capture the complete story of the person. We don’t think Facebook is the right platform for that. People see our product and say, ‘Thank you for building this.'”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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7 responses to “1000Memories Confronts Death by Celebrating Lives”

  1. For all its apparent uniqueness, 1000Memories is just another online memorial site — a competitor, not a niche-occupier. Some of these sites are mawkish and tacky, others far classier. More than a few have sunk, taking with them many memories. As a consumer advocate in the UK, I have surveyed many over the years. For my money (except that, like 1000Mems, it’s free) the best of them all is MuchLoved.com. Created by a Cambridge graduate, it offers more than 1000Mems, it is beautifully designed and it is protected by a stout ethical code. I’d like to see 1000Mems give MuchLoved a run for its money — the effort will bring out the best in both.

    A major difference between them is that the creator of MuchLoved is not, so far as I am aware, interested in enriching himself through his project; it is a labour of love. But the three bright young things behind 1000Mems need to draw a wage from their wheeze, and it’s not apparent how they intend to do that. There’s the rub.

  2. Lisa Erickson says:

    Although the creator of MuchLoved may not be interested in enriching himself, that’s not to say it bodes well for his site. It’s altuistic, but a labour, like much else involving love, can fade. A profit motive is a sustaining incentive. If and when 1000Memories is capable of making money on their project, they will have every motive to maintain their endeavour.

  3. Very good point, Lisa.

  4. Rich Abermanrich says:

    1000Memories guys are a rare breed: as smart as they are ethical.

    Proud to know them, and excited to watch them build this company.

  5. Pavel says:

    May I source you as a crowd of intellectual people for the following: I am a Russian guy, I live in Russia, and by the age of 45 I have lost my parents. Of course, I have personal reasons to contemprorate my relatives and a desire to help other. Being enterpreneural, I like the idea of 1000Memories. I do not want to make money on the project, but there are expenses and, as Lisa mentioned, incentives issues. What is the solution between not making money on people’s grief and not being totally altruistic?
    PS. I wish this site had spell check.

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