About a year ago, when a friend of mine passed away, the first thing I did was visit his Facebook page. There he was, staring back at me, jokingly holding up a picture of Brad Pitt to show the resemblance of their respective mustaches. Shortly thereafter, the page was put into memorial status -- which basically means his "Wall" was shut off. It was an odd experience and one I would have never thought twice about until it happened to me.
Little did I know it at the time, but this was the beginning of a journey that took me and my two co-founders -- Rhodes Scholars working at McKinsey and Company -- from cushy jobs to writing code and launching 1000Memories, a new social platform for remembering the lives of loved ones.
There is something exciting happening in Silicon Valley right now. Just a year ago, Internet entrepreneurs were being told to lower their expectations; that the down economy was drying up funding and the web 2.0 hype had ended in a Fukuyama-style triumph of Facebook. How a year has changed things: "You can see what a massive opportunity this is going to be. Everything is still only in the 5 to 10 percentile of it's potential," Ron Conway, one of the best-known angel investors, said recently.
A new class of social startups -- like Quora, AirBnb, and GroupOn -- are gaining momentum and giving people new reason to be optimistic. Tech entrepreneurs are becoming more experienced and better at what they do. Failing is becoming a badge of honor, a good indicator on succeeding the second time around. And there is a realization that companies like Facebook, Skype, and Twitter were all founded in the midst of a weak economy.
I started my career in advertising at Wieden + Kennedy Portland, the agency responsible for some of the most iconic advertising since the early 80's -- from the early Mars Blackman, "It's gotta be the shoes!" Spike Lee/Michael Jordan Nike ads to the latest Twitter response videos for Old Spice. There I met Jelly Helm, a friend and mentor, who taught me how to craft and tell a story. The best work, he would say, solves a problem.
In January, after we decided to quit our jobs to solve the death problem, I was heartened to find the program Y Combinator whose slogan says it all: "Make Something People Want." Founded by Paul Graham, Y Combinator is best described as boot camp for tech startups. Their goal is to give founders enough runway and encouragement not to quit early. They understand that there is no guessing with technology. You have to build something fast, see how people use it, and then change it. It takes time.
This year, 1.5 million Facebook users will pass away but their Facebook profiles will live on. This is a growing problem and people are naturally asking: can major social media sites handle their dead? The most common complaint is the call to "reconnect" with a deceased loved one. These social networks are for the living and were never built to deal with the dead. Just look how long it took for Facebook to announce a death policy -- Twitter just announced theirs last week!
But there's a larger story here, and an even bigger opportunity. 85% of Americans who die this year are not on Facebook, and with newspapers struggling, the printed obituary's days are numbered. But they won't just disappear - they will move online. If the purpose of an obituary is to inform a community about the passing of a loved one, it seems like social media will be much more efficient in doing that. Not to mention all of the sharing tools that could allow people to write an obituary collaboratively.
"Being too early is the same as being wrong," is a phrase said in VC firms every day. The right idea will only work at the right time. Jawed Karim, co-founder of YouTube, looked for evidence in the use of secondary technologies, like the rise of digital cameras and broadband in homes. In our case, it's the easy accessibility of scanners that will allow people to share old photos (currently sitting in old shoeboxes) like never before. Karim also believed in one successful idea establishing a base for another to come along. For us, that's Facebook.
In the end, our success will be determined by what is basically a "social experiment," as Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales once called it. He saw Wikis as an experiment to see if people would dedicate time to building something important for absolutely no credit. The question for 1000Memories is: How will the Internet be used to remember a person and pass the story of their life to future generations?
No matter what happens, one thing is clear: it's never been easier to create a piece of technology. New tools and open source code allow anyone to quit their job and start the next great Internet startup. This is truly a remarkable time for innovation. And I'm glad to be a part of it.