1000memories, With $2.5M from Greylock and Big-Name Angels, Explores New Ways to Capture Online Memories of the Deceased

2/16/11Follow @wroush

Most Silicon Valley startups with the good fortune to line up $2.5 million in Series A venture backing from a blue-chip venture firm like Greylock Partners and famous investors like Ron Conway and Mike Maples would immediately be shouting the news from the rooftops. But the founders at online memorial site 1000memories say they were too preoccupied last fall—when the term sheets were actually signed—to put out an announcement.

Now, that’s what I call busy.

There actually was something more important getting in the way, co-founder Rudy Adler explains a little sheepishly. “We wanted to launch some new features on the site,” he says. “And then the holidays hit, and then we got busy and distracted. So it just happened that February was the best time to do it.”

Belatedly, then, 1000memories is announcing today the closing of its Series A round, which, together with an investment from Y Combinator and some early angel backing obtained last summer, brings the startup’s total financing to $3 million. In addition to Conway and Maples, the round included angel investors Caterina Fake, Keith Rabois, Paul Buchheit, Chris Sacca, Ben Ling, Aydin Senkut, and Craig Sherman, the company said. Greylock associate partner David Thacker has joined 1000memories’ board.

It’s easy to see how actually using the new venture money might have gotten in the way of sharing the details about it. Adler and his co-founders Brett Huneycutt and Jonathan Good have set themselves the formidable task of filling in a piece of the social-media equation that’s been largely missing so far: a place for people to share their memories of the deceasad. Social platforms like Facebook, Adler says, are “built around the now—what am I eating today, who am I seeing, where am I going later. There’s no way to deal with the past tense, and that’s what we think we are providing.”

I first profiled 1000memories last August, a week before Y Combinator’s Demo Day and a couple of weeks before the startup closed its first angel round. A lot has happened since then. The company has hired a couple of engineers, bringing its total staff to five. The three founders moved out of the house in San Francisco’s Mission district where they started the business so that they could turn the whole place into offices. And they’ve rolled out quite a few new features, including a biography page for each memorialized person and a new format for what the company calls its memory pages. These pages, which 1000memories considers its key attractions, weave together visitor-contributed photos, stories, videos, and songs.

They’re calling this the “quilt” view, and it’s a nice example of the simple ways 1000memories is using the latest Web technologies to give a Facebook-era spin to the concept of the online obituary. “It gives you a very good glimpse of someone’s life, especially when someone’s entire story is there—you see their baby photos, and you see them growing up and having kids, and then photos of them when they were old,” says Adler. “It’s really fascinating to see all that mixed together.”

There’s one thing the site still doesn’t have: advertisements or any other form of sales pitch. It’s free to join 1000memories, free to create memory pages for loved ones, free to share photos and videos.

That’s how it was last summer too—none of the founders was in a rush to find ways to monetize the service. Perhaps, I suggested to Adler, the folks at Greylock asked about the startup’s business model before handing over a couple million dollars? Not really, he says. “We do talk about monetization every once in a while, and we have some theories about how it might go, but 98 percent of what we talk about is making the platform work,” Adler says. “Our goal is to become the place where everyone is remembered, so part of that is just making sure we get as many users as possible.”

Certain things have been decided: the base service will always be free, and the company will never put ads on memory pages, Adler says. “We think that’s just not the right way to treat the stories of people’s lives,” he says. “We have talked about premium services that we can add, and obviously in the end they [Greylock] want us to monetize the site, but we are really just focused on creating the best experience.” He calls this “the Facebook model,” a reference to the social network giant’s decision to spend years building up a base of users before it started worrying about revenue.

This month, 1000memories tried an experiment that represents a major addition to, if not quite a departure from, its original mission of helping users remember individuals. After receiving a request from Mahmoud Hashim, an Egyptian living in Toronto, the team created a single large Web page commemorating more than 150 demonstrators killed during the recent anti-government protests in Egypt. For each victim, the page includes details such as a photo, a name, an age, a hometown, an occupation, and a date and cause of death. (Some of the victims were shockingly young—8-year-old Muhammed Ehab El-Naggar, for example, was shot by security forces on January 28.)

The move sparked stories in press outlets around the world. But Adler says 1000memories has no desire to become a virtual Ground Zero for every deadly upheaval—the online equivalent of the seas of bouquets that appear on sidewalks after school shootings, celebrity deaths, and other public traumas. “I really don’t like the idea of being tragedy-focused,” he says.

On the other hand, he says, 1000memories’ basic mission is help people remember the dead. “In some ways we are user-driven and user-focused,” he says. “We didn’t sit around and say ‘How can we jump on the Egypt story?’ Someone asked us to do it and we did it. If we can provide people with the tools, and they can use them for what they want, that would be the ideal circumstance.”

Over the next few months, Adler says, 1000memories hopes to use part of its venture money to hire a couple more engineers and a designer who can help the founding team chip away at their long list of planned features. But don’t look for any drastic changes. “We grew up in this Y Combinator world where it’s a conversation between us and our users,” Adler says. “So we take things slow. We are very conscious of getting it right and building things that people want. People are entrusting us with their stories, and we feel this responsibility to make sure we are telling their stories in the right way.”

To finish: here’s a great little video 1000memories produced about its service. Says Adler, “We wrote the script in house, hired a friend of mine who is an illustrator in Portland, and his animators, and then my brother did the music. And my former boss did the voice over. A nice collaboration!”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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