In the spring, a family moved from New Brunswick to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Before settling into the new, barely furnished house, the father returned to their former home to collect furniture and clothing. On his way back, his truck trailer jackknifed and he died in the accident. “The mother and her children were in an empty house, and their dad was not coming back,” says Tom Jackson, a 47-year-old Canadian businessman with a technology and marketing background. “What a horrible shock to those people, with no final closure around things the father may have wanted to say.”
Last week Jackson launched an online service, NowSayIt.com , that enables people to send emails and videos posthumously, should they die unexpectedly.
Asked why he started NowSayIt.com now, Jackson says, “It’s a combination of age, entrepreneurial spirit, and a desire to have a business that offers a service of real value to people.” He adds that sometimes we become inured to everyday news reports of sudden losses. “Just think about how many people are killed in car accidents, sudden heart attacks, and on-the-job accidents. Every one of them left others behind with no chance to say what needs to be said. Once you start thinking of them as individuals instead of news items or statistics, it is incredibly tragic,” says Jackson.
Personally, Jackson is driven by the thought of what would go through the minds of his kids if they got the news that their father was never returning home. “I tell them I love them every day, but I want them to hear it again, if the worst should happen. I plan to live to be an old man, but much of that is out of my control.”
The idea for NowSayItLife is similar to the premise of the 2007 film, P.S. I Love You , in which a widow receives letters from her deceased husband encouraging her to move on with her life. Life (or death, actually) doesn’t quite imitate art, though. Jackson’s online business model relies on subscriptions: For $15 annually up to a lifetime fee of $140, the company encrypts and stores multimedia messages. NowSayIt’s “MoreThanWords” service allows subscribers to attach videos, photos, and important documents to their email message, and the site provides 5GB of storage space to support files. Users assign two trustees who are empowered to release material in the advent of their demise.
While Jackson’s business model may seem morbid, it’s also possibly lucrative. Every year about 118,000 people in the United States  die as a result of accidents, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Comparable Canadian numbers are harder to come by because the government breaks them out according to province and specific types of accidents, differentiating road from rail, and accidents from dangerous goods, for example. But a 2004 private study of found 10,000 unintentional deaths. And there’s still the rest of the English-speaking world, including the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand, to mine.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that Jackson has competition. Other sites offer after-death email delivery, although fewer provide multimedia posthumous communication. There's SayItNowForever , launched late last year, which offers a similar multimedia service and also includes last will and testaments for $10 annually and a one-time setup of $25. Virtual Eternity , launched in 2008, lets users upload content and program an interactive avatar to tell their story and stand in for them once they’re gone. And by talking to The Voice Library , you can record, save, and through a secure online archive, preserve your voice for future generations.
A blog called The Digital Beyond , co-written by Raleigh, NC, interaction-design experts Evan Carroll and John Romano, is dedicated to helping readers plan for the future of their online content and tracks 40 companies that can assist them.
“What we provide is not necessarily unique--it’s a really simple idea,” says Jackson, “The important piece is the execution and awareness in the marketplace.” It’s similar to auto manufacturers, he says, “There are tons of options, just as if you’re going to buy a new car. People buy for different reasons and we’ll just have to make sure our site is the most desirable.”
Eventually, Jackson would like to expand to other countries, but the language differences for other markets may require capital investment. But so far Jackson, who has done business development for a Halifax technology provider to wireless organizations, says he is self-funded and startup expenses are “reasonable” with operating costs “aligned closely with subscriptions.”
If the company attracts less than 10,000 subscribers at the end of the first year “we’d be disappointed,” Jackson says, who hopes, using conservative sales and value per subscription projections, to be profitable within six months. While there are no plans now for ads on Facebook or other social media, NowSayIt has a presence on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and YouTube, and will be analyzing responses and interactions with those communities and expects them to provide some insights on where to invest marketing dollars.
For now, Jackson hopes subscribers’ family members and estate trustees will spread the word. “I think the term ‘viral’ is overused,” he says, “but it’s like that Fabergé commercial . You tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on.”
And with that, death becomes a virtual business.
[Image: Flickr user Andreas Levers ]