Downtown-based Forever.com promises to preserve photos, files 100 years beyond death
In the summer of 1990, Glen Meakem and his wife got in their car and began driving state to state, visiting every living relative.
From their Boston home, they went to see family in Delaware, Connecticut, New York, Kentucky and Florida. At each stop, they sought to preserve living history by shooting video of the couple's six grandparents, three of whom sat down for interviews, plus several great aunts and uncles.
“My grandfather, he was born in 1909, orphaned in 1914 and lived in a Catholic orphanage from 5 to 12,” said Meakem, a Western Pennsylvania resident since 1996. “Eventually, he's living in a room above a barn; he's essentially caring for himself. He's picking crops and shining shoes (and) somewhere along the line, someone took a liking to him. He got hired at DuPont, learned accounting, and from the age of 18 until he was 64, he worked for the chemical company.
“I didn't know any of this,” Meakem said. “And knowing the stories of your family is really important.”
Years before Meakem became rich and famous in the information technology world for founding FreeMarkets — an online auction site for business services he started in 1995 and sold in 2004 for $493 million — the concept for his latest project was born during that road trip.
The venture is Forever.com , which Meakem says is the world's first permanent online media storage and sharing service.
While most people store their memories in haphazard fashion — a box of video tapes in the closet, Mom's old recipes in a rarely opened desk drawer, old photo albums stashed in the attic — Forever is a one-stop online service where users can organize their video recordings, photo albums, documents and audio files. Just put everything in a box, ship it to Forever's Downtown offices, and workers scan in the content.
The idea, Meakem said, is to build a comprehensive family history album, a high-tech genealogy project, and a secure place for families to remember and be remembered.
“I think people want to be remembered, and I think they deserve to be remembered,” Meakem said.
The difference between Forever and social media or other online storage sites is security and privacy, Meakem said. Many sites mine your personal data to sell to advertisers. With Forever, Meakem said, clients' information is not for sale and the site is triple backed-up and highly encrypted.
Plus, he said, no other site offers the “Forever Guarantee,” which pledges that accounts will be maintained 100 years after the client dies.
“Your descendants will be able to go back and find your memories,” he said. “We've thought this all out in ways that no one else has.”
Forever started in 2012 and reported revenue of $827,000 last year. Projected revenue for 2015 is more than $3 million, with Meakem anticipating “very rapid growth” within years.
After a low-profile start, Forever rolled out new features last week, including a website redesign and an app that allows customers to design and print special products. Forever has 30,000 active users and expects to reach 50,000 by year's end, Meakem said.
Analysts are taking note, in part because Meakem has the background to pull off such a venture.
“I still talk about FreeMarkets these days in class,” said Michael Spring, a professor of information science at the University of Pittsburgh. “FreeMarkets was a brilliant idea and in its day the notion of targeted reverse auction was a sight to see. The videos of supplier price drops in the spectacular cases were quite amazing.”
That said, questions remain.
David Thaw, an information security expert at Pitt's School of Law, said the 100-year guarantee is not ironclad.
“From reading the terms of service, it looks like they are making a legitimate effort to set up a service with guaranteed longevity,” Thaw said. “But the biggest issue is if Forever goes out of business. ... As with all things, you can't make perfect guarantees and ensure they will be followed because things can happen.”
Meakem's response: Even if Forever fails, clients' accounts will be safe.
The Forever Guarantee Fund — established with an initial $1 million investment from Forever, plus ongoing contributions from new transactions — is separate from Forever, he said.
“Every month we drop more money in,” Meakem said. “We think we're overfunded, which is good for the customer.”
The money is invested in diversified stocks and bonds and is designed to earn 8 percent a year, Meakem said. Four percent of the fund profits is spent on the site services, including security and migration issues.
If Forever does fail and the accounts can no longer be maintained, the terms of service state that the fund will be used to return content to clients.
Forever memberships start at a $349 one-time payment for 10 gigabytes of storage (or, about 2,500 photos) and run to $999 for 100 gigabytes. Monthly payment plans are $5 to $15. Specialty items, such as photo albums, calendars or personalized mugs, are extra.
“It seems a little overpriced,” Spring said. “It may end up being a service used more by those who have disposable income and are vain — maybe they should check with Donald Trump.”
Forever client Leah Edwards Leach said the price was worth it.
When her father died in 2012, Leach, 36, who was raised in Hampton but lives in Philadelphia, wanted to preserve his memory for her three children, who at the time of her father's death were 3, 1½ and a month from being born.
“My son never got to meet my dad,” she said. “For us, the appeal was finding a way to creatively capture the story of my father's life. ... As a mom especially, I feel great about Forever, because of the security. I don't have to worry about data mining. I am on social media, but my sister is not because she's so concerned about privacy and the kids. She had no problem with Forever.”
That's precisely what Meakem is selling: Peace of mind.
He hopes to establish a successful business and make a lot of money. “I did it once, and I'd like to do it again.”
Beyond that, however, he wants to help people preserve memories.
Future and past
Meakem recalled his father's recent death. After much back-and-forth, he finally persuaded his dad to sit down for a video interview. The things he learned, Meakem said, were invaluable. That interview and every other documented memory of his dad are on his father's Forever account, where friends and family can call them up at any time.
“I was in a reflective mood, thinking about the future and thinking about the past, and I was at a point in my life where it was, ‘Well, I really loved being the founding CEO of FreeMarkets,' ” Meakem said. “Then I had this idea, and because nobody else is doing it, this was a big opportunity.”
He has been an entrepreneur since age 13, when he started a business cutting grass in his suburban New York neighborhood. Running a business is in his blood, he said, and he savors the “grit” required to work harder than the competition to see an idea become a success.
“One of the entrepreneurs who always inspired me is Walt Disney, how he conceived of this whole world and brought it to life,” Meakem said. “Great entrepreneurs, yeah, they build big businesses and get really wealthy, but they also create products and services that help the world, make lives better and more enriched. They create wonderful things that improve humanity. I've always wanted to be a person who makes the world a better place.”
Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.