When most people think about startups and tech, the death industry is rarely among the first to come to mind. While human lives have moved online to an unprecedented extent, there is a lack of dedicated virtual spaces to grieve. Founded by ODF9 alum Rehan Choudhry, and Perfecto Sanchez, Chptr (formerly Obit) is a tech startup filling that void by building a platform for crowdsourcing the life stories of loved ones lost. Having just closed a $1.1M pre-seed round, Chptr is fundamentally about celebrating life: the experiences that define us, and the legacy we leave.
We sat down with Rehan to talk about how he ended up building a tech company in the emotionally and socially complex memorialization space, the unique hurdles of raising money in something widely considered “uninvestable”, and how Chptr can aid people in the grieving process by encapsulating memories in impactful ways.
How did your personal journey lead you to founding a company in the memorialization space?
I worked for the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11 as a systems developer. After grad school, I went to work for the casino industry, where I very quickly realized I was limited in my ability to do any good, despite a deep desire to.
I’d been reading about the skyrocketing rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide in young people and deeply affected by the statistic that it was higher than in the Great Depression. In 2011, I went to Lollapalooza. In a sea of 90,000 people within that very age range, I had the idea that I could build a mental health awareness platform in partnership with a music festival. When I spoke to people in that field, the response I got from every single one of them was was that talking about depression and suicide at a music festival is a downer.
So I just went ahead and created my own event, a music festival called Life is Beautiful. I partnered with Tony Hsieh, the former CEO of Zappos — who we lost last year — and created this event rooted in encouraging people to lead with shared stories of resilience. The premise was that if we can get people to talk about the issues that they've worked through successfully in their lives, we could connect those stories with people who desperately need to hear them because they're struggling with the same issues. We created a tremendous amount of impact through a very successful business. Today, Life is Beautiful is one of the top music festivals in the world and something I’m incredibly proud of.
Fast forward several years, to the beginning of the pandemic. My wife, an Emmy-winning newscaster, was tasked with creating 60-second video tributes for the first COVID victims in New York. I saw how much people were affected by the fact that someone had been able to encapsulate the life purpose of their loved one in a way that was not only easily digestible, but shareable and felt eternal. I started going down a rabbit hole and trying to figure out how big the issue is and how much good could we do with it. 18 months, an incredible experience at On Deck, partnering with my co-founder, and a fundraise later, we're now hiring, building, and getting ready to launch.
How did you cross paths with your co-founder and how has your work dynamic shaped Chptr?
I met Perfecto Sanchez almost a decade ago in Las Vegas. As it turned out, we hit it off. He was at Evian at the time, leading their brand, and I was just starting Life is Beautiful.
A decade later, I was in my kitchen, sharing the idea of Chptr with my wife. She validated it pretty quickly, and when she asked what I was going to do next, I said, call Perfecto. He’s a very good big picture thinker, while I'm more of an operator, and a storyteller. My job was to build the vision, raise our funding, and build the team, whereas he’s more strategic: he elevates my thinking, and he's very good at brand definition and creation.
How did you end up at On Deck and what role did that experience play in your journey with Chptr?
We created an MVP at the end of last year. I tested it and went into 2021 developing a pitch deck to then go out and raise money because we thought we had it all figured out. My first move was to call a friend to get his gut check on it. He said, I don't think this is a terrible idea, but I don't think you could do it. My biggest question for him was, what do you think I’m missing? And he said, you started out in tech, but you haven’t worked in tech in 18 years. I know you can pitch and build this, but you don't have the resources to make it great. I said, okay, that's a tall order. It turned out he knew Erik Torenberg, On Deck’s founder, and pointed me in the direction of On Deck. I clicked on the link for the Founder Fellowship 36 hours from the application deadline and applied.
I can say that there are probably three or four things in my life that fundamentally changed my course and shaped my thinking. On Deck was one of them. It was unbelievable.
You just raised a $1.1M round to build out your vision for Chptr. What was that experience like?
There are a lot of companies pitching for a lot of money. And most of them are not in the death industry, which you would think would be a good thing for us. But it made things more difficult, because we had two hurdles to get over.
Hurdle number one was finding investors who would invest in a historically uninvestable space. The second part was getting past people's personal fear of the topic. We always ran the risk of somebody feeling uncomfortable about death or the industry of memorialization. It made for an interesting journey.
Our first angel investor was an ODF9 member, Jackson Jhin, former CFO and current SVP Strategy of Cameo. Vijen Patel, who is from ODF10, founder of Pressbox and former CEO of Tide Cleaners, was number two Matt Rutler and Christina Aguilera were three and four. And then a whole slew of incredible angels, like Sarah Lucas. Sugar Capital came in as the biggest investor we brought in on this round. We're the second pre-seed investment they've done in the fund’s history.
The last investor to come in was Gaingels, the largest LGBTQ+ syndicate of investors on the planet, with a focus on diversity in tech. There's a massive diversity issue in memorialization. Right now only 21% of people in the US get a paid published obituary. Of those 21%, the vast majority are old, white, wealthy men and women. The issue is considerably worse globally. Our commitment is to democratize access to memorialization to ensure that nobody’s story is lost. Partners like Gaingels can help us achieve that with the LGBTQ+ community.
You mentioned the death industry is traditionally an uninvestable space? Could you expand on that?
Over the last 200 years, we've become more rooted in this thinking that grieving is quiet, it's isolated, and that showing respect to somebody who's grieving means not engaging with them on the topic of the loss. That goes against everything experts suggest when they're teaching you how to grieve and heal more effectively.
Throughout human history, we were able to thrive on the learnings from past generations, because we celebrated life, we celebrated a passing. We would sit around dinner tables, campfires, or community events, sharing drinks and stories, laughs and tears together. And through those memories, we would ingrain the learnings of the people that we loved into our lives and use those to fuel us moving forward. We’ve stopped all of that — all of it.
The perception has been that the category is uninvestable because it is so uniquely difficult to impact. There's this expectation that you have to behave a certain way, that the rules of how to grieve in American culture are written in stone. In reality, if you take a step back and look at the system and think for a second, the way we grieve only changed around six generations ago. But it’s difficult to explain that to a VC, who might not be familiar with the history of grieving or the death industry, in a 30 minute pitch with time for questions and time to explain the business model — it’s hard. It's different than going in and saying, hey, we're a fintech company rooted in blockchain.
COVID-19 left us all isolated, unable to attend funerals in person. Did this help you shift this perception and get your idea in front of people?
We're by no means the first attempt at disrupting the memorialization space, but I do think we have the best timing. That we’ve stopped living in the same neighborhoods as our parents and our grandparents is a relatively recent development. We stopped sitting at the same dinner table every single night talking about the past. Then around the 50s, stories that would have evoked a sense of vulnerability in the storyteller or the receiver became less common.
Those social changes hurt us and our ability to capture the memories that we need to thrive. During the pandemic, this idea that we needed to more effectively encapsulate the lives of our loved ones for ourselves and for future generations was amplified in urgency, especially when the ability to congregate was ripped away from us.
With fresh funding under your belt, how are you using the firepower?
We raised a significant round. This allows us to rethink our approach and our ability to go to market more thoughtfully and aggressively than we originally anticipated.. We’re finally in a position where we can grow our team. We’re also fortunate that the mission for the company is landing. We’ve been able to get some incredible minds in the room, and we’re thankful that we were able to do that this early.
With funding and a great team, we can put our foot on the gas and deliver an MVP to the public. We have every intention of iterating very quickly and adding features quickly based on user feedback. It gives us more confidence to go out and show the world what we've believed so deeply for the last 18 months, and arguably for the last 10 years of my career, that there is a societal need. You can't ignore that people are struggling out there.
On the Chptr platform, you will be able to create a repository of information-rich content that, threaded together, gives you a beautiful sense of the spirit of the person, and what impact they had on the world. Ultimately, the vision is that once all that content is collected, people can start threading together those pieces of content to tell their own stories that will be viewable forever.
While we may have all lost the same person, our feelings are unique. And the ability to express this and to do so in really beautiful ways will be the most exciting part of the platform.
Finally, we can give people the lasting memorials that they deserve, a place where you can actually go and feel what a life stood for.
“Sugar Capital is thrilled to be partnering with the Chptr team. Rehan and Perfecto's vision of honoring life’s purpose by democratizing memorialization for all is exactly inline with our mission to invest in the future of commerce.”