Glen Meakem of FOREVER
An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Glen Meakem, the founder and CEO of FOREVER, which was honored in our:
- 2021 Best Tech Startups in Pittsburgh
- 2020 Best Tech Startups in Pittsburgh
- 2019 Best Tech Startups in Pittsburgh
- 2018 Best Tech Startups in Pittsburgh
Tell us the origin story of FOREVER – what problem were you trying to solve and why?
My passion for preserving family memories goes back to the summer of 1991, when I returned from serving as a U.S. Army officer in the First Gulf War. I had been deployed in the Middle East for many months, so my wife, Diane, and I took two months off to get to know each other again. We had very little money, so we just drove around the eastern United States visiting our families. And, in the process, we collected old documents and photographs and recorded videos of our grandparents (who were still alive) talking about their lives, beliefs, and values. Then, over the next ten years, Diane and I had five children, and of course, we made many memories with them.
Over the years, I was busy with my career as an entrepreneur and Diane was really busy raising five kids. So, after many years, we realized that our memories were everywhere – physical scrapbooks, boxes, old films and video tapes, temporary cloud storage accounts, internet sites, cell phones, old computers, etc. Some of these memories were already being lost because of device failures, expiring accounts, losses during moves, and general disorganization. So, in 2012 I researched the issue further and concluded that for our family memories to be safely saved and shared for generations into the future, they would have to be stored in the internet cloud. But, when I looked at specific service providers, I discovered that literally every internet or cloud service available was temporary and would DELETE my family memories under many circumstances. So, in 2012, I incorporated a new company, FOREVER, and in 2013, my team and I launched forever.com.
What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?
There were two big early hurdles: one involving our software, and the second involving client acquisition.
Regarding the first hurdle, my team and I learned fast that it is much harder to build software for consumers than for businesses. At my first internet company, FreeMarkets, my team and I invented and deployed the first commercial business-to-business e-auction platform. Our software worked really well, and we were constantly making improvements, but if our users were confused or something was not clear, we could directly train and coach them because our large enterprise contracts with our business clients included training and supporting services. And our users had to learn: it was part of their jobs. As a result, we could train them through any misunderstandings or usability issues.
At FOREVER, we found that we had a very short time with any new consumer client who visited us at forever.com. If she did not love the software and understand it quickly, we would lose her. So, whether deployed by web or mobile, our software had to be really fast, really clear, and really easy to use. And this requirement was true across our broad offering – from uploading, saving, and sharing memories, to designing and printing photobooks. We powered through this hurdle, but it took us much longer and cost us much more to scope, build out, test, and then improve and expand our platform than I had originally thought. The good news is that we succeeded, and we continue to succeed every day. The entire FOREVER® memory keeping software platform is now really fast, really good, and keeps getting better and better, and our clients love it.
The second hurdle was that the whole idea of FOREVER was completely new and complex and required explanation. Consumers were not aware of any memory keeping service in the cloud that was explicitly trustworthy and permanent, with no advertising, no datamining, and guaranteed for generations. Our brand was completely unknown, and these were new concepts that required more explanation and trust building than we could provide in short advertisements. As a result, we were failing to convert new paying clients with traditional and digital marketing techniques. We did find, however, that when we were able to sit down with someone who cared about family memory keeping (usually a mom), and explain FOREVER to her for twenty minutes, we would often make a sale. So, we had a to find a way to have thousands upon thousands of trust building, twenty-minute conversations at scale. We succeeded at this by building a commission-only affiliate sales force. We call these digital memory keeping professionals FOREVER® Ambassadors, and we now have over 2,500 of them across five countries (and growing fast).
What does the future hold for FOREVER?
We address a really large market of mothers and fathers all over the world who care about their family memories. All of these people need a safe, permanent, and trustworthy place to save, organize, and share their memories today and for generations. We are currently serving close to 100,000 of these people in five countries, but our mission and our destiny is to serve many, many millions worldwide. The result is that we are going to build FOREVER into a big, successful, and permanent business that will successfully serve our clients for many generations into the future. This growth and success will also make FOREVER very valuable, earning our shareholders a GREAT return on their investments.
What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Pittsburgh?
I think that many exciting early and later stage tech companies are growing in Pittsburgh. But the truth is that when I built and then took my first internet company (FreeMarkets) public on the NASDAQ Exchange, I was not concerned about being part of the Pittsburgh “tech startup scene”. I was concerned about serving our clients and building a great company. Today, I feel the same way. My team and I believe that our mission at FOREVER is really unique and really important, and we are working hard every day to build a great company that succeeds in delivering for our clients. I am a native New Yorker, but I have lived and built businesses here in Pittsburgh for twenty-five years. I love and am loyal to Pittsburgh, but I am focused on building a great company and serving people all over the world. The “tech startup scene” will take care of itself.
What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
That is a big question that I could and should write a book to answer, but in this short space, I will point out three pieces of advice to any aspiring entrepreneur.
First, make sure you are completely passionate about and committed to your idea. If you begin the journey of starting and building a business, particularly a new tech business, many people will doubt you. If you are not totally committed, you will not succeed.
Second, be realistic. Success in business requires realistic assessment of facts, not “theories” and “narratives”, but actual facts. Hype can work for a short time, and excellent strategic vision is a must, but to be successful over the long term, you must make correct decisions in the real world.
Third, know that you are going to face many difficulties and that to succeed you will need to overcome them. The question is not “what will you do if you get knocked down?”. The question is “how fast and strong will you get back up when you get knocked down?”.