A very controversial startup, Eterni.me was called many names from ‘creepy’ to ‘revolutionary’ and received from congratulations and investment offers to death threats.
Marius Ursache, it’s CEO and co-founder is trying to build intelligent avatars based on digital data collected from people — avatars that will be able to answer questions from one’s friends, relatives or other people long after someone passes away.
From the founding of Grapefruit, a Romanian multi-awarded branding and digital agency to the idea that sparked Eterni.me Marius followed his quest as an entrepreneur. While constantly traveling for his projects, he ended up at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), helping Bill Aulet with his latest book.
There’s where his notion of ‘invisible design’ combined with his admiration for Mark Zuckerberg’s genius idea of gathering as much as possible data about people and assorted with his passion for artificial intelligence fostered the idea of a personal avatar that transcends one’s life.
And as you will discover in our interview with Marius, Eterni.me itself is an avatar that keeps evolving as a business as we speak…
How to Web: How do you deliver on a product that got a lot of media attention before it was released? How you live up to the hype and how do you set the right expectations for your potential users?
Marius Ursache: High expectations push you further and faster. It comes probably both from the peer pressure, but also from the confirmation that you’re doing something right. In Eterni.me’s case we received everything from congratulations and investment offers, to death threats.
In tech startups it’s very hard to set the right expectations at the beginning, especially when you don’t have customer validation. You can choose one of two ways: either underpromise and overdeliver, or make users dream along with you and support you in building this dream—which in our case is a long journey.
How did you end up at MIT Center for Entrepreneurship?
I helped my friend and mentor, Bill Aulet, who directs the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, with his latest book “Disciplined Entrepreneurship”. As a result of that collaboration, I launched a new platform for startups and investors, detoolbox.com, which is now used by over 1,000 startups, accelerators and universities around the world. I participated to the MIT Entrepreneurship Development Program in February 2014, then I was invited as a teaching fellow and mentor at MIT for the Global Entrepreneurship Bootcamp in August 2014. Eterni.me is also featured as a case study for an online entrepreneurship course at MITx.
What principles acquired in the MIT Center for Entrepreneurship do you constantly use as a guide in developing Eterni.me or other tech products?
The framework and tools used by MIT startups have yielded a lot of successful companies — among them Hubspot, Kayak or Kiva Systems. It’s a tried and tested process and it became a book last year — Disciplined Entrepreneurship, written by Bill Aulet. It’s complementary to Eric Ries’ Lean Startup and to Alexander Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas.
I think that these three books are the ones that anyone running a startup should read. Paraphrasing Steve Jobs… “Everything else is secondary” (smiles).
Some early reports described your ‘Skype with the Dead’ service as being creepy… Do you think that people will get used to the idea of talking with the great-grandpa’s avatar?
It’s a long journey up to that point. And it’s definitely controversial. I’ve been pointed to a lot of books and movies after launching the Eterni.me idea, and a lot of them present a dystopian vision of the future with this kind of products (I would only remind Charlie Brooks’ Black Mirror, and Caprica TV series). As a matter of fact, the focus is not on the avatar, but on collecting, creating and curating a legacy for (ideally) every human to live from now on.
What will be the business model? Will you charge for the service or will you ‘rent’ or sell the data for marketing and sales purposes?
Currently, we look at charging a monthly subscription fee, for the duration of one’s life. We still have to figure out the right amount that will allow us to preserve this for… eternity. At this stage we don’t want to sell or rent the data for marketing and sales purposes, as we don’t aim for a freemium model.
After 15 years of digital production, marketing and branding in Romania, and plenty of experience with the US model of entrepreneurship, what do you believe that regional and local entrepreneurs have to learn?
I think that even Mark Zuckerberg still has a lot to learn, not to mention us, the other entrepreneurs. It’s important to learn something new every day until you die. And then, maybe a future version of Eterni.me will allow your avatar to continue this learning process in the future. Who knows (smiles)?!
Speaking of learning, which are the attributes of a well designed and well implemented tech product?
I think that a well designed and well implemented tech product is “invisible” as technology and design. When they talk about great products, people don’t tell “wow, it’s a great design” or “it’s an incredible piece of technology”. They say “wow, I got a date so quick”, or “I bought that awesome thing and it was delivered so quick”, or “wow, they even thought about this”.
I could easily give Facebook as an example, but I’m going to refer to a much smaller, less known product, called Refresh (www.refresh.io). I use it to know and remember more things about people I’m meeting. Simply put, it digs for information about those people online (social networks, Google etc.) creates a profile for them and reminds me to read the profile before I’m meeting them.
One thing that really blew me off is that the Refresh app learned (from my Gmail account) when I had the first contact with someone called Paul; after meeting Paul, Refresh suggested me I should thank the person who introduced me to Paul in that first email.
Give us some examples of great tech products made in Romania and why do you think they are successful?
I was amazed by StarTaxi when it showed up. Despite the fact that it copied Uber (and other existing models), and that it was not a great design, what impressed me is the courage to disrupt the taxi industry in Bucharest, by putting the customer first, not the driver, and catering to its needs in the easiest way (the mobile app), with a high degree of trust (ratings). Unfortunately, the company failed to innovate and went into wars with taxi companies (trying to also fight on their turf), and from what I’ve seen, they’re not doing much anymore.
One other app which is made in Romania, but for a British client (and only Romanian app I’m using frequently) is Headspace made by Work in Progress from Cluj. The attention to detail is amazing, and it’s one of those “invisible” apps that delivers a great experience. I couldn’t improve anything on it.