The idea for Artifact came about over a beer between friends. I’m one of those friends. The other is Ross, one of my co-founders. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back then there was no company to found— just an idea. Ross’s grandfather had recently died, and he was wishing he’d made time to ask him about his days as a labor organizer in Buffalo.
Ross was thinking about working with a friend to build software that could record stories with his friends and family. Ross lives in San Francisco and works in tech, so this made sense to him.
“But that’s what journalists do,” I said. “Why don’t you hire a journalist?”
I’m a journalist, so this made sense to me.
Ross thought it was a genius idea. I thought it was an obvious idea. Anyway, we decided to do one together.
Ross’s Aunt Cindy was about to turn 59. He called his cousin, Cindy’s son, and told him we wanted to speak with his mom’s three closest friends. I dusted off the podcasting gear I’d needed back when I ran a soccer magazine and arranged a phone call with each of them.
Whatever I was expecting, they surpassed it. Molly told me about meeting Cindy when they were two years old. Jen remembered getting to know Cindy in a French class while they were freshmen at Rutgers. Paula recalled seeing another young mother reading the New York Times and deciding to introduce herself.
I had never met any of these women before. I’d never met Cindy. To this day, we could walk past each other on the street and wouldn’t even recognize each other. (Maybe we have?!) And yet here they were sharing intimate details with a perfect stranger about their friendships with Cindy, who had been there for the big stuff—births and deaths, weddings and divorces, successes and failures. They laughed and cried. The conversations were somehow draining and energizing at the same time.
We tend to remember the details when they’re tied to emotionally resonant moments in our lives. And during these half-hour conversations, I was basically surveying these women about their most important stories. They remembered a surprising level of detail—surprising to both of us. Most of all, their love for Cindy came through loud and clear. I was left with a deep admiration for a person I’d never met. It was a powerful experience.
Still it was nothing compared to what Cindy went through when she heard it for the first time. Following the interviews I had edited the roughly 90 minutes of tape down into a half-hour episode. When Ross’s cousin got out his phone and played the mp3 for Cindy on her birthday, she started crying. And laughing. Later, she said, “You know, you just go through life, you don’t really think about somebody recalling what’s important to them about you, or what you mean to them.”
In the months that followed, Ross found more people for me to interview, and I spent my nights and weekends on the phone with strangers, who gladly told me about their relationships, their lives, their regrets and mistakes and triumphs. I spoke with a grandfather about his memories of generations that his own children and grandchildren would never know. I spoke with friends of a woman who was turning 40 years old—they shared the embarrassing college stories but also expressed how profoundly their lives had been enriched by a decades-long relationship. I spoke with a five-year-old girl about her favorite book, and her grandmother’s cooking, and her parents’ divorce, and where she had hid her mother’s keys, and then she sang her favorite song. (We have a date to catch up again when she’s six, seven, eight, nine....) I spoke with people who had watched a couple reach their 50th anniversary, and I discovered halfway through one of the interviews that the wedding had taken place on the day of the moon landing.
I spoke with the employees and investors of a company that had recently been acquired. Apparently the CEO considered this a middling outcome: better than shutting down, worse than an IPO. The CEO was a friend of Ross’s, who arranged the interviews as a surprise. And after hearing from his co-workers about how meaningful their work and work relationships had been, and from the investors about how highly they regarded his leadership, the CEO told Ross that our little mp3 had completely reoriented the way he viewed the last four years of his life.
I hear some version of this nearly every time I make an Artifact, and it doesn’t matter whether the subject is a business or a family or a relationship or a life story.
What we’ve come to realize is that each of us harbors a deep interest in and affection for the people in our lives, but that our lives contain precious few moments in which it feels natural to let those people know how they make us feel—wedding toasts, for example, but how often do you get to toast your friend at their wedding? (Once, I guess, if things go well.)
We’re on a mission to change that. Today, we think of Artifact as more than a company that conducts interviews. What we do is create the impetus and the environment to share our feelings and experiences with the people that matter to us the most.
Early on, Ross understood that software will make it possible to bring Artifact to millions—connecting professional interviewers like me with our customers at the touch of a button.
This time, I thought it was a genius idea. Ross thought it was pretty obvious.
We teamed up with our technical co-founders, Moncef Biaz and Martin Gouy, whose work makes it painless to collect stories from family, friends, and colleagues. All you have to do is tell us what you want to explore and who you’d like to hear from, and we take care of the scheduling, the interviews, and the editing. At the end, you get a polished podcast at a password-protected web page, ready to share with whomever you like.
You can take Artifact for a spin today, by starting one of your own, right here. If you’re not sure exactly what to do, we’re happy to walk you through the possibilities by phone (415- 792-4001). Sign up for our newsletter so we can keep you updated on our progress in the months and years ahead.
Image: Internet Book Archive