Tribute Sells Tears of Joy
The following article by Emma Allen is cross-posted from The New Yorker’s April 18th, 2016 issue.
The other day, Andrew Horn sat on a red exercise ball in his startup’s Williamsburg office, a tricked-out former garage, and explained why he was trying to sell people on the idea of creating eulogies for the living. “I spoke at the Burning Man TEDx two years ago, and the talk was called ‘We Got the Eulogy Wrong,’ ” he said. In a video of the address, he can be seen wearing gold shorts and a Sgt. Pepper jacket, saying, “If we look at the word ‘eulogy,’ it comes from the ancient Greek word eulogia, and eulogia simply means ‘praise.’ ” The desire to be present at one’s own funeral is nothing new. In an era of near-constant mutual affirmation—pause here to check the number of likes on your most recent selfie—why let a little thing like death stand in the way?
In Brooklyn, Horn, who wore a fedora and an enormous gray scarf, launched into the origin story of Tribute, a “living eulogy” video-compilation service that he co-founded last year. (The company’s slogan: “The most meaningful gift on earth.”) When Horn turned twenty-seven, his girlfriend, Miki Agrawal—the C.E.O. of Thinx period underwear—asked his friends and relatives to send her one-minute clips explaining why they loved the birthday boy. She screened them at a surprise party. “I’m sitting there and I see my mom telling me how proud of me she is,” Horn, who is now twenty-nine, said. “And I remember wanting to cry? And holding it back at first. And then I was, like, just let it go.” He bawled for twenty minutes.
Tribute’s precursors include the roast and the Festschrift. Its Web site offers a variety of ways to put together a video montage: for twenty-five dollars, you can make one yourself; for a hundred and twenty-five dollars, a “concierge” will e-mail friends a list of prompts (“What do you admire about Jerry?”), teach them how to film themselves, and edit the love-fest for you. For even more money, Tribute will bring in professional producers and editors. The initial funding (more than eight hundred thousand dollars) came from Kickstarter and angel investors. Horn hopes that Tribute will become the “Hallmark of video messaging”—an industry that he estimates will be worth twenty-seven billion dollars by 2022. (Tribute’s competitors include ThankView video cards and Ditty, which converts text messages into music videos.)
Horn grew up in Hawaii, and planned to go into “night-life stuff,” until, at the age of twenty-two, he had an epiphany—he wanted to help people. He founded a nonprofit that gets children with disabilities involved in sports, then started a sort of Craigslist for the disabled. He met Agrawal on a Summit Series cruise. (“It’s like a modern-day Davos for young creatives,” Horn said.) Four years ago, at Burning Man, they were married, by the Reverend Funk Pocket, on the Bridge to Nowhere. He met Rory Petty, a software engineer and Tribute’s co-founder, in the gym of the condo building in Williamsburg where they both live. “Andrew is the wild yin to my let’s-just-stay-on-the-couch-and-watch-Netflix yang,” Petty said, at Tribute’s office. He wore a sweater with elbow patches.
More than thirteen thousand people have made Tribute videos. Users tend to be female (sixty per cent), and between the ages of eighteen and forty. To watch a number of the videos back to back is to get the sense that the world suffers from a glut of best dads; that humans have yet to comprehend that their most flattering angle is not from below; and that everyone’s apartment is furnished with at least one item from IKEA.
From “Steve’s 60th Birthday”: “You are sixty years of vintage awesomeness and goodness.” From “Who Loves Dr. Nandi?”: “He truly, truly just wants to make the world a better place by encouraging everyone to be their own health hero.” From “Coach Lucy Tribute”: “Thank you for teaching me, um, how to skate backwards faster and shoot better.” From “College Graduation Tribute”: “I miss having our little dance parties! I’m so lonely! Don’t leave me! Just kidding.” The final product can be delivered digitally or on a bamboo thumb drive.
Petty said, “We’ve had people do virtual baby showers from Australia. We’ve had virtual bachelor and bachelorette parties.” They’ve done corporate-recognition videos and a video for a guy who was going to prison for financial malfeasance. At least one Tribute video has been a eulogy in the traditional sense. This was for Dan Fredinburg, an early investor in the company who worked at Google X. Last year, Fredinburg died while climbing Mt. Everest, and hours of footage poured in, which the team cut down to a highlight reel.
Will Correa-Munoz, a Tribute employee, popped out an earbud and told the story of a video he’d made for a friend’s college graduation. He recalled, “Honestly, our type of relationship is, like, ‘bro’—you know, we make fun of each other and stuff. But when he put the U.S.B. in his computer he just started crying. He was hugging me!”
Tribute tracks what Horn and Petty call the “T.O.J. statistic”—“eighty per cent of people reported crying tears of joy,” Horn said. “I can show you the SurveyMonkey right now.” ♦
Emma Allen is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff.