Pass It Down hopes to make preserving life stories easier

Authored By chloe.morrison

What important memories, what history, die when people do? What would you ask your mother about her childhood before she forgets? What history do living people possess that isn’t being documented and eventually could be lost forever?

These are the kinds of questions that entrepreneur Chris Cummings has been asking himself for years. And it’s what drove him to create Pass It Down, a digital storytelling platform that makes it easy to document anecdotes and memories through video, audio, photos and text, he said. 

“I feel like the greatest loss is when a story is not captured,” Cummings, who is also the CEO of SwiftWing Ventures, said. “It’s just gone.”

Personal motivation for Pass It Down
Cummings’ mother was sick from the day he was born. She had multiple sclerosis.

“She got it when she was 23; she was in her senior year of college, about to be a teacher, and she woke up and couldn’t move one day,” he said. 

That was in the 1980s, when doctors knew less about the unpredictable and often-debilitating disease, which affects the central nervous system, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Seven and eight years after her diagnosis, Cummings’ mother had two boys. By the time Cummings was 17, he was his mother’s power of attorney, he said. 

“I think the realization I had at some point was that I didn’t get to know all the stuff you want to know about your mom … those little things because her dementia had progressed,” he said. 

Fast facts

-The design of the platform has been created with older people in mind. The text is larger than other websites, and the directions are meant to easily guide people through the process. 

-Pass It Down is working on an app and has all the designs for that laid out.

-The team started developing the product in February 2015, although Cummings had the vision years ago.

-So far, the trend has been that people using computers document memories in long-form blogs and photos, while those using phones tend to use more video. 

Source: Chris Cummings 

Cummings remembers a woman who was in the nursing home with his mother who had played with Louisiana’s legendary Gov. Huey Long as a child. He’s not sure anyone ever documented the memories of what it was like growing up with the U.S. senator and governor who was ready for a presidential run when he was assassinated. 

How it works, genealogy component 
Cummings worked with Louisiana State University’s oral history department to come up with questions for the platform. 

“The idea is that we break questions down by a story, which is actually within the methodology of what you’re supposed to do, and the reason why is that you’re supposed to ask someone a question and then shut up, essentially,” Cummings said. “So you just let someone get out everything they have to say without causing them to diverge or go off topic.”

Questions include, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” or “What did you want to be when you grew up?”; “What four people would you trust with your life?”; “Where were you during 9/11?” 

The questions are broken down into categories, which makes targeted advertising ideal. The service will be free, paid for by advertising. So, for instance, on a question about 9/11, there might be ads for related memorabilia, Cummings said. 

And the stories can be kept personal like a diary, or they can be shared with friends or with the public.

So citizens worldwide could share their thoughts about 9/11 or the more recent terrorist attacks in Paris. And Pass It Down would capture points of views from around the world and put them side by side.  

Families could use it for personal projects, or individuals could choose not to share it with others. 

Organizers of major genealogy conference RootsTech recently invited Pass It Down to attend. Cummings said the conference is the largest in the world and that more than 50,000 people attended. 

Most people at RootsTech understood what Pass It Down is about. But it surprised Cummings that occasionally people would say something like, “Oh, I only care about genealogy. I don’t have a story to tell.” 

Cummings thinks that everyone has a story to share. And genealogy focuses on the past. 

If you could choose between seeing records from decades past that only offer small details about bygone lives or hearing/seeing/reading full stories about those lives, what would you choose? 

Cummings is betting that people would choose to hear, see and read the full stories. 

Ramping up, what’s next  
A private investor gave Pass It Down about $250,000 to get started. And the country’s “fastest-growing tech conference” Collision has invited Pass It Down to attend this year in New Orleans. 

In two years, Collision has grown to draw more than 7,500 attendees from at least 50 countries. CEOs from startups and large companies join investors and members of the media for the event, according to the Collision website. 

“So we’re now at a point where Collision for us is a big deal to be able to raise our next round [of funding] and to be able to grow from there,” Cummings said. 

He’s also talking with several companies about partnerships for print books and DVDs, because some people still want tangible products. 

Cummings also wants to partner with schools and museums. 

Instead of teachers assigning a middle school student to interview their grandparent and write it down, what if they could easily capture audio and video as well as text?

“Museums want to set this up as a way to be able to capture [people as they come through],” he said. “My hope is to someday be set up in every museum in the country and capture those stories.”