As a co-founder of the peer-to-peer on-demand moving startup Dolly, Chad Wittman was in the business of creating a new way to help people move their stuff. After five years, Wittman has moved on to start his next tech thing, an intimate social platform that he hopes will spur families to move more precious items — their memories — away from places such as Facebook.
Persona is Wittman’s answer for changing the conversation about social media, and collecting the conversations that happen between tighter-knit groups. He began working on the idea as a personal side project about a year ago, and full time after leaving Dolly recently, where he was vice president of product and operations.
Wittman is joined by co-founders Jason Norris, who also helped found Dolly and was a senior software architect there, and Justin Hall, who was head of product operations at Tapcart. Persona is currently collecting a wait list of names and relying on early testers, but an an iOS app will be the initial product released in the coming weeks.
As a relatively new father of two boys, Wittman was motivated to find a better way to share the moments that we all capture for Facebook and Instagram, or that we leave sitting in our phones.
“When I became a parent it was just like, ‘Oh my God, I want to capture every fleeting moment of them saying, ‘I love you’ — hearing that voice and how they say that,” Wittman said. “I was really obsessed with that idea of ‘how do I collect these?’ and I realized that it’s not just about photos, not about videos, but it’s also the stories and the context around that.”
He found that talking to his parents and sharing a story about his children would almost always spur another interesting story, a family memory. He loved the idea of a shared social setting that felt more like a family conversation around the dining table.
And then Wittman’s 72-year-old father Tom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
“I was devastated of course. And I started thinking, ‘I want to collect his story,’” Wittman said. “And what I realized is that if you can use technology to mirror really great conversation around a dining room table, those stories are much deeper than just a photo or video. It might be an audio clip, it might be a story behind it, but it’s all interwoven, and the circle, in my opinion, should be around a family, not just the child.”
Wittman, like others in his generation who’d been on Facebook for more than 10 years, had grown tired of the social giant and the thought that everything had to be broadcast to the entire world. Nowadays he said he uses it more like his white pages, a collection of contacts. And he shakes his head at the scandals that have embroiled the company.
“[Mark] Zuckerberg connected the world, and he let algorithms drive engagement regardless of whether or not they made you feel good or bad. Facebook released their own research to say negative emotional content made you engage more,” Wittman said. “That warpath builds a $500 billion business. I would rather generate a $10 billion business that makes the world better than a $500 billion business that makes the world worse.”
Persona is embracing some key differentiators to set it apart immediately and to make sure that it lasts. The company is being set up as a benefit corporation, meaning that it’s legally committed to higher standards of purpose, accountability and transparency. Memories are going to be stored in a “vault,” which Wittman likens to a bank safe deposit box and which will be secure, private and enduring. Legal trust funds will be used to help ensure that the storage service will be lasting for users in the event that Persona shuts down.
The Persona website has details on an offer for 20 years of storage of 10,000 memories/files or 100 GB of storage (whichever comes first) for a one-time price of $59. If you want another 10,000 memories stored, that’s another $59.
“We all have these photos and videos and stories that are like these little LEGO pieces,” Wittman said. “And we each have these bins of LEGO pieces and we always tell ourselves, ‘Someday I’m gonna do something with these.’ And yet we don’t really do anything with them. What I’m excited about with Persona is how do we give you the box to inspire you and empower you to do collaborative building of your memories and your stories and share them with your loved ones.”
It’s a different motivational and technical path than the one he took with Dolly, where technology was used to physically manipulate the real world, to get an object from point A to point B. Wittman called that type of tech very thoughtful, very in and out, where he wasn’t optimizing for time on site or any KPIs aside from conversion and happiness.
“I built that out for over five years and you learn a lot,” he said of Dolly. “You learn a lot about repeatability and reliability, things like that. What I’m really excited about with Persona is that it’s almost the exact opposite. You get to build this destination, this Disney World. I want you to come to this space. I want you to feel your family’s love. I want you to feel better when you leave this.”
It’s an intriguing concept, both in the moment where family members are posting and reacting to memories, and down the road. Where Wittman’s father, across the country from Seattle, can see his grandsons and add to the storyline of their shared existence. And then there’s the value in the enduring nature of those stored memories, and how those boys will be able to access them via technology, like flipping back through a photo album with enhanced context and voice and more.
“I think we’re the first generation that’s really had to be thoughtful about what do you do with your digital legacy and where does it go and who can you trust with that?” Wittman said. “I think there’s a shot at taking down a Facebook by building something intimate. But in order to do that, I think you have to take a big swing and have good contact.”