What if your family tree could talk?

Amelia Lin has always been fascinated by her parents’ backgrounds and how they grew up. So she set out to preserve their stories.

“I literally begged my parents to record their stories,” says Amelia on an episode of Between 2 Mics. “I didn’t know in what form or fashion, but I had always known that I wanted their stories to be safe for my future kids.”

She had no idea at the time, but by recording the narratives of her family tree, she was simultaneously planting the seed for a new business.

While working on her parents’ stories, she shared the experience with friends and coworkers.

“I just got so much more interest than I was expecting,” Amelia says.

Friends would tell her how they wanted to do something similar and asked for details about her process. Turns out, lots of people want a way to preserve their loved ones’ oral histories.

“I thought I was the only mushy, sentimental one that wanted something like this,” she explains.

With the demand in focus, Amelia, who has a degree from Harvard Business School and spent years working in tech, set out to build a company that produces stories from family members.

She created Keep Life Stories in 2018.

Here’s how it works: the Keep Life Stories team sends questions prompting loved ones to recall memories from the past. People answer by calling a special phone number which records their stories.

“No app needed,” she explains.

The audio storybooks are then saved and shared privately with family members. “The end experience is basically like getting a podcast of your grandma’s childhood stories,” Amelia says.

Here’s how Amelia is building a company that marries our appetite for podcasts with the stories of our roots.

Audio Is the Most Intimate Medium

Amelia says she “fell into podcasting” almost by accident. In fact, the very first version of Keep Life Stories was a book of transcripts that didn’t involve audio at all.

“Families started asking us, ‘Hey, this is really great, but can actually get the recordings of my mom. I’d love to hear her voice,’” remembers Amelia. “That was an aha moment for us.”

Amelia explored using video, but nixed the idea for two main reasons:

  1. “It was definitely more technologically complicated for older people to set up on their own,” she says.
  2. “Even more importantly, it just made people really self conscious, especially older women.”

Amelia soon discovered that recording conversations on an easy-to-use telephone line made practical sense for their older target audience. And it was easy, too — anyone can make a call from the comfort of their pajamas.

But best of all, says Amelia, audio works because it’s the most intimate and engaging storytelling tool.

“When people started asking for the recordings, we thought: there’s something here. And when you listen to the recordings, it made sense,” she says. “It was so much more emotionally powerful to hear that person talking.”

After two to three months of testing and gathering user feedback, Amelia declared audio her channel of choice.

“It’s a perfect medium for storytelling.”

If There’s a Key to Success, It Just Might Be Feedback

Amelia credits her quick success with one simple philosophy, which she applies to both business and the creative world of podcasting.

“I’m a really big believer in moving fast and getting something out the door just to get reactions to it,” says Amelia.  “There’s a tendency to want to get everything perfect — like creating the perfect baby.”

Sure, making stuff is super nerve-wracking. But Amelia urges people to push through the discomfort and get out there — fast. “If you’re embarrassed about it, get over it and just see how people react,” she says. “You’re gonna learn so much more from it.”

Amelia isn’t just paying lip service to her hard-core approach to innovation; it took her only two weeks to launch Keep Life Stories in beta. The quick turnaround time meant the product had “no user interface to speak of,” and the early stage of the company included tons of manual labor on the backend. Though that work was tedious, Amelia says it was instrumental in “immediately getting people testing.”

“We’ve learned so much from the families that we work with,” she says. “I swear, it’s like everything about the current product came directly from our users’ feedback in one way or another.”

In fact, that feedback also led Amelia to distribute the audio as podcasts. When people started asking for the audio via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast distribution channels, Amelia realized she needed to meet the users where they were already consuming their audio.

“We live in a day and age where there’s now a mainstream way that people listen to longform audio in their pockets,” she says. “That’s really interesting to me.”

Use Your Competitive Edge

Despite the crowded podcasting market, Keep Life Stories’ has a distinct competitive advantage: their service is unique.

“You can hire somebody to interview your grandpa and write a memoir. That service on average costs about $10,000 per person,” explains Amelia. “As you can imagine, that’s not very accessible for the average family. And it’s a pretty particular clientele who can afford that.”

Initially, Amelia says that posed a challenge while trying to lock down their price points. But ultimately, it helped her set the company apart: “Our goal is to make it accessible,” she says.

To test different price points, she ran small Facebook ad tests. She also took cues from similar businesses that sell services designed for seniors.

“The majority of our purchases are by people buying [the service] for someone else, not for themselves,” explains Amelia.

“Everybody thinks their own story is boring, and I think we all undervalue how interesting our stories may be to other people.”

Amelia soon learned that family members were “nominating” each other to use the service, while a “disproportionate amount” of users were purchasing it as a gift to celebrate birthdays, Mother’s Day, anniversaries and reunions.

“That was very much a pattern we were seeing,” Amelia explains. “They’re not buying it for themselves to use. This is a way to honor somebody important in their lives.”

Prioritize Accessibility Now, Adaption Later

As the business continues to grow, Amelia says she’s able to keep costs and labor to a minimum by doing “almost zero post-production” on current audio diaries.

“In fact, we almost never get requests for additional post production,” she explains. “And I think that that’s because of the type of material that we’re recording.”

Amelia remembers the early days when she was interviewing her own dad, who would agonize over “pre-editing and censoring himself to get the story just right.” She wanted him to speak naturally, and it turns out users feel the same.

“With the type of material we record, people want it to be authentic and genuine,” she says. “‘Don’t don’t make my grandpa sound like something he isn’t. That’s his accent, he’s got those mannerisms, and that’s how he is.’”

Amelia says it can be tough to “walk the tightrope” between making easy, accessible audio diaries and high-quality, polished podcasts. For now, they’ve chosen to prioritize accessibility.

Looking ahead, Amelia says the company might eventually offer the service as an app.  For now, Keep Life Stories is trying to navigate the ins and outs of integration, privacy and syndication.

“The product is still so new and it’s changing in so many ways,” says Amelia.

“I’m sure we’re only halfway there. I’m sure we’re going to learn so many other things in the next couple of months. My priority is to keep bringing on people who want to give it a try and who want to help us learn so that we can keep adding features and making it better and better.”