A few years ago, ahead of a scheduled operation, I had to hire an attorney to draw up my last will and testament. Per the hospital's instructions, I was also told to bring a copy of my Advance Directive, or instructions on when to pull the plug. It was scary, grown-up stuff.
As a digital native, it all felt a bit too real. I would have much preferred to sit on my couch, laptop at the ready, with an on-screen AI to talk me through the whole decision-making process and pop it up on the cloud. And that's exactly what former healthcare executive Suelin Chen built in her Boston-based startup, Cake.
Aware that no one is thrilled about planning for the final exit—or having to talk loved ones through their own wishes—Cake is a no-nonsense online tool. You can lay out: how you'd like to go (hospice versus at home or maybe a remote cabin in the woods); who gets your stuff; the music you'd like at your memorial; and more.
You can also specify how you want to be remembered digitally. Perhaps you want to allocate funds for annual site management fees, domain registration, or deputizing someone to ensure a Wiki-profile is factually accurate.
I spoke to Chen to find out more. Here are edited and condensed excerpts from our conversation.
Suelin, how did you come up for the idea behind Cake?
With my background in healthcare and business, I saw not only the high costs involved in end-of-life care, but that in our country people often default to enduring more and more medical procedures without fully understanding the value, or the trade-offs. Three out of four people don't plan for end-of-life, and I get why—the barriers to planning can be really high. Simply put, I saw an opportunity to help people plan better, to make their desires known, before it's too late.
Because they're too incapacitated to make their views known?
Right, it's often brought up too late. Because, when surveyed, 80 percent of people would prefer to die at home—and yet, today, 80 percent of people die in medical facilities.
Planning for the final exit is a space ripe for disruption, then.
I knew there could be good digital tools for doing this but I couldn't find any, so I found a great team and built Cake.
Is there also a generational shift? Due to social media, we get to 'see' people die, many of whom we might have lost touch with over the years. Death is going to happen to us all. But it feels more 'visible' now.
Absolutely. We have a lot of millennials on our platform, and we see that this generation is very pragmatic and perceives less stigma about death than older generations. Previous generations have been remembered through a gravestone or something similar. In time, those degrade. But our digital footprint, the traces of our lives, will persist online. I ask people, when your great-grandchildren search online for you in the future, what do you want them to find?
That's a deeply unsettling and yet curiously interesting thought. You must have worked with many different partners to bring Cake to life.
Yes, we've spent hundreds of hours consulting with experts to develop all our online tools including: estate attorneys, funeral planners, physicians, social workers, and wealth managers.
How does Cake work? This is more than a basic will, right?
Yes, many of our users have done estate planning and have a will but realize that they still have gaps. We provide a personalized, comprehensive, and detailed checklist that helps people understand what planning they still need to do. It's hard to know what legal fees are reasonable, because there's a lack of transparency. Many of our users have seen an attorney but want more visibility into the process. It's not just avoiding taxes on your assets after death (though of course this is very important). It's also managing how you want to be remembered, your funeral or memorial service, your digital footprint, your digital assets (Bitcoin, etc.)—certainly doing more than putting all your passwords in an Excel doc and locking it (which has been recommended to several of our users).
How many data points is your AI gathering as it takes a Cake user through personal planning?
It's fluid [and] really depends on the individual. Our Cake AI prompts you with questions, to capture data around many decisions that need to be made. But there's also a freeform section for more personal wishes. Some of our users write (almost) novel-length answers to those.
What are some of the more 'out there' requests?
Well, every employee at Cake has gone through the process and one of my team members loves the idea of having a tree planted for him. A lot of our users, including me, feel they'd rather have a celebration of life than a somber funeral. One of our users wants to be buried with a 6-pack of Bud Lite. Someone else I know has left instructions to rent out a movie theater for his. Your last wishes should be a true expression of who you are.
How many people have signed up so far?
We don't reveal exact user numbers.
Fair enough. It's free to users, so what's your revenue model?
We make money from affiliate links and from enterprise partners who distribute to their population. For example, we've built a Cake back-end for a large healthcare provider, an insurer, a bank, and other institutions. A premium product is also in the works.
You don't share data with 'interested parties' who might want to sell fancy urns then?
No, trust is the most important thing to us. We will never sell or share personally identifiable information with any third party without our users consent.
Why the name Cake?
It's a warm, inviting symbol of celebrating and honoring life. Planning is a positive act, a true gift to your loved ones.
You've build a web-based service, rather than a mobile app. Why?
It's much faster to iterate and improve the platform, and doesn't require any download. We also know that many of our user base is more comfortable with web apps than downloading native applications.
Do you have a tech team in-house or are you partnering with a digital agency on this build?
All in house! We actually have more female than male techies, who span several generations, which I'm very proud of.
Are you wedded to any particular tech tools?
Choosing Microsoft Azure as our hosting platform made it easy for us to implement excellent security and scalability for our product early on, and our code base heavily utilizes the Microsoft .NET stack as well. We recently also switched our internal IT to Office 365 and were early adopters of Microsoft Teams; so I guess we're fans of Microsoft technologies.
Why are you based in Boston rather than any of the other Silicon cities?
I love Boston. There's a lot of activity in FinTech, MedTech, and healthcare here. It's a great place to be, with plenty of talent and financial support from big institutions.
Finally, what's next for you?
We have an exciting growth plan for 2019, and a number of new partners in the financial sector that will provide new avenues for growth and new opportunities to add features that enable our users to plan and have peace of mind. Cake is in the FinTech cohort of Mass Challenge 2019, which kicks off orientation on Jan. 18. The initiative is aimed at startups which have an enterprise-ready solution, and helps them partner with large organizations. Cake will be working with MassMutual, Fidelity, and AARP Innovation Labs.