Supporting student founders like Zack Banack at Afterbox.
For more than a decade Lightspeed’s Summer Fellowship program has supported entrepreneurship among current university students. We offer teams money ($15k per team member plus $5k for the team), workspace at our offices in Silicon Valley, hands on training and mentorship as they work over the summer on their business ideas.
Unlike incubators, we take no equity from these companies. We only ask that they commit to the startup idea 100% for the 10 weeks of the program. We simply hope to see these students choose to embrace a life of entrepreneurship, to accept that they can found or work for a startup right away. They don’t need to take a safe job at a big company like Google or Oracle on graduation.
We believe there should be more entrepreneurs in the world. If more recent or soon to be graduates could try startup life before making a more permanent decision, perhaps there will be.
Over 280 people have been Summer Fellows since we started. They have gone on to start over 100 companies; just the ones starting with P include Pinterest, Pulse and PeerCDN. Collectively these companies have raised over $1.8bn, while others have been acquired by companies ranging from Yahoo to Salesforce to Apple to LinkedIn.
When we met Zack Banack on Planet of the Apps, we thought that he would be a terrific candidate for our summer fellowship. His enthusiasm and energy had gotten him a long way. He had built a compelling prototype and had a clear vision for what Afterbox could be. But he definitely could benefit from some guidance and time to turn his prototype into a real product. So we invited him into our program, and to recruit a cofounder to work with him. It is lonely to be a solo founder.
Over the course of the summer Zack and his cofounder Noah Chrysler have labored mightily to build an app and have it ready for their premier on Planet of the Apps. They learned some hard lessons along the way, they had to make tradeoffs, they found that sometimes their vision didn’t match up with what their users actually wanted. But they persevered, and after many sleepless nights they are launching their app! And we’re glad to have been able to put them on the first steps of an entrepreneurial journey that will hopefully last a very long time.
I sat down with Zack recently to chat about his background and Afterbox:
Jeremy: What’s your background and how did it inform your idea for Afterbox?
Zack: This Fall, I begin my fourth year at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York. Starting as a Computer and Network Security Major, I’m now taking Business courses.
Like an overwhelming majority of college-aged entrepreneurs, I taught myself how to code at a younger age (12). I grew up with a wild imagination and a Nintendo 64, fascinated by video games. Fast-forward ten years and I now have 40 games under my belt, played over 2,000,000 cumulatively.
The more I made games, the more I understood the power behind programming. I shifted focus into software and application development. Starting small, I wrote a program to simulate my handwriting which helped me get through my writing-intensive AP World course junior year of high school. In fact, it worked so well my teacher never caught on. If you’re reading this, sorry Mr. Frear! Senior year of high school I creatively used the Yahoo! Weather API and a hand-crafted algorithm to predict snow days in school districts on the East Coast. It won me the Technology Alliance of Central New York’s Student Technologist of the Year award in 2014.
The scope of my projects were always growing bigger, so it was only a matter of time until something the size of Afterbox came into my life. I thought I could single-handedly handle the ambitiousness it brought, but I quickly realized I needed more manpower. Being on Planet of the Apps gave me a necessary perspective shift and the resources I needed to build something big and long-lasting.
Jeremy: How did you get the idea for this app? Do you have a personal story that was the impetus?
Zack: Freshman year of college, 2014, I befriended a floor-mate named Matthew. I was drawn to his satirical sense of humor and inviting personality. His wittiness could put a smile on anyone’s face, regardless of the day they were having. But most important, his heart was always in the right place. Suffice it to say, he quickly became the greatest friend I’ve ever had. We decided to live together as sophomores and continue building off the solid foundation we established the year before, never skipping a beat.
Then, he died.
My world changed in an instant. While I only knew of Matthew for 18 months, one would think we were friends since childhood. Despite the bond between us, there was still so much that I didn’t know about him. From the universe-sized questions such as “What is your ultimate goal in life,” to the smaller questions like, “What did you think about the movie Dr. Strangelove?”. I now wanted to know so much more about this man. But it was too late. There were no more laters, there were no more afters.
In early 2016, with Matthew’s passing still fresh in my mind, I got the idea for Afterbox. Originally called Legacy Log, I wanted to craft a diary-like service where information could be distributed in the event of a death. Day-to-day facilitation of conversation is important and should not be postponed until after it’s too late; and that’s not the goal of Afterbox. Being able to rest easy knowing that your important, sensitive information will reach the hands of those you want it to in the event something happens to you is the ultimate assurance. If used over the span of a lifetime, an Afterbox can be a treasure trove of personality and insight into a life.
Intimate self-reflection and expression is filtered and skewed on public social media. Afterbox is a modern journal you want people to read. It’s legacy-defining. I wish Matthew used Afterbox.
Jeremy: Who is AfterBox for?
Zack: Throughout the development of Afterbox, our team had many hypotheses regarding who would be the most receptive to the service. The Lightspeed Venture Partners Summer Fellowship program has challenged us to more closely analyze who our target demographic is. This has been difficult, both in terms of accuracy and gut.
We crafted a survey for social media sharing, accompanied by an Afterbox demo video, asking the questions we wanted the answers to. One of the questions we asked was “Describe the person you think would find the most value in the service shown”. “Parents” was the most dominant answer, coming from dozens of people ages 15 to 65+. Further iterations of our approach and over a hundred conversations later and arrived at our most receptive target user — new mothers, aged 25–34, who have experienced a death of a parent or grandparent, love Afterbox. At face value, this makes sense: new mothers possess assets, liabilities, and want to alleviate the hardships of death that they were exposed to through a close relative passing. This target was specific and was the embodiment of many hypotheses. We are further building this profile to find more specific attributes.
The journey to find the target user of Afterbox is perhaps one of my biggest takeaways of the Summer Fellowship program. From now on, whenever I’m at a party and I hear someone talking about their “big idea,” I’m going to ask them a simple question: who is desperate for your service? Knowing the answer to this gives you a big advantage to stay afloat in the ever-growing startup sea.
Jeremy: What benefit do you provide that’s relevant to the customer and their pain?
Zack: Over 50% of the United States is without a Last Will and Testament. Afterbox covers not only the legal side of death, but also the personal side. The first versions of Afterbox differ from the beta that appeared on Planet of the Apps. The product will grow over time, and we have a rich roadmap planned out with exciting features I cannot wait to begin implementing.
Jeremy: What was it like to work with your celebrity mentor?
Zack: I was hoping to work with Gwyneth on Planet of the Apps ever since I knew who the celebrity mentors would be. It wasn’t that I liked her more than the others, per se, but I just had some feeling that she would be most receptive of the idea I had. When I saw that she red-lighted me, I was disheartened. Thankfully, Gary saved the day, allowed me to showcase the prototype, and ultimately presented me with the chance to be where I am today, eight months later. Alas, I managed to convince Gwyneth to join team Afterbox during my demo. Working with Gwyneth was a wholesome experience. She helped me take Afterbox to the next level through her guidance and networking, all while resonating a motherly sense of comfort. Throughout the duration of the show, her words stuck with me: “I wish my father could have used something like this.” This was, and continues to be, one of the big drivers of my perseverance: a rich reason for Afterbox to exist.
Jeremy: What does success look like to you?
Zack: One aspect of success, to me, is when I get an email from a fourteen-year-old who says “I look up to you” or “I want to do exactly what you’re doing”. It means I’m doing something right. I fondly remember back when I was on the other side of the screen, when I would send these emails. Several times in my life I’ve received these messages, and each and every one means the world to me. Success, to me, isn’t necessarily becoming a household name or building a billion-dollar brand. Rather, success is purpose.
Jeremy: What do you feel you’ve learned while working with Lightspeed?
Zack: I chose to take Lightspeed up on their Fellowship offer because they saw faith in me and my idea. Rather than dismiss Afterbox for its flaws, they chose to give me a platform to work through them. And for that, I am grateful.