“Hello!” is harder than “R.I.P.”

Nikolay Tsenkov
The Startup
Published in
14 min readNov 26, 2018

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… and it’s time we change that.

Source: unsplash

TL;DR.

I lost people before I was able to express my gratitude towards them. Changing my own ways was the first step I took, but I realized the problem was much larger: we express our gratitude and admiration towards the influencers and people we look up to, on average, less than once a year. It remains mostly unexpressed, locked by culture and completely underserved by technology. So much so that “Hello!” is (often) harder to say than “R.I.P.”.

I believe technology holds the answer and I’ve built something to allow this positivity to flow. We are launching soon and you can subscribe (or not) here: https://www.producthunt.com/upcoming/uchanged-me

May 2011

I remember learning the news that my favorite high school teacher had passed away. My mom called and told me.

Located very close to the border with Serbia, Kula (population 3000) is the small Bulgarian town I grew up in. My parents still live there and whenever something that significant happens, in a couple of hours the whole community knows about it. A day later, all of the sons and daughters who moved away, find out as well.

I was in that 2nd group of people, but my mom called me just quick-enough that I was able to pack a bag and catch the last train home, so I could attend the funeral…

I was the only one awake in the dark carriage of the train. Couldn’t fall asleep for a minute and I spent the night thinking of all the wisdom this person instilled in me… I remembered the times he took me and my teammates to the nationals in Programming in the capital city of Sofia and the many hours we spent working on problems in the school’s computer lab.

His name was Yordan Yonchev and he was a talented mathematician (way beyond high school teacher’s level), a chess grandmaster, one of the first computer programmers in the country (or the world for that matter), a poet, radio & electronics hobbyist and an infinite learner who chose the small town, purposefully, so he could learn, teach, raise a family and spend his life in peace. Always learning new things, never bothered about thoughts of grandeur.

When I arrived, the ceremony had already begun and hundreds of people had shown up to pay their final respects. I entered the room and I immediately saw a modest-looking coffin and there he was… showered with beautiful flowers, laid on his chest in pairs, and he looked… like he was asleep…like if someone cried just a little bit louder, he would wake up, wipe the tears off our faces and tell us all one of his finest jokes. He looked peaceful.

That room, though, was anything but peaceful. I had attended funerals before, but something in there was very different from anything I’ve experienced in my life.

The moment I set foot inside, I suddenly felt… a weight on my shoulders, on my head, in my chest and heart… so heavy, that it made it hard to breathe. As I slowly started walking towards him, I felt this weight was crushing me and it wasn’t just weight… I felt pain. I remember thinking: “It’s almost as if I can feel every bit of sorrow in this room! Every cry, every tear that hit the floor.”. It all resonated with me. It was soul-crushing.

Within seconds my eyes filled with tears and my chest started pulsating uncontrollably, trying to get that sound of cry out of me. I couldn’t control any of it.

In this very moment, I asked myself — here I am, crying my eyes out, but have I ever actually told this person how grateful I was to him, while he was still alive and well? I quickly realized that I never did…

How could this be? The minute I learned of his passing: I packed a bag, traveled all night, and attended his funeral. Yet, when it actually (would’ve) mattered to him — I never took the time?

I felt awful. This person had a tremendous influence on me, I respected him so much, but I never told him…I felt like the biggest hypocrite in the world…

This experience changed me. I said to myself — from now on, I will always pay respect where and when respect is due.

June 2018

Me and my girlfriend (Vesi) live in a tiny apartment here in Sofia, Bulgaria. I am recording my daily entry to a vlog I just started a couple of weeks ago and I’m almost done with it. Vesi is getting ready to go out with me. It’s my birthday, and I’ve asked for a very special gift this year…

It’s a beautiful morning, the sun is shining outside and it’s a little bit chilly — a perfect day for going out, walking around the city, people watching while sipping on an espresso, from a seat in a cozy coffee shop in the city center.

I’m done with the vlog, but I have to get my laptop with me, a notebook & pen, headphones, etc. it doesn’t really look like preparation for a birthday party. It kind of looks like we are getting ready to go to work.

That’s because we are! The gift I asked for — Vesi is spending the weekend with me, working from a coffee shop, on an idea of my choosing and we are going to launch this project together, the following Monday!

I was heavily burned out. Over a year and a half of my life and soul went into this project, which had not been released yet, nor it was going to be anytime soon… I desperately needed the break. I hadn’t brought a lot of money home during that time and I didn’t want Vesi to buy anything for me, but looking back, even if we had all the money in the world, this weekend still would’ve been the best birthday present, ever!

May 2017

It’s an evening after a long day at work and I am scrolling through Facebook on my phone. Suddenly, a bunch of R.I.P. notes flooded my feed and I find out some really bad news — Chris Cornell has committed suicide…

Original image source

It came like a shock to me… I am a big fan of his music and at first, I couldn’t understand how such a talented person, who has achieved so much in life, was still very active and likely had many more years in him… would decide to end his life. Depression has taken another one of our greats…

All of a sudden my social feed became all about Chris… probably for at least a few days. People were posting R.I.P. messages, cards and videos of ballads songs he has singed…

Original image source

2 months later Chester Bennington killed himself… He was a friend of Chris’, performed on his memorial and he committed suicide on the exact date of what would’ve been Chris’ 53rd birthday… the connection was obvious and painful…

This resulted in an even bigger wave of sadness and R.I.P. posts. People even started analyzing signs that he had decided to take his life much before the actual suicide.

But no matter what they posted or said, one thing was for sure — they were all sad about Chester and wanted to share how much they appreciated him, but they were, also, too late

This reminded me so much of my teacher’s passing. And I’ve already made the change to always reward people who have been good to me, whenever those people were my partners, peers, friends and my family. But until this time I have never thought about “How am I expressing my gratitude towards people who know nothing about me?”.

Then it hit me: if, in his final hours, Chester wanted to check how people felt about him — where does he look? Is it Wikipedia, aiming at cold objectivity trimming away the only thing an artist looks for (that thing, being the emotional response of a crowd)? Is it Facebook where people post about anything and everything, so it’s virtually impossible to find a specific type of content? Is it the media, which over-amplifies every bit of news they cover (positive or negative)?

Then I unwrapped that thought even further — let’s say stars get their (un)fair amount of support (and I am pretty sure that’s not true) — where do regular people facing such a decision, look for emotional support or evidence of their own self-worth? There is no Wikipedia page or a magazine cover for everyone… Yet anyone can get depressed and when you get depressed — you forget how much do other people love you. You forget that your heartbeat means something to someone out there…

This changed me. I started asking myself: ”Why doesn’t such a place exist?”…

Back to my Birthday

Original image source

We found a nice little coffee shop with some great reviews. The place served a tasty 100% Arabica coffee, it had a very warm Americana type-of atmosphere, power outlets, comfortable chairs, and a pretty good wifi. We quickly found a cozy spot to unpack and got to work.

The first thing we needed to do was to figure out: what do we want to work on? But to be honest, way before we left the apartment I knew exactly what that is. In my (now) 31 years on this Earth, I’ve noticed and observed a ubiquitous problem in the world, which I haven’t seen anyone trying to really tackle or deal with.

I’ve known about this problem for a long time, but it always felt like… like I am not the right person to solve it. And I wasn’t that person… until I was.

The project’s codename was “be4ugo” and just days earlier something has happened which convinced me that this problem:

  1. Is still there and relevant;
  2. No one is even walking the path to solving it;
  3. I have the personal connection to it, the life experience, and the technical expertise to be the one to try and solve it.

11 Days earlier…

… a young, rising star rapper was shot dead in his car, during a robbery in front of a car dealership in Florida, US. As a kid who grew up in the projects, even when he became famous and started getting money, he was still doing much of his daily transactions in cash. The Police reported the robbers stole $50k from his car, which he had just withdrawn from an ATM or a bank earlier this day.

At this point, I haven’t really heard all that much of his music. To be honest, the only thing I knew him by, was a very serious look from an incarceration mugshot that was released of him, not too long ago and the fact that he was awaiting trial on charges of abuse of his pregnant girlfriend. This information alone was like a wall, which did not allow me to be more interested in this person.

When I heard of his passing, though, my curiosity spiked and made me go and check his music out. I was stunned

The last album that he had released, was showing signs of a real greatness. But what shocked me the most was when I learned a little bit more about him, the 2 sides of the whole girlfriend situation and how he was taking the necessary steps to be a better person during the final days of his life.

Before the world found out about his efforts, though — he was gone… He passed away at 20 years of age…

In the days after his passing, his Instagram followers would increase with numbers, which previously took him years to collect. The same thing happened to his other social accounts and his streaming numbers & record sales.

That rapper was XXXTentacion.

Original image source

I started looking for similar spikes in posthumous interest and I noticed an obvious pattern:

XXXTentacion’s Amazon Album Sales Skyrocket More Than 700,000% Following His Death
Forbes

Linkin Park’s U.S. Music Sales Rise 5,332% After Death of Chester Bennington
Billboard

Chris Cornell Sales & Streams Up 552 Percent Following His Death
Billboard

A few months later, Aretha Franklin passed away and the same thing happened to her numbers.

Aretha Franklin’s music tops iTunes, spikes on Spotify after legend’s death
USA Today

It was yet another confirmation that we all feel grateful to people, but most of those positive feelings — we never express; express too late; or we even forget about them, all together.

I am sure most of us have witnessed all 3. Unfortunately, I also believe…

Most of us HAVE DONE all 3

Does that mean we are all bad people? I don’t think so. I think it means, that all of us just share a common problem.

Ever since I lost people, before I was able to tell them how much they meant to me, I started changing my own ways, making sure I always reward people who’ve been good to me. But when I realized how much more widespread and deep this problem is AND that no one is willing to go and work on it — I decided that my effort is not enough! I had to do something about it on a bigger scale than just me.

The Idea

In time, I formed this idea about a place on the Internet, where you can always take a look at the good things you have done in your life and where you can always reward the people who mean most to you.

And what better way is there to document those good deeds, than having the people who benefitted from them, write about their own gratitude.

So we had an idea, now comes the hard part…

Back to the coffee shop

A shot of one of the art pieces in the coffee shop.

Back in that coffee shop, on my birthday, our plan was simple — create a website, where people can express their gratitude towards their influencers and benefactors. Release this website before the weekend was over.

We first came up with an available name for the project (“be4ugo” was already taken and a little bit grim, to be honest) by checking trademarks online. In the first hour, the name of the project became,
You Changed Me (and the domain we bought that same day, was uchanged.me).

When we started, I was pretty sure that if we can’t get enough users on day #1 (the classical chicken-and-egg type-of problem), we could at least fill the database with a large number of famous people’s names and roles, that we might find a free source for.

While I was drawing the mockups for the website, Vesi searched for a free database of influencers.

Here are a couple of screens I came up with in that coffee shop. This is what I thought the front page should look like.

The size of the name would depend on the trendiness of the person’s page.

And this is how I imagined the Influencer page, while you write your note for that influencer.

The predefined ChangeFactors (the icons) were: Love, Joy, Inspiration, Knowledge &Pain

Most of the day’s light was spent when Vesi told me about a database that she found and was freely available, called Pantheon, where a team of MIT grad students and professors have come up with a list of 11340 of the most influential people of all time, by analyzing data from Wikipedia.

So in that 1st day, we got the name, the domain, our initial data and mockups of the product. It was a great day. It was the Best. Birthday. Ever.

Fast Forward 2 months

As it often happens to overly-optimistic entrepreneurs — it didn’t take just 2 days to complete. :)

Within a month I had an MVP that looked similar to the mockups and I started showing it around to people I trusted will give me an honest feedback.

At all this time I thought to myself — “This makes sense to me, but it’s possible it will NOT to anyone else… brace yourself for impact when that feedback comes in!”. In fact, I couldn’t even convince Vesi that someone is going to ever use the product.

But to my surprise, even the most critical people I talked to, were struggling to dismiss the idea with a good reason. It stuck!

Another month and a half later, I had drawn and implemented a thing that could roughly be called a “design” and this is how the product looked then — here is the landing page:

And this is the Influencer page:

In private Alfa since mid-September 2018

At this point, I knew I needed to start working with end-users and start perfecting an experience that at least a few people really enjoyed before I released the product publicly. I launched a private alfa of the product and started inviting people from my network.

After 45 days of work and with the help of about 26 early users, whom I interviewed and surveyed multiple times, a couple of public surveys and many sleepless nights, I am getting close to the point where I want to have more eyes on uchanged.me and our first public beta is starting very soon.

Today

Since that 1st day in the coffee shop, our database has grown to over
350 000 of the most influential people of all time and I’ve made tens of iterations on the product, including completely visually redesigning the front page a few times.

Here is the front page as it looks, right now.

The stats are not real, of course — just showcasing how they would look in a real scenario.

And this is a short demo of the mobile experience on the site (we don’t have an app yet, but the website adapts to different screen sizes):

Who wants to be ungrateful?!

The answer is — absolutely no one!

But the current social tools to express this gratitude are just non-existent. Even before social networks showed up — physically going to someone to express your gratitude was not the easiest (and often “possible”) thing to do.

And no matter if we like it or not, our society evolves towards communication that’s going to be closer and closer to becoming 100% digital.

That is why this problem should be attacked with technology.

We need to change and uchanged.me will help us get there.

Next: Public Beta

Very soon, you will be able to join uchanged.me!

You can subscribe for our release here: https://www.producthunt.com/upcoming/uchanged-me

Our official twitter account is: https://twitter.com/@uchanged_me

(🤫, don’t tell anyone, but if you can’t wait that long and would like to help us out with some feedback — you can request an invite, here: https://uchanged.me/register/request-invite)

I wish to extend a huge thank you to Bryan Kam, Hristo Kosev, Ernst Kriek, Vassil Terziev, Veselka Valchkova, Evgeny Petrov, and Alex Sumin for reading the early drafts and helping me edit this post.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +392,714 people.

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