A Memory Tree - Giving Information And Comfort
25th January 2018
Sue Skeet created the online obituary database www.memorytree.co.nz which records 98 per cent of deaths in New Zealand. She tells business reporter Emma Bailey about the website which attracts 110,000 visitors a month.
How and when did A Memory Tree come about?
Several personal experiences with loss in 2005 and 2006 really shook me and not being able to find out about death information can be uncomfortable, especially if you have missed or can't get the newspaper, or don't know the surviving family. I was also interested in genealogy and latterly how the traditional family tree can be replaced by a tree of significant friends and acquaintances.
What is A Memory Tree?
A Memory Tree records all death notices published in New Zealand daily newspapers. This is around 98 per cent of all deaths in the country. We do this every day, hourly and have the most up-to- date search facility possible. Each record gives the site visitor enough information, or access to information, to confirm a death and act accordingly.
Not everyone can make a funeral, or stand up and give a speech, so we also create remembrance pages (memory pages) for people to leave messages and memories. We have created over 220,000 pages thus far.
What is your background before A Memory Tree?
I had gone to university but was very young at the time and always had itchy feet. As it transpired I travelled around the world at 18 and returned home at 21.
My first "real" job was a manager of a wine bar in Christchurch in the 1980s. By the age of 28 I had moved into marketing and communications working for private industry and local government.
After my daughter started school in 2004, I worked for a publishing company and enjoyed the creative side and pressure that came with it but I also had a million ideas in my head about businesses that could work. I took the plunge in 2009 with the launch of www.amemorytree.co.nz but had been working on it since 2006.
What is your background in web work?
Zilch! It was really very scary. I also didn't know anyone in the industry and it was a case of learning to go with my gut and working with others. Sadly I often ignored my intuition because of self-doubt. I lost a lot of time and money because of it. Nowadays I am much more confident.
How popular is the site?
We get 110,000 visitors a month viewing just over half a million pages from around 130 countries. Seventy-five per cent of our visitors are from New Zealand though. More than 80 per cent of our remembrance pages are used, whether it be to leave messages and memories, find where the death notices were published or simply to light candles and refresh flowers. We also list all charities published in the notices and have links back to them in case people wish to make donations.
Tell us about the website's use during the February 22 earthquake in 2011?
I was living in Christchurch at the time and had lost my own home in the September 2010 quake, so it was all very real for me. The site traffic spiked hugely and it felt very good to be able to provide a true record of the loss and a place where people from all over the world could share their condolences. Personally I was battling the deaths of three acquaintances, loss of office and of course basic services. Keeping the site up meant working in my wardrobe, car and at friends' place out of town. Packing up my second home and moving from Christchurch was hell. A Memory Tree definitely kept me focused at that horrible time. I moved to Timaru in May 2011.
What have been the challenges?
The doubters you face when coming up with new ideas can be soul-destroying, so I guess the biggest challenge would have been to have faith in myself and keep going even when faced with what seem impossible challenges. I am lucky that I had a home and could increase my mortgage for the seed money needed as I couldn't find a financial backer but, for a long time, money and surviving was very, very tough.
What have been the rewards?
The rewards are huge and always will outweigh the challenges any day. I love what I do, it makes a difference to so many people. I get the nicest emails every day and the sense of achievement in seeing more people visit each month is a buzz. I also have the freedom to expand my business in any way I want to which, unlike working for someone else, gives me huge satisfaction.
How many staff do you employ?
People are often shocked at how much time I put into the site. I haven't employed any staff for a long time but I do engage three very awesome people as independent contractors for software development and some assistance with data entry. I trust these people implicitly and have built up very open and functional communication with them over the years.
How many hours a week do you work?
On www.amemorytree.co.nz I now spend on average 40 hours a week. It's a 24/7 business so I have my finger on the pulse of it all the time. I also have a side business to this which takes about 10 to 20 hours a week. I have worked some ridiculous hours over the years and I am trying to reach a "normal" plateau.
Where to from here?
Obviously I would like to build my business further and work less. That will come in time and, like almost everyone I know feels, it would be nice not to worry about finances so much.
I have a wonderful daughter who needs me and it would be great to spend more time with her too which really drives me.
As we have also had interest from other countries - what we do by recording all death notices in a country is a world-first - so there is a possibility to duplicate and franchise the business.
About A Memory Tree
While acknowledging the loss of someone near and dear is usually a sad experience, remembering them can have a very pleasant side with long term benefits for many including extended family and friends.
Eighty percent of the pages the site gifts are used for message and memory sharing, and also to light virtual candles and refresh flowers to remember a loved one.
The site, which records all death notices published in New Zealand daily newspapers and gives their visitors instant online links to death notices and other death notice services, was unique when launched.
Launched in January 2009, and with complete records dating back to January 2006, www.amemorytree.co.nz records death notices in over 7,500 newspapers each year which, she says, represents over 98% of all deaths in New Zealand.
The company has gone on to develop software called NoticeMATCH which enables an organisation to have death notices matched to their client databases as often as they require. According to Ms Skeet, companies appreciate the service from two perspectives – it not only saves them time and money but also helps them avoid potential embarrassment.
Note: This information was valid at June 2013, some statistics may have changed.
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