Innovating Memories: Pass It Down and the Spirit of Innovation

By Amanda Ellis

Digital storytelling platform Pass It Down received the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce 2017 Spirit of Innovation Award, honored alongside award finalists The Tomorrow Building and Society of Work.

Pass It Down began as a digital biography service that helps you preserve memories through video, text, audio, photo or handwritten responses to story prompts. The company now not only documents family biographies, but also works to tell the stories of communities and organizations. That could be corporate history, their work with senior living communities, museums, parks and even cities to capture the memories, stories and experiences that shape our lives.  

We caught up with Chris Cummings, Pass It Down founder and CEO, on his Spirit of Innovation experience and what’s up next for the Pass It Down storytellers.

Trend: How did you feel when we announced Pass It Down as our Spirit of Innovation recipient?

Cummings: Excited of course, but it was already a win for us from the moment we were named one of the three finalists. We immediately saw more people in the community reach out to us. The recognition opened the door to businesses that hadn’t heard about us.

We were thankful to have that local support, because much of our business to this point has been from different parts of the world. But you always want to be doing business where you call home.


Bigger Business Picture

Alex Lavidge, Pass It Down VP of Business Development, says Pass It Down isn’t just an innovative idea, but a new way of doing business.

“A lot of entrepreneurs have a consumer product and they want to enter the consumer market, which is inherently risky,” Lavidge says. “I’m excited to see a shift toward pursuing larger business contracts first, because that gives you runway to scale the consumer market.”

“If you have a dream to create something consumer facing, consider going a more conservative route first to stabilize from a cash flow perspective. From there you can take it to the next level and go after your grand vision.”

Trend: Tell me about your segue from documenting personal history to documenting organizational history as well.

Cummings: Think of it from this perspective: when a new employee comes in, you invest a ton of time and money training that person. So, say it’s 20 or 30 years down the road and that person’s set to retire. Maybe we throw them a party or give them a gold watch—although that doesn’t happen as much anymore. Then they leave, and at no point did you ever stop and ask them, “What did you learn while you were here? Why was that important? Why were you loyal to this company?”

At the point when they’re most trained, we’re like, “Peace. Goodbye.”  And it doesn’t make sense.

We ask companies we work with on this: “How many employees this year will leave or retire?” It might be hundreds in a year. Then, “How much money have you invested in them?” Usually when we add it up it’s over a million dollars. “What are you doing to capture it?” The answer is usually not much.

I’m passionate about the importance of collecting institutional knowledge from your most trained, most educated, most loyal employees. If you don’t do that, the loss is felt when you’re retraining and repeating mistakes that someone figured out before.

Trend: What’s something that has surprised you as you grow Pass It Down?

Cummings: We recently noticed bulk orders for greetingStory boxes, and when we looked into it we found that family and professional service offices, like financial planners, wanted to give clients a gift more personal than a fruit basket that will mean something. Professional service offices want to give a gift that their clients will remember.

I hadn’t thought of this implication, but these are people who talk about your estate, your will, what you want to pass down to your kids. Often the stuff is passed down but the why behind it gets lost. If it’s a business, every generation you get further from the founder, the less the chances of success. You have to be connected to the legacy, and stories makes that connection.


Pass It Down for Your Family

In addition to digital options, greetingStory Memory Boxes include hand-selected questions from the world's top biographers with tips and instructions on the inside to guide friends and family in sharing their stories. Boxes start at $29 for 12 cards with space for handwritten responses.

“Every box is customizable and you can choose what questions you want,” Cummings says. “We see orders for family reunions with 12 of the same card so everyone can fill them out together.”

With all the technology of today, you might wonder why Pass It Down still encourages handwritten participation. While that aspect can make the process more appealing for an older demographic, Cummings says there’s a difference in what we share when we write by hand.

“It’s the idea that the moment you put pen to paper it becomes permanent,” Cummings says. “There’s no backspace button, so you slow down, but it’s usually a better depiction of your thoughts. Plus when you see a loved one’s handwriting, it doesn’t matter what it’s about, it brings back all the memories of that person.”

Use the coupon code Chamber25 for 25 percent off your order at passitdown.com 

Trend: What’s an example of Pass It Down’s work so far?

Cummings: We did a campaign with a Massachusetts nonprofit called Bridges Together. They focus on the value of connecting kids to older adults, and we connected with them through a Generations United conference, another organization focused on generational diversity, and collected memories for them around intergenerational connections.

I’d rather see a person presenting the story of a brand than all the data in the world, because we connect with people. 

Bridges Together wanted a way to collect intergenerational stories from people and organizations around the world. The way that typically happens is if someone has a story you’d say, “Hey, email it to us.” But our technology allows a person to create a multi-media story on the spot and organizes the stories in a meaningful way.

It gives people a way to read stories with a platform that gathers them side by side. One of the cool things we do that no one else does is that you can view a question on our system and compare responses and related memories side by side. You can filter them by topic, and this nonprofit had never been able to do something like this before.


What’s up next?

Pass It Down will work with the Chattanooga Public Library to use digital storytelling to collect all the memories and history of Chattanooga online and in one place, the only city besides Singapore to attempt this. You can sign up at chattanoogamemory.com. 

“This captures our city online, with an audience around the world,” Lavidge says. “They can get a sense of what Chattanooga is all about – from anywhere.”