Every so often I get an idea for a new website or service. I imagine you do as well. Thinking about new ideas is exciting – all that promise and potential. Some of my favorite conversations open with “Wouldn’t it be cool if….”
Most of my ideas start as digital services that take advantage of the internet’s ubiquity. It’s rare I imagine something bounded in real space – a new restaurant or a retail store. I’m an internet guy, and even after decades of enshittification, I still think the internet is less than one percent developed. But a recent thought experiment made me question that assumption. As I worked through a recent “wouldn’t it be cool” moment, I realized just how moribund the internet ecosystem has become, and how deadening it is toward spontaneous experimentation.
So let’s start with the idea itself. I was watching an episode of And Just Like That… the other day with my wife. Yes, I know, but sometimes you want to turn off your brain, OK? Anyway, there’s a scene where Carrie Bradshaw scatters her husband’s ashes into the Seine. She chose the bridge where her husband “Big” professed his love, ending a series-long on again, off again affair and beginning what became an apparently blissful marriage in the years between Sex and the City and the sequel which came some 15 years later. In any case, it reminded me of several similar scenes that I’ve been a part of over the past few decades (not to mention one of the best scenes in The Big Lebowski, but I digress…).
Back in the early 1990s my best friend’s dad died, and a group of us scattered his ashes at the top of Mammoth Mountain, where all of us loved to ski. Just last year I traveled back to the Bay area to scatter my father’s ashes on San Francisco Bay. And my mother has left me instructions as to where she wants her ashes scattered – half at the crest of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the other half interred in her family plot on Martha’s Vineyard, where a stone will mark her name forever (or as long as these stones last, which seems to be between 150 and 300 years, judging by the older headstones I’ve seen there).
It’s that “forever” designation that got me thinking. For my best friend’s father, and for mine, there’s no chance of “forever” happening. Neither has a gravestone, their memory will die with their children. Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, if you could drop a pin at the location where you scattered their ashes, leaving a memorial inscription, key biographical information, and whatever else you cared to add in a kind of virtual grave marker? And further, wouldn’t it be cool if anyone could use their phone to find those virtual graves? I imagined cities and countrysides inhabited by generations of lingering spirits – and in time, perhaps future versions of social and search platforms would surface this “memorial layer” of our world through augmented reality systems. Wouldn’t it be cool to know whose spirit was released in your neighborhood or favorite spot? Maybe after a few more turns of the generative AI wheel, you could engage in conversation with the avatar of someone long dead. It’s the kind of idea that gets you thinking, if nothing else. Let’s call this idea Scatter Plot for now – an idea needs a name, even if it’s a bad one.*
Once I fell for Scatter Plot, I got to thinking about how to actually bring it to life. Sure, you could build a website, but without integration into Apple and Google’s app stores, the idea is dead on arrival. Both offer deep integrations with their native operating systems, access to specialized hardware and sensors, and much more. I imagined that the loved ones scattering the ashes would want to take videos of the event and attach that media to the virtual marker, and from past experience, trying to develop a non-native web experience enabling even that simple act outside of Apple and Google’s walled gardens is frustratingly difficult.
That means if I were dead-set on launching Scatter Plot, I’d have to build native apps for both iOS and Android – and probably an open web mobile implementation that bridges them both. That means three separate development efforts, increasing both my costs and the complexities of building out my initial idea. While the idea is dead simple, executing it on a lark already feels out of reach – my back of the napkin math estimates development costs of at least a hundred thousand bucks, assuming I want it to be good enough to possibly catch fire with users.
That kind of seed capital forces one to think about business models. If Scatter Plot is done really well, and becomes “a thing” the way, say, Foursquare or Strava did, I could imagine millions of folks might start using the app. To give it the best chance of hitting, I’d probably want to take a freemium model: it could be free to drop a virtual grave marker, but we’d charge for added features like video or longer obits. We’d probably not want to do a subscription service – a one time fee, like at a real cemetery, is probably the right way to go. In time, maybe I’d integrate Scatter Plot with an LLM and offer an upgrade to that dead-person avatar feature, and that could run a SaaS model. But to start, if I could just get the UX right, nail my GTM strategy, find the right WOM influencers … I could imagine launching a business that converts 1-2 percent of my free users each year – at, say, ten bucks a pop, that’d mean $100,000 per million users – not a lot, but not nothing either. But while that $100,000 theoretically would cover my initial costs, it doesn’t pay for my time, and it’s a long, uncertain road to that first million users. It might take several years to get that right.
I started modeling revenue streams in my head, but then reality intervened. I realized that for every dollar I might take in through my Android or iOS app, I’d have to cough up 30 cents just for the right to be distributed on their platforms. Then I’d have to pay more to get the app noticed through app store paid search. That’s a steep tax to pay on top of the already increased operating expenses of developing for three distinct platforms. While it might make sense for large scale apps, where tens of millions is at stake, or for one-and-done point solutions that are cheap to build, Scatter Plot would likely live in the dead middle of that spectrum, and that 30 percent take rate, plus high distribution and marketing costs, would likely kill its chances of ever making any serious money, at least in the first few years of scaling. So scratch the idea of getting VC financing to cover those initial costs – the idea’s simply not big enough to justify the investment.
Back in the go go Web 2 days, when apps were new and pretty much any idea with a pulse could get funding, there was an explosion of new kinds of apps and services. This was when the app store platforms were new, and folks weren’t yet wise to the realities of an internet controlled by two or three massive corporations. I bet Scatter Plot could have found funding in 2010, but now? Not so much. And while it’s likely not as good an idea as I might think, it’s a fine example of the kind of experimentation that is simply not happening anymore, thanks to the sterility of the app store monocultures currently strangling the serendipity once found across the open web.
*Turns out, there’s a rudimentary, open-web based version of this idea in the UK. It’s…cool in a 2005 kind of way…