After Ross Chanin’s grandfather died, Chanin mourned not only him, but the fact that he’d never gotten a chance to hear more about his grandfather’s life. Over a conversation with a journalist friend, George Quraishi, it became clear to Chanin that Quraishi’s skill set — interviewing and audio editing — could be conducive to capturing a family’s history.
Chanin and Quraishi started conducting interviews for friends and family and recruited software engineers Martin Gouy and Moncef Biaz to build apps to make it easier to record remote interviews and play them back on the web. Convinced that they had the seeds of a business, Chanin and Quraishi decided to apply to Y Combinator and were accepted into the Summer 2020 batch.
Today, their startup — Artifact — has over 10,000 customers across 15 English-, Spanish- and French-speaking countries. It’s raised $5 million inclusive of a seed round led by GV, which had participation from Atento Capital, Goodwater and Offline Ventures and notable angels such as Y Combinator CEO Michael Seibel, Twitch CEO Emmett Shear and former Blizzard CEO Michael Morhaime.
“Interviews are incredible storytelling spaces, but they’re generally reserved for the rich and powerful and are not about our parents, grandparents and children,” Chanin told TechCrunch in an email interview. “Our dream is that Artifact will become the place where families the world over tell and experience their stories.”
Artifact charges customers $149 to have an interviewer (mostly moonlighting journalists, according to Chanin) conduct an interview with a family member. Packages include one interview and an edit with a custom introduction, sound mixing by an audio engineer and a web page for listening and adding photos.
It’s a four-step process. First, Artifact customers tell the interviewer who they’ll be interviewing and what they’ll discuss. Then, Artifact invites the interviewee to choose a day and time for the interview, which happens via phone or videoconferencing. The resulting recording — usually 30 minutes in length, give or take 15 minutes — is edited down to a 20-minute “episode,” which can be shared via the web with loved ones or publicly.
Artifact aims to turn around episodes within five business days of an interview. Up to two guests are included in the price of a single interview, with a $35-per-guest charge for additional interviewees.
“The people in your life may not be natural storytellers, but when they’re guided by professional interviewers, their stories become heirloom-quality episodes that live in your family’s private account,” Chanin said. “Once there, it’s easy to add photos and then securely share your Artifacts with the people you love.”
That’s a lot of sensitive info to upload to the cloud. But Chanin was adamant that Artifact doesn’t share personal data with third parties without “explicit and affirmative” consent from users. The platform stores data for as long as a person maintains an account, although users can delete recordings, notes and photos at any time.
Artifact is one startup among many delivering professional interviewing and audio biography services tailored to families. For instance, Vita’s app lets family members record audio stories and transcribe the text and even hand-select accompanying family photos, recipes and other media content for posterity if they so choose. Tales and Origin offer packages along the same vein while StoryWorth and StoryCorps are more self-service in nature, providing users with the tools to conduct interviews themselves including suggested lines of questioning.
So what sets Artifact apart? Chanin argues it “fills a need that remains unaddressed.”
“The large genealogy platforms do incredible work, helping families trace their lineage and build family trees. Cloud photo and print apps make experiencing family photos easy and fun. [But] while it’s one thing to trace your family’s history, it’s another entirely to record it in the voices of the people themselves,” Chanin said. “It’s the conversation spaces with our professional interviewers that create the magic — the intonations of voice, laughter and emotion that can make it feel like the person we’re listening to is sitting right there in the room with us.”
Artifact is also unique in that it operates on a marketplace model, connecting customers with freelance interviewers, audio editors and sound engineers who piece together each audio biography. The compensation structure for contractors wasn’t immediately clear in our interview with Chanin; we’ve asked Artifact for clarification.
In another differentiator, Artifact has dipped a toe into the corporate market, offering custom podcast creation services to companies, academic institutions and nonprofits. As with its biography business, Artifact’s enterprise-focused offering pairs customers with an interviewer who they instruct to talk to people about certain subjects, with Artifact handling all the scheduling, remote interviewing and editing.
To date, Artifact has produced podcasts for Clipboard Health, Onfleet, Yale, the University of Chicago and the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Chanin claims.
In a bid to remain ahead of rivals, Artifact aims to embrace merging AI technologies to further personalize the experience for its family biography customers. As customers upload photos and videos to their accounts, Artifact will soon begin marrying the images and videos to what’s being spoken about in an interview, Chanin says — no curation required.
“So, this is taking different types of media — image, video and text — and finding connections between them, then surfacing the result to the customer. We are calling this the ‘Sitback Experience,’ where users will simply click play, sit back and listen to people you love telling stories while relevant imagery and video play across the screen. It’ll be like a movie or a Ken Burns documentary about your family.”
Beyond the Sitback Experience, Artifact plans to launch Family Spaces, a dashboard where account holders will be able to add family members in a way that makes it clear which stories the platform’s recorded for individual people.
The swift development roadmap will keep Artifact a step beyond rivals, Chanin asserts, while delivering top-requested improvements to the user base. That’ll be key. Aside from the nascent enterprise venture, Artifact’s growth will depend on convincing existing customers to buy additional packages and new users to join in the first place.
“The pandemic reminded all of us that life is precious and that the people we love must never be taken for granted. In that way, Artifact provided a vehicle for many of our early adopters to act on those feelings and record family stories,” Chanin added. “From day one, we’ve built Artifact lean and as a service that provides immediate value to our customers — that our customers pay for. So in many respects, we launched the company the old fashioned way: introducing a new solution to a universal problem, learning from our customers and not focusing on growth at all costs.”
Chanin wouldn’t disclose Artifact’s burn rate. But he claimed that the company is “well capitalized,” with cash on hand for years. Artifact currently has a 14-person team (excepting the hundreds of freelancers in its marketplace) based in San Francisco and expects to “at least” double headcount over the next 12 months.