Several years ago, Monster.com founder Jeff Taylor was chatting with his mother when he found out that she was a regular reader of newspaper obituary sections. Not only did she read them in her local paper, the Boston Globe, she also followed them in the newspaper of her hometown of Bloomington, Ill., a place she hadn’t lived in for 50 years, on the off chance that she might read about someone she knew. It occurred then to Taylor that a lot of the characteristics that made job postings so successful online, such as the ability of users to search in multiple categories and be notified of new events, could also apply to obituaries. He stuck the idea into his mental file.
Fast-forward to 2008, and Taylor, 47, is now putting his long-gestating idea into action. His latest venture, Eons.com, an online community targeted at baby boomers for which he serves as C.E.O., has just spun off a new company called Tributes.com, a Web site that serves as a clearinghouse for obituaries and death notices. Its revenue is expected to come largely from advertising and hosting fees from funeral homes, but the company will also charge users to create their own tributes to and memorials for loved ones on the site.
“Regardless of which business it is, the consumers have said that their preferred way of getting information is the Internet over traditional print,” says Taylor. “For a while, you’ll see obits in both newspapers and on the Web, but my prediction is that eventually they will all be online.” Newspaper owners and publishers must see Taylor as the Grim Reaper, banging another nail into the coffin of their industry, just as he did with classified help-wanted ads.
After building Monster.com, which he launched in 1994, into an almost $1 billion company, Taylor left in 2005 to launch Eons.com. Taylor’s success with Monster helped the startup attract $32 million in venture capital from blue-chip firms like Sequoia Capital, Charles River Ventures and Intel Capital.
Eons.com has been no Monster.com — after attracting lots of initial attention, traffic dropped considerably and the company was forced to lay off one-third of its workforce — but its launch was fortuitous. On one of Eons’ topic channels focusing on relationships, Taylor saw an opportunity to implement his idea of bringing obituaries online. The first inkling that it could be something was when Eons created a message board for tributes to Rosa Parks on the first anniversary of the civil rights activist’s death, in 2006. The page received a flood of traffic and postings. In February, Taylor decided to turn Eons.com’s focus toward social networking and to spin off the site’s obituaries section into its own company, Tributes.com, raising $4.2 million for it from backers, including Dow Jones.
According to Elaine Haney, a former Eons.com executive who is now president of Tributes.com, the site is keeping a relatively low profile before its planned redesign in June and a big consumer-marketing push in September.
There’s another reason to keep a low profile until they get it right: Tributes.com faces a lot of competition. Unlike the early days of the Web, when Monster.com could make strides simply because of being online before others, today even newspapers themselves print death notices and obituaries on their own Web sites. And there are several other Web sites with a similar conceit, the best-known of which is Legacy.com, a private company started in 1998 that turned profitable in 2003, according to its spokesperson. Instead of competing directly with newspapers, however, Legacy.com has chosen to partner with and charge them a fee for hosting their online obituaries. It counts as clients more than 500 major newspapers, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.
Legacy.com also hosts popular guest books and allows users to write and store their own obituaries; the site boasts 11 million unique visitors per month.
Legacy.com is not concerned about Taylor’s new venture.
“Others have come and gone in this space, and we certainly take note of any new competitor, but the arrival of an online company interested in obituaries doesn’t alter our strategy in any way,” says Hayes Ferguson, Legacy.com’s chief operating officer.
Taylor says Tributes.com’s competitive edge will be its searchable central database.
“We can introduce the idea of finding information based on your contacts in the past, and you can be on the watch for people who went to your church or your school or people who you used to work with,” Taylor says.
But Taylor is patient, having learned from his experience at Monster.com how long it can take to chip away at a new market. He notes that the Conference Board recently estimated that last year the Internet helped more people find jobs than did traditional media.
“It took 14 years from when I started Monster” to get to that point, says Taylor. “Building Tributes isn’t going to happen in one minute.”