Interview with founder Jess Dornan Lynas


It takes a lot of motivation for anyone to set up their own business. Yours was a deeply personal one. Could you tell us about the journey that led you to set up Afterbook?

When I was 19 years old I lost my mum to pancreatic cancer, and apart from the world-changing, devastating sadness and grief that I felt around that, it also really put into sharp focus how I wanted to go forward and live my life. It made me reflect how I wanted to really find meaning in life. You only get one stab at this, and I just wanted to make sure that I was giving it my best stab, because my mum didn’t get that chance after the age of 48 when she was diagnosed; she was 50 when she died. That just seemed a terribly cruel twist of fate to me.

About 10 years after mum died, I started a family of my own, and that’s when it brought into even sharper focus what it was really all about for me and what legacy I wanted to leave for my children, what I wanted to teach them about life, and what I wanted to teach them about their Nana Lorna – my mum. It reignited a grief spell for me. I wasn’t stricken by grief any more, but there was certainly a sense of sadness that my children weren’t part of her life. So I very much wanted her to be part of their lives. It’s a way to remember her better, to tell her stories, and to really celebrate her life. Brief as it was, it was a wonderful life. I make sure that I take my children to her gravestone, tell them stories about their Nana Lorna, that they see photos of her. But we’re not always in Northern Ireland where she’s buried, we’re not always co-located with the letters she wrote to me, we’re not always with the images. This was what motivated me to set up Afterbook.

Afterbook provides a home for these important memories and life stories. How does the platform work?

My mum died at the dawn of the Internet age, and certainly long before the foundation of social media. So I wasn’t going to retro-create a Facebook page and put it into memorium for my mum, and I was certainly outside the time zone of creating a funeral memorial page. It struck me that there was a huge gap in the market. It seems a little crass to call it a marketplace, but it is a marketplace. We talk about finding a gap in the market for a business, but you have to make sure that there’s a market for the gap. I set about doing research and we eventually came up with Afterbook. Part of the reason that it’s called ‘Afterbook’ is not just because it’s for after life, but it’s for after the key events in your life. My father and I founded it together and we often say that life is like a library. In that library you will find sections for love, childhood, adventure, sadness, education, career, and so on. Chapters can be written into your Afterbook for all of those genres of your life, so after university, after a career, after a break-up, after marriage, after a birth and, yes, after death as well. We would like people to be contributing to their Afterbook profiles as and when they’re living their lives, after the key events that happen.

Losing a loved one is tough for any individual person, as well as the wider family. Do you see Afterbook as a way of helping to bring families together through sharing different memories?

Yes, we often say that. It’s not lost on people that social media can bring people together. I used to live in Germany and Facebook was a brilliant way of me keeping in touch with my friends and family. We all live disparately, we all travel a lot, we all have families of our own, so my family isn’t always together. When we are together we always say that we would love to spend time dedicated to mum, talking about her and telling stories. But because we live busy lives we don’t always get the chance. Afterbook allows us all – wherever we are in the world – to remember mum. I am the curator of my mum’s profile, but anyone with whom I have shared her profile can add their own thoughts and memories into our memory wall of my mum – friends and family alike. That way I can actually learn things about my mum – things that happened or seeing photographs – that I didn’t even know about before.

It has clearly taken a lot of research to create Afterbook. Did any of your findings along the way surprise you?

I suppose they did. For one thing it’s worth pointing out that we would like Afterbook profiles to be created by people during their lives. It’s used by 1,300 people worldwide, and the majority of our Afterbook curators are using it to remember and build a legacy of a deceased loved one. But about 10 to 15 percent of our users are using it to record their own lives. That would be very important to us, and we can see it as being a brilliant tool to help people with Alzheimer’s or dementia, for example, who are trying to remember their life. Not everyone is given a book deal or the opportunity to write an autobiography, but with Afterbook you really can put down your recordings of your life. Anyone can do it. So that’s been a really interesting, eye-opening thought, because it ties in exactly with my own findings. It just hadn’t occurred to me that it’s so important to remember your own life while living and in health, as well as the lives of those who we’ve lost.

On a practical note, did you have any experience of digital start-ups before you founded Afterbook?

Not at all! I cannot stress that enough. I didn’t even know the term ‘start-up’. I didn’t know the term ‘tech-for-good platform’, which we consider ourselves to be. Every single term that I use nowadays in the technological start-up world has been new to my vocabulary in the last two-and-a-half years. That’s been a journey in itself! As a 40-year-old mother of two I wasn’t best placed to be doing this. It’s been a riot. Before this I worked in fashion design, which my degree is in. I had also lived in Africa where I trained to be a field guide – it all ties into living a life of meaning and it’s why I live by the motto ‘carpe diem’. In Africa I looked after lion cubs on a lion rehabilitation project, then I came back and met and married my husband. We moved to Germany where I started my own business. After moving back to Northern Ireland six years ago I had been doing a bit of fashion styling work. So to say I had no tech experience really is an understatement. I didn’t have the first clue. But I’ve met a lot of people on this journey who have been great mentors and provided great advice, which has been invaluable. There is a lot of support out there.

What future plans do you have for the project?

We would like to explore a few other areas and genres, such as pre-paid funeral care. We’re less familiar with it in this part of the world, but certainly in Australia and America it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. When you think that we look after our life insurance, our pet insurance, our home insurance and so on, we’re not very good at planning for our funerals. But we’re getting there. I would like to see Afterbooks being created as part of a pre-paid funeral package and created by people in their good health while they’re living and remembering their lives well. If that life is harder to remember, such as for people living with dementia, then we would like it to be a tool for helping them and their families. This is an area that I’d like to explore more fully, but I’m aware that for families it’s hard to remember the person behind the disease. I think that Afterbook can be a really helpful way of remembering the important stories of the life behind that far-too-cruel disease.

Thinking ahead to TEDxStormont, this year’s event is a tribute to Lyra McKee. How do think as a society we can best pay tribute to Lyra?

We can do that by learning from her life – not necessary focusing on her death, because that told us that there are cowards hiding around corners and they are being hidden by other people lurking around corners. Her life and the content of her life speak much more to me than the circumstances around her death. We mustn’t let that overshadow all the work that she was doing. She spoke of meaning, inclusivity, equality, and I think that is the future. We can only hope that people at the end of their lives are able to look back and think, “Yes, I’ve worked hard for equality my whole life and that was my message.” That’s what Lyra did. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could live a life with such meaning? There’s no better legacy than that. As Lyra’s own sister, Nicola, said (who will be speaking at TEDxStormont), “If anything is to be served by Lyra’s murder, at least that she may have been some sort of sacrifice to move forward from this tribal, partisan, separating politics that we have.” So, we really must take meaning from it, reflecting on her life.

The theme of the event will be ‘Imagine’. Without giving too much away about your talk itself, which is on ‘Content for Contentment’, how have you been preparing? What has inspired you?

I am a storyteller. I love telling stories. It would be remiss and foolish to try and tell a story or a message that didn’t come from your own story, your own experience. For me, I will be talking a lot about my upbringing – mostly about the impact that my grandfather had on my life, and also of course about my mother and losing her. It was going through those experiences that led me to, hopefully, imagine a life where we can all be so reflective. Without being given the opportunity through bereavement or a life-changing event, I would love if we could just all realise that life is there for the living, that we only get one shot at it. We should imagine a point when we’re going to look back at the end of the days, whether we’re 29 like poor Lyra McKee or 50 like my mum, or if we’re 92 like my grandfather, that we can look back on our life and reflect with a positive energy. I hope that we can do so and know that we’ve made connections with people, that we’ve touched people and touched by people. That’s the legacy that I would like to leave and I would love for everyone to join that way of thinking – having that realisation without necessarily having to go through a life-changing event.

The venue for your TED talk will be the grand surroundings of Stormont, which isn’t being used for much else at the moment. In the absence of leadership from politicians, how can businesses and civil society play a constructive role in helping to move Northern Ireland forward?

I think exactly that. Every person is a member of civil society, and civil society is the way forward. I think quite a few referendums should be happening. I have to say that it’s been quite hard not to be too political in my talk. It would actually love to maybe do another one on a different topic. My mum died in 1998 and I had been studying politics at A-Level until 1997. She was able to see the Good Friday Agreement going through, so she probably died thinking, “Thank goodness. Thirty years of the Troubles have ended and we can all move forward.” She would be devastated to know how it is now. She would be devastated to know that a woman like Lyra McKee was murdered, and that there’s been no sitting government for nearly three years.

It actually makes me reflect on why TEDx is such a brilliant platform, because it’s normal citizens turning up with a thought, an idea, or maybe just a slightly different approach to something. It’s a civic approach to problem-solving, beyond the traditional politics of division. It’s also no secret that the ‘neithers’, as we’re known, are the future of Northern Ireland. My children are 9 and 7 years of age. They’re certainly not unionist or nationalist. The fact that we’re all pigeon-holed into one of these boxes just isn’t the case. Going forward, I’d like to see neither of those boxes dominate. I wish we could just talk about the future we want for this island. That doesn’t mean I want any which way, so don’t read too much into that, but I certainly don’t want what we have right now.

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