- Associated Press - Friday, January 6, 2017

HOUSTON (AP) - In the late 1990s, Peter Barrett thought to videotape his fluffy white dog, Snowy, howling along to a TV show’s theme song. He put the tape away and forgot about it for several years.

“Then I listened to it about 2008 to listen to my dog again, and I heard about a half a second of my father, who passed away in 2005,” Barrett said. “That was the only recording of my father’s voice anywhere.”

That meant the soft-spoken Briton lost the chance to digitally introduce his young children to the grandfather they never met.

“I can’t do anything about my father, but I can do something about the future,” Barrett remembered thinking. An idea was planted.

In April 2015, the Houston resident lost his job in the oil and gas industry, one of more than 100,000 Texans left unemployed in a painful period of low oil prices.

Barrett’s sudden unemployment prompted him to turn his idea into a company, Gone Not Gone, which lets customers record messages for loved ones to be delivered after the customer dies, the Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/2iYRFv9 ) reported. “Live on digitally” is the company’s slogan.

While the 47-year-old’s business plan was unique, local experts say his entrepreneurship was not.

University of Houston economist Bill Gilmer said economic busts often spur new businesses. Mild recessions act like forest fires, burning down older trees but sowing the seeds of future growth.

Barrett’s wife took some convincing. But after getting encouragement from friends and family - including her father, who suggested the site’s icon, a blue forget-me-not flower, the couple agreed to go all in.

“The very hardest part was to make the decision to actually do it … getting rid of a lot of my savings for something that we don’t know how it will turn out,” he said.

The couple cashed in his 401(k) account, sold their house in the Heights neighborhood, moved to a smaller house in the suburbs and put the profits into the company.

“That’s what entrepreneurs do,” said Gilmer, who directs UH’s Center for Regional Forecasting. “They are the risk-takers in our society. . It’s a big bet but sometimes, maybe in this guy’s case, maybe it really does pay off in a significant way.”

No easy road

For many oil and gas veterans who started companies during the latest bust in 2015 and early 2016, starting a company seemed like freedom.

“It sounds great: I’m going to be my own boss,” said Tim Jeffcoat, regional director for the Small Business Administration. “But it takes someone that has the courage and the discipline to succeed.”

Some startup founders never had helmed a company. Maybe they dealt with procurement, but not human resources or real estate or legal issues.

“If you’ve been in a corporate environment your whole life, you really don’t know what you don’t know,” said Maryanne Maldonado of the Houston Technology Center, a business incubator whose clients include hundreds laid off in the oil bust.

Barrett has some management experience, but it’s not the same as building an organization from the ground up.

“I ended up running a company after the founder passed away, but that was a geological consultancy, so it was nothing like this,” he said ruefully. “I did software development within the oil industry, but again, nothing like this.”

After months of hard work - and great expense - the Gone Not Gone website went live in September.

“We launched it, and then there was just nothing,” Barrett remembered. He’s since run advertisements on the local NPR station and made a sales pitch at a retirement home, among other places.

Building a customer base from nothing is a common challenge, Maldonado said. “Scaling up is one of the hardest problems that companies may have, especially if you’re an individual growing this organically.”

Gone Not Gone has a unique challenge, Barrett said. “What most people say is, I like it and I’m going to sign up, but I’m not about to die, so there’s no hurry.”

People generally don’t want to confront their mortality, UH psychologist Rheeda Walker said. “For the majority of people, it triggers a sense of anxiety and fear. And what we do with anxiety and fear is, we avoid it.”

That means customers can be hard to recruit, even if Barrett’s business model relies on the only thing more certain than taxes.

One person who has signed up is Cassie Vanecek, a military wife whose husband has served four tours abroad, including in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Death is kind of always in our face because we’ve been around it so long,” she said, remembering how communication from her husband’s unit would go dark whenever someone was killed.

In addition to military friends, the stay-at-home mom of three had a civilian friend die suddenly. His widow was left with a toddler, an infant and few ways to keep his memory alive.

“It just crushes my heart,” Vanecek said. “They have the few videos that were on the cellphone, but that’s it.”

The self-proclaimed “biggest fan” of Gone Not Gone doesn’t want that to happen to her family. She has written “just-in-case” letters before but now plans to record videos for her girls ages 1, 3 and 13. She’ll tell them she loves them, remind them to trust in God and say what she wants for their lives.

“That’s my biggest fear - that something would happen and my children would lose sight of what’s important in life. . I can tell her that while I’m here, but if I’m gone and they forget that?…?.”

Another customer, Kay Opry Reynolds, helps her father-in-law, who has dementia, record messages for family members to remember him by.

‘Roller-coaster ride’

While death is guaranteed, business success is not.

“We’re hoping to move from a loss position to a break-even position,” Barrett said. “That’s covering our costs and making a little bit extra, not taking a salary or anything.”

The father of two young children hesitated when asked if he would recommend the experience.

“It’s a roller-coaster ride,” he said. “It’s better, I think, if you’re young and you’re single than if you’re married and you’ve got dependents.”

Should nothing else come of his efforts, Barrett will have left recordings for his own children, a 6-year-old son who likes Pokemon and a 3-year-old daughter who likes peekaboo.

He chose not to write a script for his messages.

“I just went sort of off the cuff. It’s short and sweet. You don’t need much more than that,” he said. “Now I’m starting to fill it in with really bad jokes - I have a terrible sense of humor. But that’s what my son expects of me, so that’s what he’ll get for his 18th birthday, if I’m not around.”

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

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