As a young Wykehamist only recently arrived from the United States, I was often overwhelmed by the rich history and majesty of Winchester College. Few memories are more emblazoned in my mind than the walk up to books each day from Kenny’s through the Cloister War Memorial. Part inside and part out, the transition through the stone arcade seemed emblematic as I transitioned from the outside world of personal connections, both kind and barbaric, of bed and tea and sports and play, into the world within, the universe of thoughts, ideas, anchored in timeless Greek or Latin, of poetry, philosophy and history, of science and the mystic purity of numbers.

I’ll never forget the bullying and corporal violations of the time, long before the #metoo movement of today’s tabloids. But no matter what personal joys or horrors I faced in that outside world, once I crossed through the Cloister, out of the darkness and back into the light, I was once again both cocooned and gloriously refreshed by a Danaë cloudburst of words.

It’s not altogether surprising that, years later, I’d grow up to become both a writer and an entrepreneur. In some ways, I make that journey through the Cloister still, each day, as I traverse my inside and my outside worlds. On the inside, I’m currently working on my tenth novel, a love story — for a change. My scribbling has generated international best-selling thrillers like The Hunting Club and The Wave, award-winning mysteries like Gospel Truths and The God Machine, and genre-bending YA novels like Kiss Me, I’m Dead and dEATH in dAVOS. I've been fortunate.

On the other side of the Cloister, in the outside world, I’ve forged a very different path. No doubt informed by my peripatetic upbringing, forever branding me an outsider, I’ve learned to accept few paradigms. When the world’s boundaries are constantly in flux, a liberating lens descends and one looks at systems with a constant sense of wonderment as to their inefficiencies, and with a pebble-irritating compulsion to try and fix them. It was this that, following a stint as an ad copy writer and publicist, drove me to launch the first digital advertising agency in 1984, Einstein and Sandom Interactive (EASI). Co-partner Jeff Einstein and I understood the power of interactive media and created the first ads to run on such new online systems as Prodigy and startup AOL. Then came the Net. We went from sending out floppy disks as electronic brochures to building the websites of Fortune 100 companies. Later, after selling the agency, I helped resuscitate the digital presence of ad agency giant Ogilvy & Mather, turning around their interactive ad group from a loss of $2M to over $300M in worldwide digital billings, with clients like IBM and Ford. Today, digital advertising accounts for a greater share of media spend than TV, radio, print and outdoor combined.

Perhaps, for monetizing the Net through online advertising, thereby enabling an entire generation of media addicts, I shoulder some blame — however indirect — every time your children or grandchildren refuse to be torn away from their digital devices when you call to them. For that, please forgive me. As the Fates would have it, however, or perhaps in Promethean retribution, this period of personal plenty was followed be a trinity of catastrophes: the dot com bubble burst; terrorists blew up the World Trade Towers within eyesight of my loft in Manhattan; and I was divorced and became a single father. Deciding to no longer raise my daughter in New York City with the aid of nannies and au pair girls (as I had been, by largely absent parents), I opted to exchange my 60+ hours a week of meetings with creatives and programmers and clients on Madison Avenue with setting up play-dates and after-school programs and parent-teacher conferences for my three-year-old. I continued to write, forever tethered to that inside world on the other side of the Cloister. And I bided my time until my daughter was old enough for me to begin a new startup, this time with an app called MemoryBox that lets people set up digital “memories”, collections of photos and other media, to which others can also contribute content. The app was successfully used by Aids WALK and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) for their fundraising walks, plus various political movements like the Women’s March and anti-DAPL protests, among others, as well as by wedding planners for weddings, and by funeral homes to memorialize lost loved ones.

When confronted with all of these possible applications for MemoryBox, in addition to a heavily financed new horizontal competitor named Instagram, my partners and I opted to focus on the memorialization vertical. As pivots would have it, the more we investigated the deathcare industry, the more we realized that it was in desperate need of modernization, just like the ad game had been. And, having already helped to disintermediate the traditional ad world through digitalization, I understood the potential to disrupt this antediluvian, often predatory industry too.

Today, in the US, funerals average $7K-$10K and cremations more than $6K. Even direct cremations (no embalming, expensive coffin, or traditional memorial service) average $2K-$3K. Families who wish to order a cremation, are generally forced to go down to a local funeral home and spend, on the average, two hours over two visits, plus a half hour of travel, an investment of 150 minutes out of their home while they’re addled by grief just to fill out the required paperwork as they're being upsold coffins and crypts.

At Cremstar, direct cremations start at just $795. We offer the most affordable direct cremation solution in Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia — the only licensed funeral service that lets you arrange a direct cremation completely online in as little as 15 minutes, with chat and phone support, from the safety and comfort of your own home, or wherever you happen to be in your time of need. And, every Cremstar customer who wants it also gets a memorial memory of their lost loved one at MemoryBox, the original engine of this venture.

Given trends in the deathcare space and the coming Boomer Bulge (the expected die-off of Boomers), I'd anticipated that deathcare would be a good space to disrupt. But while the Spanish Flu is featured in the mortality graph I still show to investors, it would have been difficult to predict the current pandemic, or anticipated that we in the US would be so ill-prepared and so loutish in our response?

Cremstar has never been busier. We're about to expand into the states of New York (the Major Metro area) and New Jersey, and we’re being actively courted by VCs and investors who want to share in our growth. (We're seeking $5M for national expansion and IP develpment.) Late at night, after hearing from yet another distressed family who has lost a loved one to COVID-19, the Cloister takes on a new meaning for me. The wails of WWI ghosts that echo through the memorial are now joined by hundreds of thousands of other voices slain by this tiniest and least intelligent of enemies. In the US, we spend as much in military preparedness as the next seven nations combined. We spend trillions to bolster our economic ramparts. And yet we've historically only spent the annual budget of a regional hospital to prepare us against what has devastated the entire world economy and thrown hundreds of millions out of work.

I’ve always been appalled by the ever-chilling Aut disce, aut discede aphorism of our 14th century school. Though less lurid, I much prefer the maxim Honi soit qui mal y pense. Also used as the motto of the British chivalric Order of the Garter, it can be starkly translated as, "Evil be to him that evil thinks." As a novelist and poet, and as a serial entrepreneur, I’ve made a career dreaming up and creating new worlds. Literally — when it comes to the characters and realities of my novels. And, in some fundamental way, as an entrepreneur too. After all, behind every new business venture like Cremstar is an idea that reflects a new way of looking at things. Perhaps there is no dark space in the Cloister to pass through between the inside and the outside worlds. Perhaps, the process of invention is what binds them.

As I approach my seventh decade, as small gnats mourn among the river sallows, I’ve come to realize that there are few truths in the world, few things one can count on, truly, to last more than a summer’s day. So, if you’re going to spend your time inventing the world, you might as well dream up something that that will help the human race along. Or, to put it another way, albeit sexist, aged but never dated: Manners Makyth Man. To this day, I carry the lessons of Winchester College in everything I do.


J Sandom

by John G Sandom
(D, 1970 - 72)

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