Two years ago and thousands of miles from home, Jesse Davis envisaged a new kind of Internet business. The idea struck Davis, a UW-Madison senior at the time, as he read Thomas Friedman's bestseller The World Is Flat while traveling by bus through Israel.
Friedman told the story about a family that brought an Internet company to court after being denied access to the email account of a deceased loved one. Davis felt inspired to find a solution that would prevent a similar case from happening again.
"Why had no one thought about what happens to a person's digital data and accounts after death?" he wondered. "At the time...I was thinking, 'Wow, God forbid something happened to this bus right now. I'm not so sure that I would want my parents to have access to every single online account of mine.'"
Davis, a Boston native, brought his idea back to Madison, where professors and friends put him in touch with fellow UW-Madison student and entrepreneur Nathan Lustig, from Milwaukee. Prior to graduating from the UW in 2009, the pair founded a company called Entrustet, devoted to helping people manage their digital information after death. Davis is now 23 years old; Lustig recently turned 25.
Entrustet lets people decide which assets they want to transfer to an executor or delete upon death by letting users securely store usernames and passwords for accounts.
The company currently offers two account types. The "Account Guardian" transfers digital assets to friends and family free of charge, while the "Account Incinerator," which costs $30 a year, also enables users to delete accounts upon death.
With 2,000 customers and counting, Entrustet serves a diverse clientele. Lustig says most users live in the United States but come from all age brackets and backgrounds. Though the no-cost Account Guardian remains the most popular service, Davis and Lustig expect Entrustet to generate more revenue through increased partnerships with lawyers and possibly with corporations.
Nine other people help manage the company under Davis and Lustig. Some work in Madison and Boston, while others monitor Entrustet's offsite server at a secret location - where the company stores customers' private information.
Davis and Lustig are now in South America, running their company through a program called "Start-Up Chile." The pair were among 25 entrepreneurs chosen for the government-run program, which has provided the company with $40,000 to collaborate with other entrepreneurs and businesses for up to six months.
The company also still occupies a small office at 30 W. Mifflin St., adorned with 14 dry erase boards covered with graphs, marketing data and ideas. Brainstorming is essential at this stage of the process, notes Davis, who doesn't know what the long-term future will bring.
"But," he says with confidence, "I can tell you that in 10 years - or even five years - there will be a mechanism of some sort that does what we're trying to do."
In an increasingly virtual world, digital assets and content - including blog postings, Facebook and Flickr accounts - can harbor sentimental and economic value. Entrustet, above all, empowers users to manage their data.
"One of the interesting things about the Internet is that you can differentiate yourself into all sorts of personalities," Lustig says. But that also means people may want to control what information about them is floating around online.
In his book, Friedman briefly tells the story of Justin Ellsworth, a U.S. Marine who was killed in 2004 while inspecting a bomb in Iraq. His family asked Yahoo! for the contents of his email account to remember him by. Yahoo! resisted, but eventually complied after a probate judge ordered the emails to be handed over.
"I remember being really frustrated about that and thinking, 'Oh boy, there's this whole tidal wave coming and people don't see it yet,'" Davis says.
Lustig agrees: "We wanted to solve the problem. We thought it was crazy that the Ellsworth family had to go to court."
Both think the best solution involves consumers, companies and attorneys working together.
"Companies are just beginning to see this trend of users dying, and they don't know users are dead," Davis says. "Three Facebook users die every minute, and Facebook has no idea who is dead."
The duo calculated deaths for the popular social media website by using Facebook's advertising data and statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The calculations are recapped on the company's blog.
Entrustet recently unveiled a corporate partner program, which allows online companies to sign a contract agreeing to uphold the final wishes of Entrustet users in exchange for updates when users die.
Nathan Dosch, a former Madison attorney who recently moved to Milwaukee, says estate management for digital assets is a murky area in law - in fact, the term "digital asset" lacks a legal definition altogether.
An estate, tax and business attorney, Dosch specializes in estate planning for digital assets. He counsels Davis and Lustig and legally represents Entrustet.
Dosch hopes to develop the concept of digital assets or put assets in a more defined subcategory in intangible personal property.
Legalities matter, especially when people worry about personal data. "It's not just about money," he says. "It could be a sentimental asset that just vanishes into the Internet abyss."
Take emails, for instance. If someone prints an email, it can be considered tangible property and legally worked into a will. But when the email remains in digital form, it's unclear who owns the information - the individual or the company that stores it.
Dosch says Entrustet is unique because it encourages customers to print out a list of their digital assets to incorporate into their wills with the help of an estate attorney.
Davis and Lustig have already taken that step for their own data. Using the company's services, the two entrepreneurs set up accounts to transfer much of their economically valuable and sentimental online assets to family members.
Both have specific wishes regarding one social media account.
"I don't want anyone to remember me for my Facebook profile," says Lustig, "not that there's anything bad there. I just want to be remembered for who I was."