By Julio Ojeda-Zapata Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn. WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Entrepreneur Sahar Ismail, created her company "SecretValet" in an effort to help families better preserve important information that would be catastrophic to lose. The company essentially creates the digital equivalent of a time capsule.
Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.
Sahar Ismail found her true calling as a tech entrepreneur after her family's fortune was -- literally -- lost forever.
Ismail, of Prior Lake, is co-founder of SecretValet, a service that creates the digital equivalent of time capsules that users can fill with confidential information of their choosing and lock away to be opened later.
The capsules can contain just about anything: loving messages to children or other loved ones, business secrets, details on how to retrieve family documents and accounts, and so on.
Critically, these time capsules are designed to reveal themselves automatically when, how and to whom the user wishes -- even if that person has passed on.
Ismail, who is of Palestinian descent and hails from Jerusalem, got the idea for SecretValet after her grandfather buried the family's gold in the Middle East and later lost track of its location.
His frantic attempts to find it, and those of Ismail's father, were for naught. Both men died with broken hearts.
This got Ismail thinking about how to better preserve important information that would be catastrophic to lose.
"I can't help but wonder how differently things would have turned out ... with a service to hold a map or coordinates of a location for as long as needed," Ismail said regarding her family tragedy.
Bank safety-deposit boxes are one potential and effective way to do that, she acknowledges. But electronic time capsules archived safely on the Internet can be better in some ways, she believes.
HOW IT WORKS Ismail, who co-founded SecretValet with fiancee and fellow tech expert Michael Lester, said such heavily encrypted time capsules are impregnable to all but those who possess key pieces of info.
A dad setting up a capsule for his children would fashion security questions only they would be able to answer: Where did you spill that pizza sauce all over your shirt? What words were uttered by that annoying parrot at Disney World? Why was Mom crying that super sunny day in San Francisco?
SecretValet is designed in such a way that even Ismail or Lester can't get inside any of the capsules. They're totally private and secure, they claim. The data is stored on servers around the country.
Capsule-creating customers also control the circumstances under which the repositories are revealed to their intended recipients, Lester said.
"We deliver it to people when the time is right," Lester said.
This could occur on confirmation of the capsule creators' passing, which would be verified when their Social Security numbers popped up in the U.S. Social Security Death Master File or "index," which SecretValet has permission to regularly monitor.
Users also can have their capsules periodically send them texts or e-mails, to which they would respond as confirmation that they're still breathing. SecretValet calls this a "heartbeat."
"If you stop answering the pings, we release the capsule," Lester said.
MYRIAD OPTIONS Some customers might want capsule contents destroyed instead of revealed when the heartbeat is no longer detected, he added. It is entirely up to the user.
Ismail and Lester are offering three SecretValet user levels, one of which is free.
The free tier provides 5 gigabytes of storage but has no automation -- no Death Index monitoring, no heartbeat. It's completely manual, meaning users make their own arrangements for their capsules to be accessed, much as they would with a bank safety-deposit box for physical items.
A second-tier 5-gig level adds automated delivery upon confirmation of death via the Social Security index. Alternately, users can designate a delivery date or authorize a capsule's opening if a credit card is declined.
The third level ups the storage to 10 gigs and adds the heartbeat feature.
Payments for levels two and three can be made monthly ($1.95 or $2.95), yearly ($19.95 or $29.95) or with one "lifetime" payment ($99.95 or $149.95).
SecretValet, which has been in the planning stages for a couple years and saw its public rollout this summer, has only about 100 customers thus far. Many of these are individuals, but Ismail and Lester see their future in bulk capsule sales -- to estate-planning attorneys, say, for use by their clientele.
SecretValet is already starting to get attention. It was just named one of three finalists for a local Tekne Award in the cyber-security category. The Minnesota High Tech Association will name the Tekne winners in November.
THE THINK TANK SecretValet does not have a formal office yet, but Ismail said she is scouting out co-working spaces in Minneapolis. She and Lester mostly still run their business out of their Prior Lake home, which is a common scenario for tech startups.
The two share a home office, but they said a lot of their brainstorming occurs in their hot tub -- which they jokingly call the "think tank."
"We talk about different scenarios there," Lester said. "We have to make sure we get out of the hot tub to write everything down on a big whiteboard we have next to the office."
They said their work on SecretValet is intensely collaborative, and they don't think the service would have happened without input from both.
Ismail, for instance, brought to the table her angst surrounding her family's long-lost fortune, along with longtime experience in information-technology architecture, and her eagerness to make a difference in people's lives.
She said she had recently chafed at day jobs that challenged her intellectually but had no soul. So, with Lester's support, she quit to work solely on SecretValet. She's the company's only full-time employee, though she looks to expand its staff in coming months.
"Michael has been an empowering role in my life," she said. "He inspired me to go take a risk."
Lester, who still holds a day job as a software-development director, contributed crucial concepts to the SecretValet business model. The idea to outfit time capsules with personalized security questions was his.
Ismail and Lester said they appeared destined to find each other, though it took a while with a few close calls.
NEAR MISSES When Lester was a Marine Corps helicopter pilot during the 1990s Gulf War, he often flew over a particular location in Kuwait where Ismail was living at the time. Later, Ismail and Lester both lived in Orange County, Calif., about six miles apart.
They met after they both moved to Minneapolis when Lester saw Ismail's profile on the Match.com dating site. Certain Ismail was being swamped with inquiries, Lester tried something unique -- a reference to Scheherazade, the legendary storyteller from Arabian folklore -- in his e-mail subject line. It worked.
Juggling romance and business has "been surprisingly good for both of us," Lester said.
"We kind of know life is life and business is business," he noted. "When we disagree, we'll take a break and get back together to discuss the pros and cons, and how to move forward."