Joseph Schechter of ‘AFTR’: “Think out of the box”

The first great words of advice I ever received was to be patient because all beginnings are tough. Whether it’s related to making your first sale, getting something to work, or ensuring product samples come in, it’s critical to remain patient and stick with the course. As a part of our series about business leaders who […]

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The first great words of advice I ever received was to be patient because all beginnings are tough. Whether it’s related to making your first sale, getting something to work, or ensuring product samples come in, it’s critical to remain patient and stick with the course.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Schechter, Founder and CEO, AFTR. AFTR aims to usher burial site visits into the digital age by eliminating geographic barriers. He is proficient in the art of negotiation, communication, and people management. He currently lives in Brooklyn with his wife Gila and children.

Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory?” What led you to this particular career path?

In 2007 I started my company Rear View Safety, which specializes in creating back-up cameras for trucks, buses, and other commercial vehicles. We developed the most cost-efficient backup camera solution that aids in reducing accidents and quickly gained major market share, forcing the backup camera industry to lower prices almost instantly.

Four years ago my father died of cancer at the age of 64. On the 2nd anniversary of my father’s death, my sister who lives in Florida was devastated that she couldn’t make it back to New York City to be with our family and pay her respects in person. The grief she experienced sparked my idea for AFTR and inspired me to develop a way for people to maintain a forever connection to lost loved ones despite geographic boundaries. I created an early prototype camera in the cemetery at our father’s grave that allowed for a virtual visitation experience for my sister where she was able to connect to our father’s burial site through an app on her smartphone. She could see the headstone and hear the ambient sound and was able to connect with our father instantly. That’s how AFTR was born.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

The U.S. death care market is estimated to reach over 102 billion dollars this year. Despite this, the market has been fairly stagnant in terms of advancements, and has struggled to make the leap into the technological age. My work with AFTR is disrupting the landscape by developing products that will change the entire after-death experience for those that lose someone close to them — products that consumers didn’t realize they needed until now.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Thankfully not too many come to mind but I do recall one big one, though. I was fortunate to secure a meeting with the CEO of the largest Cemetery-owning company in the world. We spoke on the phone and confirmed our meeting for 2:00 PM. Since I was in New York, while he was in Houston, I added it to my calendar for 3:00 PM. On the day of the appointment, I land in Houston with my partner, and it’s 12:30 when we leave the airport, so we decide to do a little sight-seeing near the meeting location. I was so fixated on 3:00 PM that I completely forgot about the time difference until I got a call at 2:15 PM from the CEO’s secretary asking where we were. My world came crashing down around me as I immediately realized the mistake I had made. We drove right over, sprinted up the stairs, and got to the meeting a full hour late. Luckily, the CEO was extremely warm and pleasant, and very understanding over the mixup. The lesson here is to rely on your calendar for important meetings! Use the tools at your disposal.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

My Rabbi is one of my greatest mentors. There is a Yiddish expression, ‘The best lie is the truth.’ My parents and Rabbi taught me to always be honest which translates into how I communicate with my customers. I put my best foot forward daily by being honest which leads to understanding. While I can’t recall any particular story at this time, there have been many instances in which a “white lie” might have helped to smooth over a situation. I always choose to go with the truth anyway. I have been amazed at the positive reactions people have to being told a hard truth. I guess Billy Joel was right when he said “Honesty is hardly ever heard”. People are almost shocked to hear the truth at times, but their appreciation of the truth goes a long way toward building strong relationships built on mutual respect.

I also love to listen to successful entrepreneurs and hear about their struggles and how they overcame them. This reassures me that it will all be okay in the end.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

The industry that my team and I are disrupting is somewhat of a double edged sword. On one hand, we of course want people to continue to physically visit cemeteries and do not want to hinder the necessary connection it provides or discount the physical connection that comes with visiting a loved one’s burial place. On the other hand, statistics show that in-person burial visitation decreases after the first year someone passes. It’s important for us to disrupt the industry by bringing death into the digital age, not only because it has never been done before, but because everything has gone digital and is accessible at our fingertips through our smartphones. Why not make connection to the afterlife easily accessible, too, and enable people to overcome physical obstacles to be able to connect with their loved ones?

A classic example of an industry disruption gone wrong would be the introduction of “New Coke”. Coca Cola decided to switch up the recipe and ended up getting a huge pushback on it. They had to backpedal so hard that their product is still labeled “Coca Cola Classic”.

I think the lesson is, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disruption for the sake of advancement is always positive; disruption for the sake of disruption is usually going to have adverse effects.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

The first great words of advice I ever received was to be patient because all beginnings are tough. Whether it’s related to making your first sale, getting something to work, or ensuring product samples come in, it’s critical to remain patient and stick with the course.

The second is to think out of the box. Thankfully this is something that comes fairly naturally to me: when someone says there is no way to do something, I take that as a personal challenge to find a way. This drove a lot of the success I experienced in my first business, and I think the whole concept of AFTR is pretty out-of-the-box in itself!

My last piece of great advice is a very important one. Despite how impressive a job candidate may be during an initial conversation or meeting, always call someone back in for a second interview. When I’m interviewing for a position, it’s often a critical one that I need to fill badly because we are a lean operation. This can cause you to become a bit overzealous in your excitement when meeting someone who might possibly be able to fill that position, but don’t let yourself become overly excited! Even if the first interview is fantastic, always have the person come in for a second meeting to ensure you still feel the same way.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I think this project is going to keep me busy for a while, but our team is creative and in the short time we have been working on AFTR, we have already launched a new product called AFTR messaging, which allows people to leave video, voice, and text messages to their loved ones after they pass away. We have two more projects in the death care space already in the works, so lots of exciting things are still to come.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I am a huge fan of Guy Raz’s podcast, How I Built This. I listen to his show on a weekly basis. He speaks with some incredible founders, and listening to their struggles has helped me to learn from the best out there. Listening to this podcast has taught me valuable lessons on how to overcome common business problems including raising money and product failures. I am inspired by how other founders have remained resilient and kept going after facing a challenge. I even bought his book recently!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson related quote alludes to remaining flexible as an entrepreneur, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” It’s very easy to be thrown off course when starting your own business. The challenges are endless and they can cause you to grow frustrated and want to give up. It’s important to keep pushing despite any curve balls thrown your way, whether work related, personal, or health related. You must continue to push despite the circumstances. Don’t let anything get in your way and know that it’s a test that you must make the best of in order to work through it.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I’d like to inspire a mindset shift regarding how we approach and deal with death. There is a unique shift of perspective that occurs when we visit a cemetery. It reminds us of how finite our time in this world is, and to do the most good possible with the time we are given.

We all waste so much time on our phones with meaningless and unproductive pursuits. If we can take a few minutes of that time and use it for visiting a loved one, and enter that same frame of mind from wherever you are, I think that would inspire enormous positivity in this world. It acts as a reminder to people to spend time with their loved ones, to be the best person they can be, and to leave as positive an impact as possible on this world.

How can our readers follow you online?

I welcome connecting on LinkedIn and can be found here.

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