As a healthy 26-year-old, I don’t think about death often. But earlier this week, it was staring at me right back in my face, in the form of an app. The app was asking me questions about my final wishes, some I normally wouldn’t have considered, like do I want my friends and family to have a stiff drink on the anniversary of my death?
“The vision is that every single one of us will die, and we all experience loss, so how do we make it easier to talk about it, so that we can actually prepare for it and make it less painful?”
After quick consideration, I decided, yeah, actually I would. It’s a nice thought. But then it asked me a few questions in the form of yes or no statements that were harder to answer, like “I feel at peace with how I’ve lived my life so far” and “It is important for me to never be a burden to my loved ones.” They were definitely harder than the ones asking if I wanted my funeral “to be a unique celebration of my life” or if “I have a backup plan for my online account passwords.”
I can’t ever remember thinking about end-of-life issues for myself before. But that’s kind of the point with CAKE, a Boston startup that is developing an app that aims to make it easier for people to think about these sort of things.
“The vision is that every single one of us will die, and we all experience loss,” Suelin Chen, the startup’s CEO and founder, told me as I was filling out my answers on CAKE’s app, “so how do we make it easier to talk about it, so that we can actually prepare for it and make it less painful?”
For Chen and her co-founder, palliative care specialist Mark Zhang, the answer is in the app, which goes into public beta in a few months. CAKE is a MassChallenge finalist this year.
Instead of proposing to replace the different services required for end-of-life planning, like estate planning and will writing, CAKE acts as an ice-breaker for thinking about these issues. The problem CAKE is trying to solve, Chen said, is that it can be so easy to feel daunted by the various legal processes involved that it can prevent people from thinking about end-of-life planning in the first place.
“We think in a lot of ways the way end-of-life planning works today has masked the fact that a lot of our preferences can be expressed in plain English, and it doesn’t have to flow through a legal document necessarily,” Chen said. “The documents are important, but it’s not necessarily the entry point. We think this is a better entry point.”
So how does CAKE get people to think about end-of-life issues?
After you sign up, it asks you a series of 35 yes or no statements that are generated from a database of about 200. Some of them ask rather standard things, like funeral matters, and other things that you may have never considered. Each statement is short and succinct and only requires you hit the “X” or checkmark, sort of like Tinder but without the swiping. If you need to think longer about one, you can log out and save your progress.
Chen said the reason why the app is called CAKE is because it articulates two parts of the startup’s mission: (1) to provide an experience that is as “easy as cake,” and (2) to help you express your wishes so you can celebrate life’s moments.
“We’ve interviewed dozens of experts not just in healthcare, but also funeral planners, estate attorneys, and asked them what are the top five or 10 things you want your clients to think about,” she said, explaining how they determined what kinds of questions to ask. “Our goal is to curate them in a way that never feels overwhelming, and what we think is really elegant about our solution is even if you’ve only answered one, you’ve already created value for you and your loved ones because it’s one last thing they have to guess at.”
Once you’re done answering the questions, CAKE will generate a profile for you that you can share with whoever you want. The profile divides your wishes into four categories (legacy, funeral, health and legal/financial) and then gives you suggested actions based on how you answer the statements from the first step. Chen provided me an example profile you can view below.
A free, consumer-facing app with B2B potential
CAKE is a free app. But Chen and Zhang also plan to make money with the app by charging an annual fee for a concierge service that providers users with a consultant to help them figure out their next steps, like what kind of professionals they need to fulfill their final wishes.
While CAKE is intended to be a consumer-facing app, Chen said she has heard interest from employers who are considering offering CAKE’s concierge service as an employee benefit. The startup has already been working in collaboration with the Innovation Hub at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Resolution Care, a palliative care telemedicine group.
As someone working in palliative care, Zhang said he has seen first hand the lack of communication that can lead to painful situations for families when a loved one becomes really ill.
“It’s totally understandable because it’s really hard to talk about,” he said. “It’s really hard to navigate but then you see the fallout: people getting procedures they don’t want, getting essentially beaten down by the healthcare system.”
With CAKE, Zhang and Chen hope people can start those conversations earlier and make life a little easier. “We’ve had the key insight that the paperwork isn’t the thing that’s the problem. It’s part of the problem,” he said. “But really, the problem is people aren’t talking about it.”
An example of a CAKE profile generated from answering the app’s questions.
Editor’s note: The article has been updated to clarify that CAKE is working in collaboration with the Innovation Hub at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and not as an official partnership.