Bob Hillier, 69, who has just merged his architectural firm with a Scottish conglomerate, making it one of the largest in the country, is much too busy for retirement. He’s going to skip that step entirely and move right on to death — not his death, but rather the individual deaths of his contemporaries and also the multi-faceted phenomenon of death itself.
Hillier, along with his wife, Barbara Hillier, principal architect at the Hillier Group, are the founders of Obit, an Internet magazine whose name pretty much — but not quite — says it all. The website is still a little hard to find, so go to the nearest computer and bookmark www.obit-mag.com right away. The good looking, surprisingly light-hearted, beautifully-written website is well worth not just a look, but a regular slot in a daily web surfing routine.
A new role as the publisher of a death-focused publication could be a bit of a stretch for some architects, but not for Hillier, who is a also a partner in Town Topics, a Princeton weekly newspaper, and who provided the financing to get the Montgomery News going. Curious and with energy to spare, he partnered with his father, the late James Hillier, a director of the David Sarnoff Research Center, in an invention company for many years, and holds 72 patents, “now largely useless,” he says, in technology related to developing a wireless light switch.
Hillier’s business ideas come from everywhere. The idea for Obit arrived at 30,000 feet as he was traveling home from Dallas. “A 50-year-old woman sitting next to me was reading a long article in People magazine about the death of Captain Kangaroo,” he recounts. “He meant nothing to me. I was in graduate school when he was on television, but she must have been five or six or seven.” As Hillier watched the woman read about the life and death of Bob Keeshan, he saw her start to cry. “Captain Kangaroo was the world to her,” he says. “When he died, a little bit of her died, too. The idea for Obit came to me at that moment.”
Hillier went straight home and told Barbara about his idea. “She thought it was great,” he reports.
Soon thereafter, Hillier went to visit his Merrill Lynch financial advisor, and mentioned the idea, which prompted his advisor to launch into a wildly enthusiastic description of a young man, the son of two Princeton physicians, who had graduated from Wesleyan in 2004, and who was working on a magazine start-up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Hillier got in touch with the young man, Krishna Andavolu, whose father, Rao H. Andavolu, is a surgical pathologist at Princeton Medical Center, and whose mother, Vani B. Andavolu, is a physiatrist at Reynolds Specialized Hospital. He learned that Andavolu had recently left Daylight, a non-profit magazine with a focus on communities in areas of conflict that has won many awards for its graphics, but which has a tiny operating budget, and promptly hired him to edit the not-yet-born obituary publication.
Planning for Obit began early in 2006. It was to be an upscale celebration of lives well lived (for the most part) and a look at how the rituals surrounding death are changing as Baby Boomers bury their parents and finally acknowledge that they, too, may one day leave this glorious planet. It was to be a print publication, published six times a year, and at one point a launch date in early 2007 was set.
The launch date was pushed back, but a print publication remained the goal as staff and freelancers were recruited. Then, just recently, accelerating changes in reading habits led Hillier to change his mind, and to opt to make Obit a website-only publication.
“The industry is changing too much. What’s happened is that people are very much into high speed media,” he says. “Even traditional magazines are written in sound bites.” He quotes a recent article in Wired magazine that states that even the New York Times (which, by the way, is pioneering video obituaries) is deciding that the future is online.
Thinking it over, Hillier says that this is especially true for a publication with Obit’s content.
“With obituaries you have to be damn fast,” he says. “How will we get life stories and get them into a magazine, meet printing schedules, and still be timely?” he asks. Hillier now sees Obit as an Internet-only enterprise, with one possible exception. “People do like curling up with good reading material,” he says. “I can see an annual or semi-annual coffee table book, a book store item at the end of the year. It could be huge.”
But for now nearly all of the considerable work being done on Obit is concentrated on the online version, which launched early in the summer, and is still in something of a beta stage.
“Each week we do twists, and turns, and tweaks,” says Hillier. “It’s been redesigned three times.”
The central content of Obit is obituaries — or “life stories” as Hillier and Andavolu prefer to call them. There are the celebrity profiles one would expect — for opera star Beverly Sills, film director Lee Hazelwood, and football coach Bill Walsh. Obit does not yet maintain an obituary bank of famous people, as many large daily newspapers do, but is beginning to work on that project.
For now, the website posts a photograph and a few paragraphs, “sometimes from AP,” says Andavolu, when a death occurs. It also posts links to in-depth obituaries in newspapers like the New York Times. Then, a day or two later, after the assignment has been turned in by the most qualified Obit freelancer, the site posts an “appreciation” of the deceased. The site features obituaries about people whose lives can inspire its readers, says Andavolu. Not every famous — or infamous — person will be included. There was no Anna Nicole Smith obituary, for example. Would a famous serial killer make the cut? “I don’t know. I’m not sure,” he says.
In addition to stories on the humans who have just died, there are a number of odes to the end of places, phenomena, and fictional characters. Now featured is a think piece on the end of the Harry Potter book series. It follows a similar homage to the last episode of the Sopranos.
There are other off-beat features, too, gentle stories that should leave Obit visitors smiling — or with ideas about enriching their own send-offs or those of their loved ones. One feature talks about the many alumni who would like to spend eternity on their college campuses, while another details the efforts of Swedish inventor to commercialize a process for freeze-drying human remains and turning them into a substance that could nourish a decedent’s cherished garden. There are articles about web-based mourning, including one on a site that will E-mail individually personalized messages to friends upon one’s passing, and another that will write eulogies for anyone called upon to say a few words at a funeral.
A moving story tells of Oscar, a nursing home cat who unerringly settles himself on the bed of a patient about to breathe his last, purring and nuzzling him, and giving staff notice that it is time to call family members for a final visit.
An article that illustrates the wealth of material upon which Obit’s editors can draw reports on the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., which has derived revenue from allowing pet owners to use it as dog run — for an annual fee of $125.
One of the most popular parts of the website, says Hillier, is the “Mourning Report.” It is a map with dots standing for cities around the country. Click on one and the obituary section of the day from a prominent newspaper in that city comes up. In addition to this geographical sorting of recent passings, Hillier is planning a sorting by profession. “We’ll have the most interesting architect, lawyer, researcher who died today,” he says. When he reads his own industry publications, he checks the obituaries, and says he is often saddened to see that a colleague he knew just a little, perhaps from a conferences, has died.
But it’s not just the prominent who have a place on Obit. There is now a section on the website called “The Reveal” — and soon to be revamped and renamed “O Blog” — on which anyone can post a story about a deceased friend or relative, or a reflection on the interplay of life, death, and legacies. Hillier says that Obit has not yet found its magic, and that he thinks an active blog might just be that magic.
Accompanied by photos, the few blog entries on Obit — some just a sentence or two long, and others substantial stories — are uniformly well-written, and often moving. One man writes about what his father’s house, which he is about to sell, has meant to him. A woman in a tie-dyed dress, posing with her young granddaughter, talks about how her grandmother’s sense of fun inspired her, and how she hopes to pass that legacy along.
Just as Obit, the publication, is opting to exist in the ether, Obit, the company, is largely virtual. Andavolu works from New York City. His web designer is in Scandinavia. The editor who finds writers for many of the features is based in Philadelphia. Some 70 percent of the website’s content comes from far-flung freelancers.
The Hilliers, for whom Saturdays have become their time to work on Obit, live in New Hope with their daughter Jordan, age 14. Hillier also has a son, James, age 43, who teaches at a private school in Vermont.
Andavolu says he has “never worked any other way. With E-mail and conference calls, you can work from anywhere.” Hillier not only accepts the work arrangement, but revels in it. He laughs as he talks about how he found Obit’s PR director while strolling around an auto show in New Hope. He mentions the prominent publications at which Obit’s art director and features editor work. “They’re all moonlighters,” he says. “You can’t mention their names. They all say working on Obit is so much more fun than their full-time jobs.”
Andavolu says that Obit’s hits, still modest, doubled in its second month, rose 75 percent more in its third month, and have leveled off as the summer wears on. There has been no substantial advertising campaign yet, although there has been some media coverage, including an article in late-June in the New York Times. The site does have some advertising, and has benefitted from positive notices on influential blogging sites, including Digg. Word of mouth has been the most important marketing tool, by far, says Andavolu, who adds that it’s difficult to say when the time for pitches to major advertisers will come. “It’s a calculus of how many hits we get, how many repeat hits, how long people stay spend on the site,” he says.
Hillier says that he is considering placing one-inch ads at the bottom of the obituary pages of the newspapers to which Obit links in its Mourning Report.
Major advertisers, especially those hawking upscale goods and services, might be interested in reaching Obit’s readers when they reach critical mass. “We’ve done focus groups,” says Hillier. “We’ve found that the typical Obit reader is a woman between the ages of 50 and 70 with an income of $100,000-plus.” He is not surprised that the publication skews so heavily toward women — 72 percent. “Women like to read about people,” he says. “Men like sports — and guns.”
Hillier says that the start-up costs for a publication like Obit could run to $2 million, but he doesn’t expect it to take that much for his new venture to reach profitability. He thinks that the online Obit could break even after a few more months and a further investment in the low six figures.
Meanwhile, Hillier continues to focus most of his energy on building projects. One of them involves the construction of 14 condominiums, for which he is applying for zoning permits. The new homes will be on Greenview Avenue — overlooking Princeton Cemetery. “But there’s no connection to Obit, really,” he says with a laugh.