A new app created by a Missoula entrepreneur aims to create a one-stop repository for positive messages from friends and family members, while also encouraging more such messages.
Kindkudos is the latest project from Bryony Schwan, whose previous start-up experience was in the nonprofit realm.
She founded Women's Voices for the Earth, a nonprofit that advocates for the removal of chemicals from common household products, and she co-founded the Biomimicry Institute, which pushes for design innovations based on principles from the natural world.
The app, meanwhile, is targeted toward enhancing its users' emotional health.
While developing the concept last year, Schwan had hundreds of conversations about the various places people keep important notes, letters and photographs.
Some have shoe boxes, or desk drawers. Increasingly, they have a file of emails, or a handful of voicemails they avoid deleting.
"People keep these little stashes in little places. The problem with them is they're scattered everywhere and they're not easily accessible," Schwan said.
She set out to create an app that people could access whenever they like, or whenever they need to feel connected to their friends, family or community.
Once the app is downloaded, iPhone users can send and receive messages via video, text or audio recording.
The home screen resembles a social media feed, except all of the messages are private and secure, and only visible to the two parties involved.
The other purpose is to encourage people to use more positive communications.
"Most people recognize we need a kinder, gentler world. There's so much bad news in the world. I wanted to create something really positive that would make people feel good and encourage people to make other people feel kind," she said.
The app has a "pay it forward" function designed to do just that. Each message a user receives has a button. When a user clicks on it, they can send a new message to someone else.
The bottom of the message will show the user how many times the sentiment has been "paid forward," and a user can also pull up a map that will display its spread around the world.
Schwan gave a quick demonstration, noting that the map only specifies location by city to protect users' privacy.
Schwan hopes that future versions of the app will be able to access content from other apps on your phone - such as SMS messages - and store those as well. For now, only messages sent and received within the app can be archived.
Storing the first 50 messages is free, but users must sign up for a premium version at $4.99 a year for extra storage.
She and her development team built the app so that even if the project fails, or if the user doesn't want to use the app anymore, they can download all of their stored messages onto a desktop computer to keep them safe.
Inspiration for the app came from several sources.
One was her sister, who lives north of London and had become socially isolated.
Schwan said England is culturally different from Zimbabwe, where they grew up, and her sibling had become introverted. Their parents had passed away, and Schwan became her only contact.
Keeping in touch was made more difficult by the eight-hour difference in time, and her sister's graveyard work schedule.
"She would have these really tough times and want to call me to just sort of know that somebody cared about her. But often her window of time to call me because of her job, was slap in the middle of my day," she said.
That set her thinking about the creation of an app to store positive messages in a variety of media, including video and audio.
Schwan also took a course on the psychology of happiness at the University of Montana, taught by Kevin Dohr, a Ph.d. psychologist.
She learned that despite its wealth, the United States ranks 17th in happiness, according to a report generated by the United Nations.
"So much of our culture pushes us toward material things: We think, 'OK, if we can just go out and just have the right house, just drive the right car, and have the right clothes and toys we're going to be happy.' But all of the data shows you that's not the case," she said.
She said there are studies that confirm that happiness doesn't increase with wealth beyond a certain point at which basic needs are met.
"After about an income of about $60,000 or $70,000, more income doesn't equate to more happiness," she said.
Instead, it's a sense of social connection and appreciation - whether it's from family, friends or the community at large.
"How do people know that? What are the signals we get back that give us that sense of security and that knowing that we're cared about?" she said.
Despite her previous ventures as a founder, Schwan said launching the app over the past year has been the hardest thing she's ever done.
She raised $280,000 in angel investments thus far, and contracted with two developers to bring the project to fruition: Tim Greiser, a Seattle resident and Missoula native, who handles security and back-end server work; and Tim Christensen, a Missoula developer who designed the user interface. John Yoder, also of Missoula, designed the website, and she's working with marketers in Seattle and Los Angeles.
The app made it through Apple's approval process and went live in the App Store at the end of February.
She knows that competition in the app world is intense, and that she's not the normal demographic of a tech entrepreneur.
"The tech world is not an easy place for a middle-aged woman," she said.
As a female start-up founder, she was invited to Google's annual conference, Google I/O, last year.
"I sort of joked that it was me and 6,000 guys under 30. I'm sure they looked around, like 'Who brought their mother?' " she said.
With the launch behind her comes another challenge: spreading the word.
The Kindkudos.com site will host a "public kudos" function, in which everyday people who contribute to their communities in anonymous ways can be nominated for honors.
They also plan to partner with the Audience Awards, a Missoula-based tech company, to create a video competition.
In the end, the success of an app to spread kind words will depend on positive word of mouth.