‘Like Uber, but for cremations’: I created a $2m funeral startup – and became a monster
The company I founded in my 20s exploited vulnerable people for profit. I was a merchant of death, and a charlatan
Last modified on Fri 7 May 2021 21.34 BSTA few years ago I sat on the phone, as a first-time CEO of a funeral startup in my 20s, trying to convince a woman to buy a $1,799 necklace filled with her mother’s ashes.“Well, Katherine. It’s really beautiful.” I paused for dramatic effect. “We take a charm that you like, let’s say a dove, or a cross – or maybe something that meant something to Marcella. And then we fill it with some of her ashes. Whenever you wear it, it’s like Marcella is with you … right next to your heart.”
Ending on the word “heart” made it feel more genuine, which made it more likely that we’d get a conversion. A conversion is the word we used to describe a successful transaction.But we had to be careful – if we got too good at this, too pseudo-genuine, we’d wind up unable to shield our own states of mind from someone else’s grieving misery.
That’s what I learned when a customer service rep had a breakdown on the open floor of our WeWork.“What’s wrong?” I asked.“Well,” she sniffled, “I just got off the phone with this woman whose husband died. She has no kids and doesn’t think she’ll be able to afford staying in her home. Also, she might have cancer.” headtopics.com
I waited for the part that concerned me.“So she can’t pay for our services,” she said.“So sad,” I said, more upset at the lack of conversion than the woman’s loss.I often wonder how I ended up like that – how I became someone I didn’t want to be. I like to think it was a culmination of circumstances beyond my control, and that I was simply a victim of fate. But that’s never true.
To be or not to be a funeral director, one always has a choice.Iwasn’t always an insider to death. I wasn’t born knowing the average cost of a funeral ($7,000 to $12,000, depending on who you ask), or the temperature at which you can store a dead body (39F, or 3.8C).
My journey began in 2014, on a cold snowy day in New York, when I got a call from a mentor of mine.“Things are fine, Alex – but my mother died last month.”“I’m so sorry. How’re you coping?” I asked.“It’s terrible. There’s so much paperwork. I’d pay thousands to make it go away.”
He asked me to start a business to tackle this. Why he asked me, specifically, I’m not sure. I was 25, carefree and had just come out of the closet. Maybe he thought that if I was able to feign interest in sex with women for so long, I’d have no trouble acting my way through “I’m sorry for your loss”. Until then, my career had always been directionless. One startup I worked for helped companies get rid of punch cards, another helped consumers find cheap parking. Companies that succeeded at making money but failed to make an emotional impact. headtopics.com
We came up with a premise: help families during end-of-life decisions. The startup was born, and we called her Grace.Grace was beautiful. A soft color-palette of light blues and pale yellows, a website with all the features you’d hope for. It was like Uber, but for cremations. Grace would help with the disposal of a body, the logistics of cancelling a New York Times subscription, transferring a Chase asset, even deactivating Tinder. Our startup was tackling the $20bn funeral industry with a one-stop-solution for closing out someone’s life with just a few taps on your phone. But behind it all sat a young founder with no experience nor interest in death.
This quickly became a problem rather quickly with investors.“Alex, we like you. You seem very fun and … happy-go-lucky. With regard to the funeral industry, you don’t really have what we call ‘founder-market’ fit.”Grace needed a raison d’être.Then, a month later, my great-uncle Jack died of pneumonia. I was sad, as we all are when anyone dies, but my uncle and I weren’t close, and this lack of intimacy was a roadblock for the emotional story I needed to fundraise. It was here that my days of having been a liar, trapped in the closet, finally came of use.
“Well, new investor. When my Uncle Jack passed away, there was justsomuch to do. I was beside myself,” I cleared my already-clear throat. “Closing out the Chase account and the Verizon bill while helping my Aunt figure out what to do with his … well … you know … body … I just wish there had been a service to take on some of the work” – I intentionally looked to the floor – “… something that could have given our family time and space to sit together when we needed to, you know …”
I looked up. “To grieve.”There it was: Grace’s origin story.I wasn’t proud of it then and I’m not proud of it now, but Grace was on a mission to provide a service to the world and we needed money to make that happen.Four months later, we raised $2m – a typical round in the $130bn, delusional venture-capital market. With newly pocketed investor dollars, we relocated the company to California headtopics.com
–a state that combined less restrictive funeral laws with tech-forward residents who might be comfortable with an online funeral home.Specifically, we chose Los Angeles. At 63,559 deaths per year, even if we ended up with a low conversion-to-close rate, LA would have enough mortality to keep us running for a while. And what a city it was. A place full of charlatans, where wannabe celebrities drove Benzes and hot Insta types drove snake-oil CBD sales. It was just what we needed – a place where we fitted in.
“Ma’am, of course. We’ve handled many cremations in Calexico” – wherever that was. “We’ll have your father back to you in a week – ashes in hand.”We had sales numbers to hit, and assumed we’d figure it out along the way.And figure it out we did. Little check marks of death on a whiteboard. We were unprofitable, barely breaking even on contribution margin, let alone adjusting for salaries and phone-answering services and paying for flights to hospice conferences – but that didn’t matter at the time. Our top-line cremation numbers were up, and like most startups, we were adapting and changing to meet the needs of demand.
I began to adapt as well. Like a phoenix, I was shedding the feathers of a weaker, more genuine Alex, in exchange for those of an emotional chameleon. Someone who was able to look a man in the eyes and talk to him about his mother who had just been put on hospice, which typically meant she would yield a conversion within 24 days.
Knowing that I had to be there for him in order for the sale to close, while also knowing that her death was our gain. A battle easier fought when I could detach.Within a year, I passed a funeral director exam and then a life insurance exam, and months later, I had brokered a deal with a local hospital network whose electronic health record system automatically texted us each time a patient “expired”. A family for us to call, a fresh, potential conversion.
One evening, I was on a date with a guy I liked. His name was Patrick. Patrick the accountant.“So, Alex, what do you do for work?”“Oh. Um. I’m in … healthcare. How about you?” Read more: The Guardian »
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