Death might be a taboo subject, or perhaps something we don’t really want to think about, but just like taxes, it’s inevitable. And just as taxes tend to be, funerals and legal arrangements can become very expensive. This is largely due to traditional attitudes towards funerals, plus the difficulty of negotiating on a price after the event. This exploitation of the unprepared and mourning has seen the likes of Farewill and Willow enter the market, aiming to challenge outdated practices and save consumers money.
Currently, for the majority, funerals are arranged through a funeral director that may belong to a professional association such as the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD). Arranging a funeral in this way means you are responsible for the costs and will need to budget for the coffin, transportation, flowers, funeral service and more. Because of this practice, one in six people are in funeral poverty in the UK and this has led to reforms being proposed under the Bury the Debt campaign. The campaign is based around proposed changes to the funeral fund, which has been giving financial help to those that are eligible since the 1980s. Although the intentions were to help those that couldn’t afford funeral costs, inflation and a fund cap has led to the payment only covering around 40% of a basic funeral. The Bury the Debt campaign calls on the government to increase the Funeral Expenses Payment, among other changes such as increasing the time a person can make an application after a funeral.
Willow’s ethos fits in nicely with the Bury the Debt campaign, their homepage tagline is ‘buy coffins and flowers at their real price’, which shows their dedication to reducing over-inflated prices for hard-pressed families. Farewill could aim to reduce the problem further by allowing more people to sort their finances well in advance of their death- perhaps allowing their families to better cope with the costs through savings or insurance. Even looking past their product and service offerings, these startups are opening the conversation on death and how we can best prepare financially.
Despite being entirely about the individual, in the present industry of death and dying, the consumer comes last, with families left over-charged and under-served.
Farewill describe themselves as 'changing the way we deal with death, forever'. Their site has impressive and sleek functionality: you simply upload your details and answer a few questions to create a will. Their legal experts will check over your newly created will and, providing there are no issues they need to make you aware of, you can print and sign it. Farewill aim to make the public’s existing thoughts about will-writing dissipate. Notions of a stuffy corporate lawyer’s office and a slew of uncomfortable questions about life and finances, have been streamlined for the 21st century.
Willow was launched in 2016, aiming to address soaring funeral costs by going straight to source and working with a range of independent funeral directors. Willow doesn’t just give grieving families the lowest cost possible, they also strive to provide the best customer service in such a difficult time. It can be tricky to add the personal touch as an online company in this industry, to counteract this they offer every customer purchasing a coffin a personal representative who they can get in touch with throughout the process.
In this joint interview with Dan Garrett, CEO and co-founder of Farewill, and Derrick Grant, founder of Willow, they explain how they’re helping change the way we deal with death for the better.
The death industry isn’t exactly the first sector you’d think of when it comes to innovation. What has brought about this need for change?
Dan: That's exactly why change is needed. The death industry is one which, similarly to financial services, has traditionally exploited consumers. Dealing with money is complicated, so we're often told we need expert advice. This is even more the case with legal services, which means that, for decades, law firms have been able to continue offering an expensive, clunky and daunting service. Farewill has changed this.
Everything about our product is designed with the consumer in mind and we support our customers through every aspect of will-writing. Many customers go as far as saying that they enjoyed writing their will because of Farewill.
Derrick: The big players seem to show no interest in innovation especially in the use of technology to reduce pricing. When I understood how poor their customer service is, how archaic their processes are, and how pure greed has unnecessarily driven up funeral costs; I became angry, angry enough to decide to build a company to help make dying affordable for everyone.
Death isn’t something that many people think seriously about until it’s too late. How do you go about tackling this?
Dan: Yes, it’s still a huge problem. In the UK, 97% of people either don’t have a will, or have one that’s outdated. Three-quarters of parents haven’t appointed a guardian for their children, which is a sobering statistic when paired with the fact that 1 in 30 will die before their child reaches 18.
Farewill’s mission is to make the process of creating an invaluable legal document - your will - as simple, easy and pain-free as possible. We work with insurance companies, mortgage brokers and charities to ensure that writing a Farewill will is an option for as many people as possible who are at a stage in their lives where doing so is paramount. Over a third of donations to charity come via wills, and we’ve found a way to help secure those donations at scale.
Derrick: While contemplating your existence is probably healthy, I don't believe people should be financially penalised for not thinking about death - which is certainly the case now. Anyone, of any age, can die at any time and there should be affordable options to cater for those situations.
With such a sensitive subject, what have been the main challenges you’ve faced building the business to where it is today?
Dan: People are always surprised - pleasantly so - by what we’re doing. But our biggest challenge as a business is getting our tone right. We are doing something new in an area that is more than just sensitive. We want to get attention, but we have to be constantly mindful of just how much emotion is attached to writing your will.
This affects everything from the look of our brand, how the user interacts with our product, and who we choose to work with. We also make sure we spend time on the phone with our customers who aren’t going to be with us much longer.
Ultimately, we want to take action where others haven’t. Tone will be an ongoing challenge for us, in part because we don’t intend to stop at wills: Farewill will move into probate and funeral care, too. One hundred thousand Brits go into debt every year to pay for a funeral. Despite being entirely about the individual, in the present industry of death and dying, the consumer comes last, with families left over-charged and under-served. We don’t think that’s acceptable, and we intend to change it.
Derrick: We're a small team taking on well-established incumbents primarily through a better understanding of people's needs, so it was really important that the team had some experience in working in the funeral industry. I've worked in tech all my life, but I took the time to work as a funeral director before starting the business. This allowed me to witness first-hand the pressures of organising a funeral and the circumstances that lead to a purchase from Willow. Our challenge is to not only maintain that understanding but strengthen it, so we can create better products, information and services to help people make informed decisions.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs and business owners looking to disrupt an industry that hasn’t widely adopted new technologies yet?
Dan: Don’t spend too much time dwelling on how bad the current state of play is in a given industry. Once you’ve identified that someone is getting a poor deal, focus on what the ideal solution for them would look like. Farewill doesn’t just rehash the traditional will-writing process online; it provides a comprehensive digital legal process complete with a real person to assist you at the end of an online chat or the phone. Every day, we think about what the best possible experience for a consumer would look like.
Derrick: Focus is everything. Willow offers eco-coffins, flowers and urns directly to the public, but it would have been easy to start the business with a much broader remit. Instead, we choose to focus on the niche that brought the most value to customers. That focus on delivering overwhelming value is what I believe changes industries. Whatever happens to the likes of Uber, Airbnb and the companies that have disrupted entire industries, the value they created has irreversibly changed those markets.
Whilst it may not be your top priority to think about a loved one’s, or your own, funeral costs, it’s inevitable that you will face it. This makes companies like Willow and Farewill, trying to disrupt the funeral industry for the better through lower costs, more efficient processes and better customer service, a refreshing change to outdated industry practices.