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5 things the funeral business teaches us about thinking outside the box

Alexandra Cain
Business Journalist

Alexandra Cain writes regularly for the small business sections of The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Financial Review

Alexandra Cain
Business Journalist

Alexandra Cain writes regularly for the small business sections of The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Financial Review

Running a funeral business is tough: no-one wants to know you until they’re gone. Which probably explains the extraordinary things entrepreneurs in this space are doing to stand out. Read on to see how a fresh approach can transform just about any product – burials included.

It’s easy to assume with an aging population that funeral industries are experiencing substantial growth. But, as an IBIS World report issued in July 2014 shows, the growth of the sector is determined by the number of deaths that occur. Thanks to advances in medical practices, this figure is flat and the $1 billion funeral industry is only expected to grow by 1.7 per cent each year between 2010 and 2015. To beat competition and drive margins, funeral businesses in Australia and further afield are turning to business-wide innovation with surprising results.

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1. Funeral Fashion

One of Australia’s most interesting funeral industry businesses is Garments for the Grave, which makes customised burial shrouds. Proprietor Dr Pia Interlandi came up with her business concept when she dressed her grandfather for his burial. “It was such an important ritual; I didn’t realise this one act would change my life,” she says.Garments for the Grave has since established a thriving business, built on word-of-mouth and an innovative approach to marketing. Interlandi doesn’t use traditional advertising, instead relying on social media and industry events to meet prospective clients and contacts such as funeral directors. She was also fortunate to star in a documentary broadcast on the ABC about her work, which helped kick off her fledgling enterprise.

2. First Cab Off the Rank

Cynthia Beal, from the Natural Burial Company in Oregon USA, sells biodegradable coffins and urns. Beal has discovered online marketing is a particularly powerful business tool in her field. “I couldn't run my business without the internet. I set up my website in 2004 and 'claimed the territory' using organic search engine marketing, which still pays off,” she says.A quick search for ‘natural funeral Oregon’ shows the Natural Burial Company ranks in the third spot on Google, which proves her first-mover advantage on the internet has paid dividends. Interestingly, Beal is adamant a product doesn't need to be extraordinary to be successful: what’s more important is that it works and serves a real need. “When you’re doing forecasts, the number of people that need your product, and are likely to buy it from you, must be achievable. But it’s also OK to be in business for the learning, the fun, and the benefit to the community.”

3. Be a Disruptor

Sustainable funerals are a huge trend not just overseas but in Australia too. Leading the bandwagon is Melbourne based Aquamation Industries, which offers cremation powered by water. Proprietor John Humphries was inspired by American agricultural scientists who developed hydro cremation to combat outbreaks of mad cow disease. €œAll known diseases are destroyed by water cremation. The problem was that the equipment used was dangerous to operate,€ he explains. Humphries designed the Aquamation unit to be a safer alternative. €œWater cremation is safe and far more environmentally-friendly than cremation. The Aquamation process produces no pollution and only uses about 10 per cent of the energy of a traditional cremation,€ he says.

Humphries has grown the business through building a substantial presence on social media. He is also about to start participating in online communities to communicate the environmental benefits of the product. €œIt's an exciting opportunity to network with potential target groups and build product awareness. €œCurrently we have investment opportunities and we are launching a crowdfunding initiative soon. We are also negotiating with two major organisations to fund overseas expansion,€ he says.

4. Meeting the Market

Poppy Mardall, director of Poppy's Funerals, arranges non-traditional funerals across Greater London. Mardall saw a gap in the UK funeral market, which she says is “stuck in Dickensian times” – men marching around in top hats and all that. “I realised by approaching what happens after death in a simpler, more down-to-earth way, I could offer people three things that were desperately needed by the bereaved: choice, affordability and a personal experience.”

Mardall encourages anyone starting or building a business to focus on getting media coverage. “It's very easy to think, 'we're a tiny company – who's going to be interested in what we're doing?' But if you're doing things differently, people will be inspired to read your story. You don't need a marketing team to get press. Just get googling and find journalists’ email addresses and make calls. One piece of press very quickly turns into more.”

5. Follow Your Dream

Peter Tsolakides is the founding director of cryonics business Stasis Systems Australia, which uses extreme cold to suspend patients after legal death, with the possibility that they can be revived by future medicine.  He is currently working with investors to build a cryonics facility in Australia. The business has generated substantial media coverage thanks to its unusual nature and Tsolakides is now developing a sister organisation Cryonics Services Australia.  He says the way to attract clients is to show sensitivity to their needs, always maintain a dignified approach and project long-term security and dependability. “We also ensure that what we offer is based on science, even if there are no guarantees.”

€œSigning up for cryonics suspension can be complex. Stasis Systems Australia makes cryonics easier. It handles coordination of life insurance, legal matters, estate planning, documentation preparation, seamless interface with the cryonics suspension organisation and long-term trusts,€ says Tsolakides.

LATERAL THINKING

While pursuing commercial opportunities in funeral industries may not be for everyone, there'€™s no doubt that even in a sector in which marketing and product development requires more effort than most, there'€™s always the potential to think laterally and challenge existing business models.

LESSONS FROM THE FUNERAL INDUSTRY 

1. Explore what businesses similar to yours are doing overseas and work out if what they're doing could be applied in Australia.

2. Don't be afraid to be radical: it's always hard to be the first, but if there's a market, the idea will catch on. Being first has clear advantages.

3. Find out if crowdfunding could help you to connect with investors to grow your business.

4. Build relationships with journalists and bloggers who write about your industry to get the word out, free of charge.

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