Entrepreneur Steve Jobs once said: “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”
You could say that Ever Loved CEO Alison Johnston is making way for the new. She was working at an education-on-demand startup when her grandmother became ill and eventually passed away from cancer. The experience had a huge emotional effect on Johnston. As she worked through the death and grieving process, she realized that resources for funeral planning were scarce – and she also found that death was a taboo subject. Johnston recognized an opportunity to start a business to help people deal with death.
“Right from the outset, I saw an obvious problem,” she said. “I thought that if I could build a website that helped people plan for their loved ones and get them talking about a topic no one wants to talk about, then maybe I could start to change this from morbid to positive. I wanted to help people navigate the process.”
Ever Loved was born in 2017. Johnston started by helping users navigate the financial side of death. The company’s crowdfunding tool became like a “Go Fund Me” for funerals. Next, they added an obituary template and a memorial website builder that provided a place for friends and family to post condolences and memories. As Ever Loved built a wider audience, Johnston focused the business on three things: community, commerce and resources.
“We wanted to make sure people were able to navigate this process for a lower cost than they would on their own,” she noted. “We listed services and products, posted reviews of funeral homes and generally helped people shop for what they never wanted to shop for.”
The financial management component has been amplified by the commerce strategy. A casket can cost up to $2,400 from most funeral homes. On Ever Loved, caskets are often 50 percent less than those on the open market. And the community function helps Ever Loved users plan for the funeral with an eye toward sensitivity and a shared experience.
“We looked at two big factors,” Johnston said. “We wanted to cater to a wide range of technology skill. The site and the process is intuitive and clean. Most of the people we deal with – and our target audience – are from the Baby Boomer generation. As they get used to doing things online, we want them to find an easy-to-navigate site. We also wanted to be sensitive to the emotional state of the people we work with. We’re celebrating life. We can be positive.”
Johnston started her career at the Q&A app Aardvark through its acquisition by Google. She then started an online tutoring company, InstaEDU, which she ultimately sold to Chegg.
Ever Loved has raised seed funding from Social Capital and gone through Y Combinator. While the online side of funeral planning is still nascent, the U.S. funeral service industry is an estimated $20.7 billion-per-year business, with average traditional costs ranging from $8,000 to $10,000, according to a Public Broadcasting System investigation.
“People are changing their preferences in respect to how they want to memorialize and dispose of the dead at an incredibly rapid rate,” noted Tanya Marsh, a law professor at Wake Forest University who specializes in funeral and cemetery law. “The funeral industry is a service industry, and they want to give people what they want, but they also have very strongly ingrained ideas about what the right thing to do is. So, there can be a conflict between changing social norms of what people want and what the industry is willing and able to give them.”
Johnston agrees. “I also think we’re helping people shift away from the traditional planning process and the traditional funeral event,” she said. “We make it more personal. We see all kinds of different events. We’ve seen people have a paddleboarding funeral. We’ve seen people ask their relatives to start a garden. A funeral is kind of like a wedding – it’s as big as you want it to be. And now people are bolder about planning something that reflects their needs.”
Ever Loved is not without competition. Funeralwise is a similar site that builds insurance plans into its commerce component. And Everplans pairs its planning tools with security solutions and legal advice.
So far, Ever Loved has seen 20-times year-over-year growth. Johnston pointed out that the site sees 100,000 unique users per week and has helped to plan tens of thousands of events so far. For 2020, the company expects to expand its services, cater more to non-traditional events and focus on crowdfunding tools.
“We need to focus more on helping people get the money they need for this expense,” said Johnston. “I’d like to think we’re helping people with more options for an event, and maybe even putting a less morbid spin on death.”
The company’s testimonials support her view.
“I just want to say what a great job you’ve done,” wrote one Ever Loved user. “It would cost me over $1,000 to post this in our local paper. Your site is nice, clean and attractive and easy to understand how to use. I’m recommending it to others … a lot of the newspapers have so many ads and banners running, and it’s very annoying. I get a better sense of calmness when I look at your site.”