Q + A with Funeralbooker CEO Ian Strang, 2016 Winner of Pitch Roulette
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Ian Strang was The Europas 2016 Pitch Roulette winner, where he faced a real grilling from the panel of judges – that included Saul Klein, Nick Brisbourne, Christian Hernandez, Sitar Teli and Sonali de Rycker. Here, he talks about his experience on stage, and what’s happened since for his startup, Funeralbooker.com.
Q: Hi Ian, thanks for talking to us today. First, can you tell us a little bit about funeralbooker.com? Can you tell us what inspired you to enter this space and what’s the problem that you’re solving with your site? For example, what’s the market look like in this area?
I’d had the idea for Funeralbooker since business school, when an entrepreneurship class involved a case study about someone who was very successful combining old family shoe polish companies in the States. One of the takeaways from the story was that often the least superficially exciting or overlooked businesses can be the best ones to enter. I figured that if you decide to go into a ‘sexy’ market, you’re going to be up against a tonne of kids from Stanford or MIT, staying up all night on pizza and red bull to compete with you. Death…not so much.
Furthermore, it’s not a market that’s determined by trends or that’s going to go away any time soon – people are always going to die, so once you’ve won the market, future revenue streams are going to be strong. That’s why for example Dignity, who are one of the current UK market incumbents with only 15% market share have a market cap of over £1bn.
Finally, it’s a market ripe for disruption and untouched by digital – fragmented, with a lack of transparency and supplier technology weakness. 66% of funeral directors in the UK are small independent businesses competing against two large chains which have quantitatively higher pricing and qualitatively worse service. Due to an industry-wide lack of transparency, these two chains have been able to raise pricing year on year at the expense of consumers who are already in a vulnerable state. We bring price and service quality transparency to the market as well as giving independent funeral directors a collective digital presence and the ability to compete with the chains.
Q: You attended both PathFounders, The Europas invite-only event and The Europas. Can you tell us a bit about your experience and what you found helpful?
Yes, I have very good memories from last year. It was a last-minute decision to attend – I knew we would need funding by the end of 2016 and fundraising normally takes 6 months unless you’re a super-hot company or raising internally, so it was about the time to start. I saw the Europas and PathFounders marketed on TechCrunch and decided to give it a go.
PathFounders had an upbeat spirit about it from the moment we arrived. I must admit that I don’t recall the content of the daytime sessions, but I do remember enjoying them. At the beginning, we each gave a 10 second intro and as a result, I ended up with a business card from an investor, so that set a positive tone for the rest of the 2 days.
Late afternoon, we split into groups with fellow entrepreneurs to perform some bonding tasks before dinner and that was particularly useful, firstly because I was with a good, eclectic bunch of people and secondly because it meant I had a group of people to meet up with at the Europas the next day between sessions.
In the evening, there was a meal for all the PathFounders attendees and some VCs. I sat down next to an engaging lady who turned out to be Isabel Fox from White Cloud Capital. She bought into the concept of Funeralbooker straight away and we arranged to meet the following week. Buoyed by the day’s seeming success, I joined the rest of my group at the bar and as a result of spending a little too much time there, skipped the morning session for the Europas and headed there early afternoon, wandering into the main hall just in time for…Pitch Roulette.
Q: Take us back to Pitch Roulette 2016. What was your first thought when you realised you’d be pitching on stage?
Ha, I was not prepared for it at all. However, I was also really pleased – I knew there were lots of investors in the room, quite apart from the 5 on stage, so what a fantastic opportunity to pitch to them all at once rather than have to network all evening. I’m not the sort of person who looks forward to going around and working a room – but I do enjoy a good debate, so the Dragon’s Den style format was perfect.
Still, walking up on stage, I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. Many friends of mine, and good entrepreneurs, balk at the thought of working in the death industry – they just can’t get their heads around it.
When Mike announced our name, ‘Funeralbooker,’ a slight ripple of OMG laughter circled the room, so things certainly had the potential to go badly.
Fortunately, my 60 second pitch went well and the crowd reaction seemed to be positive. This was further helped by Christian Hernandez revealing that he would have loved Funeralbooker to be available when he had to arrange a funeral a few months beforehand. From then on, it was just a case of answering the judges’ questions credibly.
Q: And how did you find the judges’ questions? Did any surprise you?
They asked lots of sensible, straight-to-the-point critical questions, as you would imagine they might, given the time constraints and their reputations. I don’t think any questions surprised me, but there was more focus on the company name than I would have imagined. I knew that the name Funeralbooker wouldn’t appeal to everyone and I was (and still am) very open to rebranding, but I hadn’t realised what a vehement reaction it would invoke for some – it would even turn out to be a barrier to investment for some VCs.
Q: Can you tell us following the Europas, how funeralbooker.com eventually got funded?
Following Pitch Roulette, 3 VCs approached me over the next hour and asked me to have meetings with them, so I can certainly recommend it as a platform to others. I met with them all, but we decided to go with White Cloud. From the very start, Izzy bought into the idea and the more of the team I met there, the more I liked them. They are a family fund and I felt their patient capital approach was a good fit for us. Marketplaces always take a fairly long time to build and the conservative-minded death industry isn’t going to be at the pacier end of the scale.
Q: What was the fundraising process like?
It was fairly straightforward – we had verbal agreement on the terms in June, but it still took until October to close things out due to a combination of Summer holidays and negotiations with current investors. We ended up taking almost double the funds than we had originally expected.
Q: How has Funeralbooker been doing? What’s your traction like and what do you feel is your biggest challenge going forward? Where are you investing in your business? Where do you want to be with Funeralbooker in another 12 months time?
We’re doing great, thanks for asking. We’ve spent a lot of effort building the supply side of our market and now have 20% of independent funeral directors signed up with us, and are adding 1-2% a month. On the consumer side, we launched at the end of 2016 and already have £350,000 of GMV passing through the platform every month.
We’ve made a lot of investments which don’t have immediate impact, but will help us over the coming years – on the tech side moving to Facebook React framework and GraphQ to speed up the site and make new feature development quicker; on the marketing side investing in content marketing so that we can become less reliant on paid search in the future.
In another 12 months, it would be nice to be scaling. We’ve shown that we can get funeral directors to put their prices online and we’ve shown that people will arrange funerals online – the next period is about testing and honing our marketing channels and demonstrating unit profitability.
Our biggest challenge to success is the fact that we are changing an industry which has resisted change until this point. On the funeral director side, relationships and trust take time to build. On the consumer side, it’s not easy to market to people directly at the point of need, and people don’t currently like or want to think about death until they must. These challenges can be overcome with time, but as we all know, a start-up is always a race against time until the cash runs out!
Q: Finally, can you offer any advice to other start-ups and their founders on whether they should enter and what they should do if their name is called?
Absolutely they should enter. As I mentioned, it’s an almost unrivalled opportunity to get your pitch across to a horde of investors. If it goes well and the audience show that they like it, then you have simultaneously answered questions about public interest / adoption.
As an entrepreneur, if you’re worth your salt, you should know your business, market, pitch and likely criticisms inside out. If you haven’t taken the time to think through all the potential flaws in your business model, then what are you doing giving up your own precious time to work on it?
Therefore, my best advice from experience, if picked out of the hat – is to walk up on stage with confidence, excitement…and a mild hangover, and you’ll be just fine.
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