A Death Cafe isn’t as ominous as it sounds.
Sure, it could be the title of a Starbucks-barista-gone-psycho horror flick, but it’s actually something far more sensible, albeit still a bit taboo in our society: an honest discussion about death and being prepared for it.
Cleveland’s first Death Cafe, hosted by the online end-of-life-planning startup eFuneral, took place in April at Gypsy Beans & Baking Co. in the Gordon Square Arts District.
Mike Belsito of eFuneral offers advice for cracking a tough market.
Wading into a traditional industry like death care wasn’t easy for eFuneral co-founders Mike Belsito and Bryan Chaikin. Belsito estimates that of the 20,000 funeral homes in the U.S., about 25 percent don’t have active websites. So positioning technology as something that can help them was an uphill battle. “As challenging as it was to communicate how eFuneral could help, we managed to find those funeral directors that were interested enough to give it a shot,” Belsito says. Here are a few tips on how they broke through.
Seeing is believing: Any funeral home can have a basic profile on eFuneral, so Belsito and Chaikin created profiles for ones that hadn’t signed up yet and sent them the link. “People are visual,” Belsito says. “They want to see something before they get involved.”
Younger minds: The majority of funeral homes are family owned and operated over multiple generations, so when Belsito and Chaikin found younger directors that used Facebook or Twitter, they pitched to them. “They were using these social networks, so they already get the importance of the Internet and how it relates to people.”
Start small: Remember, you can’t win everyone over at once. “Start by really proving that you can actually help one of those customers. Then you can replicate that over and over.”
About 26 people attended, breaking into groups of five or six to talk about their personal experiences and feelings about death. The idea behind the cafe was to make people comfortable enough to open up about the subject of death.
And there’s coffee and cake.
“I had a diverse group: a hospice social worker, a funeral director, a pastor and a younger guy there to talk about his grandmother,” says Bryan Chaikin, the co-founder of eFuneral who took part in the event.
Chaikin talked to the group about his views on death from a religious aspect — his mother is Catholic and his father is Jewish — and the passing of both his grandmothers in the last few years.
“It was nice to be able to talk about that in an open format,” he says. “And really, what it meant to me, you get a real appreciation of life.”
While Chaikin was taking part in the Death Cafe, his eFuneral co-founder, Mike Belsito, was in Tampa, Fla., talking to a room full of funeral directors and cemetery professionals about Internet marketing at the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association’s annual conference.
It’s one of the two largest expos dedicated to the $17 billion death care industry. More than 2,000 people representing cemeteries and funeral homes attend each year. Exhibitors such as eFuneral attend as well, and Belsito says the reaction to his company’s online destination for information about end-of-life planning was positive.
“A year ago, nobody in the funeral space knew who we were,” he says. “Now, we are at the point where we are having conversations with big companies about partnerships.”
A month after the expo, JumpStart took notice and invested $250,000 in eFuneral, adding to the $260,000 the startup had raised from the Innovation Fund of Northeast Ohio, 10Xelerator and others.
The funding allows them to step up marketing efforts and think about developing new online tools.
“It’s significant for us,” Belsito says. “Up until now, [the funding] we raised was just enough for us to build the product, get ourselves out there and build a team.”
Belsito and Chaikin see the JumpStart investment, attention from the media and the fact that the business’s website traffic grows 25 percent each month as validation that there’s a need and desire for their services.
“There’s enough users coming to the site that are willing to use an online platform like ours to get information,” Belsito says. “The piece we are concentrating on now is can this also become a scalable business.”
and The Atlantic
have covered the website in the last year. VentureBeat
called eFuneral a Yelp for funeral homes, a characterization with which Belsito takes a small issue. “We like to think eFuneral is even deeper than that,” he says.
Visitors to eFuneral are greeted with questions that provide an understanding of where they are in the planning process. Is it an immediate need for someone who has just died? Is it for someone in hospice? Is it long-term planning for themselves?
Users are asked to register using an email address, or they can log in using their Facebook or Twitter accounts. They are then given the option of connecting with prescreened partners such as funeral homes, Skylight Financial Group for financing or Forrestal Law Office for estate planning.
Once through that process, users are taken to a dashboard where they can access the most popular feature on eFuneral: the interactive listing of funeral homes.
The online guide includes prices, reviews from Yelp and Google as well as reviews left at eFuneral itself. Each funeral home has an eFuneral score that’s calculated using an algorithm based on reviews and ratings. A downloadable PDF shows minimum, maximum and average funeral costs, and all of the tools are free for users.
While free to users, the site generates revenue through advertising from funeral homes and funeral-related businesses such as cemetaries or florists. For $200 per month, providers can create an enhanced profile, which can incorporate video, in-depth package pricing and appear higher up in search rankings similar to sponsored ads in a Google search.
A support and advice section features articles that offer guidance in a variety of areas, from advice on writing an obituary to how to dress for a funeral.
“Basically, on the worst day of somebody’s life, we want eFuneral to be a helpful resource for them,” Belsito says.
The eFuneral concept was born from the untimely death of Belsito’s cousin, Ed Smith, in 2010. He was in his 40s with some health problems, but his death still took his family by surprise.
“We didn’t think we would be planning his funeral any time soon,” Belsito says.
With a limited budget and no concrete knowledge of the six funeral homes near where his cousin lived in Parma Heights, Belsito’s family picked one without visiting or doing much research.
At dinner with his wife after the funeral, Belsito realized the reason they chose the restaurant was because of a positive Yelp review. That’s when it dawned on him.
“We have more information to decide where to go to dinner, which is completely inconsequential and maybe we’ll spend $50,” Belsito says. “But something so important like a funeral service — and, by the way, so much more expensive — we are just picking and hoping for the best?”
Belsito and Chaikin, who had been working together at Findaway World, a Solon technology company that produces digital audiobook players, searched online for funeral home listings. When they found nothing more comprehensive than just what could easily have been found in a phone book, they decided to develop it themselves.
Belsito’s hope is that eFuneral will prevent the confusion that his family faced when his cousin died. Even though their ultimate decision worked out fine, it involved too much guesswork in his mind.
“We kind of got lucky, but what if we didn’t?” Belsito says. “For every other decision we make in our lives, we are able to access info that can help us make that decision. For something as important as a funeral, you didn’t have that, up until eFuneral.”