The daily updates on COVID-19 outbreaks, tragic stories of related fatalities and our narrowed scope of life due to lockdown have all put the concept of mortality -- and for some the sad business of actually dealing with a death -- squarely into focus for many people. Today, a startup that's building out a suite of services related to that is announcing a round of funding on the back of a boost of growth in business.
Farewill, a U.K. startup that provides a platform for people to write online wills, organise probate services (such as sorting out death duties and taxes on a person's property) and order cremations, has raised £20 million ($25 million) in funding -- money that it hopes will not only help the company grow its business but also help in the process of coping with our own deaths and those of our loved ones.
"We want to help by destigmatising death," said Farewill CEO Dan Garrett in an interview about the complexity of the proposition. "We all have to face death. It lives inside everyone. But for most of us, we are psychologically hardwired not to think about it, and as a process people have been largely at the behest of an industry that doesn’t think about its customers."
The name is, as you may have guessed, a play on farewell. "Think of the pun, and you can start the company," Garrett said with the hint of wryness in his voice that I'm not sure you can avoid at the moment, especially given the subject.
The round is being led by Highland Europe, with Keen Venture Partners, Rich Pierson of Headspace, Broadhaven Ventures, Venture Founders and previous investors Augmentum Fintech, Taavet Hinrikus of TransferWise and Kindred Capital also participating. It's being described as a venture round -- a Series A of just under $10 million was closed in January 2019 -- and brings the total raised by Farewill to £30 million.
Farewill is currently only live in the U.K. but longer term has plans to expand to more countries. In its home market, Garrett (who co-founded the company with university friend Tom Rogers, who is the CTO and CPO) says that in the five years that Farewill has been operational, it's become the biggest will writer in the country in what is a quite fragmented market: the startup accounts for one out of every 10 wills written, or a 10% market share.
The cremation, funeral and probate services are more recent launches, from December 2019. But even so, given the current state of play with lockdown, social distancing and sadly the rise in actual deaths, they too have seen a lot of activity.
Garrett said that Farewill's cremation service, where the order for cremation and other details are all carried out online and costs on average one-fifth of the typical funeral -- the idea being that families can then choose how to memorialise after that process, bypassing the more traditional funeral option -- is now the third or fourth biggest cremation provider in the country, according to Garrett. It's not all about the last few months, however: overall growth for the startup, he added, was 800% last year (before COVID-19) on a revenue basis.
Death by design
Just as death is not an easy topic for most people, it's a complicated one for a startup to "disrupt." Farewill's origin story, in that context, is an interesting one.
Garrett -- who studied engineering at Oxford as an undergraduate -- said the idea came to him while doing postgraduate work on a joint degree between Imperial College and the Royal College of Art on design and innovation.
He came into the degree with a lot of big ideas, inspired by companies like Airbnb. "There is just so much potential for design-led companies," he said of his thinking at the time.
One of the remits that the course cohort was given, he said, was to think about the broader concept of aging and services to address that. As part of the course, he traveled to Japan -- which has its own specific reverence for ageing and the death process -- and based himself at an old people's home in Tokyo for six months along with "a team of enthnographers and anthropologists."
He came out of that with an insight he didn't expect, he recalled. "I felt that at the end of my six months there, I’d failed in my role as a designer," he said. "All we focused was on the superficiality of ageing: how can we make better cutlery, or beds or seating that helped them move around? It was all about mobility and the physical aspects. But what we didn’t get close to talking about was that most of these people were facing their mortality. And in care homes, you don’t have friends or family around."
In other words, physical details and making life more manageable or enjoyable are fine, but Garrett didn't feel that they got to the heart of the matter.
"To my mind, if you’re a designer, your responsibility is to get to the bottom of whatever the issue is," he said. His dissertation, about dementia care, raised questions not about cutlery per se but person-centered approaches. "So much of it is about physical amelioration, not psychological aspects."
So when he returned to the U.K., he set to work trying to understand what he describes collectively as "the death industry."
He spent two months doing "mystery shopping" (again, his term), regularly visiting funeral directors, saying he was coming to discuss a death -- a hypothetical one, not a real one -- to understand what process people went through when they walked through the door to arrange a real funeral. He made 20 or so trips like this, a number I'm guessing he might have thought twice about giving me after I gasped a little as he spoke.
"I made sure I didn't waste too much of their time," he said, in response.
(And it should be said here that he -- and Farewill -- have also tried to embody a transparent and ethical approach in the work throughout, which has also included making it easier to designate pledged legacy income in wills -- that is, donations to causes. The aim is to reach £1 billion in pledged legacy income by 2023, with over £200 million raised so far and the numbers accelerating.)
He then also got a qualification in will writing and started offering services to his friends (free) who needed help to go through the probate process -- which involves sorting out death duties, organising personal effects and the estate and so on.
All that hands-on experience was important, he said, to get to grips with what he wanted to build.
"I may have three masters degrees, but I am terrible at learning without actually doing something," he said.
One big conclusion Garrett found was that the death industry is large and complicated, not least because of the subject matter, but also because it had no technical innovation at all around it.
"There is this profound human aversion to dealing with death, and that is a brilliant design challenge," he said.
Indeed, like it or not, death is always around us, and perhaps particularly right now.
In the U.S. -- itself home to a number of startups focusing on death-related services -- will writing companies have seen huge spikes in their business in the last several months. And even with the economic slowdown much of the globe is now seeing as a result of COVID-19, death care services (which don't include will writing but everything after death), is projected to be a $102 billion industry globally this year.
It's numbers like that, and Farewill's execution in what it is doing, that has attracted investors.
“How about entirely removing the administrative pain for those grieving for their loved ones? How about providing an affordable, effortless and considerate service? That’s what the Farewill team is doing - with an extraordinary blend of compassion and tech-fueled efficiency,” said Stan Laurent, partner at Highland Europe in a statement. “For too long, the wills and funeral industry has been largely geared towards profit over purpose. Since our first meeting with Dan, we knew that Farewill had the ingredients to radically disrupt the industry. We’re excited to back them as they broaden their ambition.”
"Farewill has made phenomenal progress since our initial investment 18 months ago," added Tim Levene, CEO of Augmentum Fintech, in a statement. “They have grown by 10x and launched a suite of successful new products. This additional capital will provide further opportunity for the company to innovate an archaic industry, and become the leading digital platform in death services.”
(Farewill also recently won a Europa award for its contribution to social innovation.)