Death: it’s a universal part of life. But grieving is complicated.
For the deceased’s immediate family, it often means making difficult, expensive decisions during their darkest days.
For the rest of us, it’s hard to know what to do, what to say, how to help. Funeral traditions and customs vary widely between religions and cultures. How do we choose what’s appropriate –– and appreciated?
My guest Michael Schimmel, Founder and CEO of Coral Gables, Florida-based S2 Brands, is redefining the field with what he calls “modern mourning.” The company’s suite of sites (including Shiva.com, eCondolence.com and the forthcoming Cemetery.com) provide information and services related to end-of-life issues, grief, coping, bereavement, loss and commemoration.
“Death is an awkward and difficult subject for everyone,” he says. “It’s a topic that’s taboo. But it’s also unavoidable.”
The biggest challenge we all face, Michael tells me, is figuring out what’s right for a loved one who’s left us. “It’s the desire to do what’s appropriate –– what would make them happy or celebrate them. Or just make sure that your family or friends don’t say, ‘what a schmuck.’”
Helping us deal with the inevitable is also a great business opportunity. S2 is positioned to change how we approach everything from final expense insurance to sending flowers and food.
Here’s how and why.
Clear is the new black: embrace transparency
Cemeteries and memorialization is an “opaque market,” says Michael, that could benefit from more transparency. “Many people don’t realize that one of the most expensive things in your life, besides buying a home or a car, is paying for a funeral or burial. People don’t know what they should be spending money on, or how much things cost, when they’re making incredibly important, large purchasing decisions.”
As an example, Michael explains that many people are unaware of the difference between funeral homes and cemeteries. “They’re two separate industries, though we tend to associate them together,” he says. “You’re actually purchasing land for burial, perhaps 20 years prior to meeting a funeral director.”
Being prepared is key to making the right choices, he says: “Hopefully, you’re not under pressure when making them. We believe in informed decisions. Trust through brands can change how people think and what resources, services, and products they consume.”
Fill a void, streamline the process
Whether it’s planning a parent’s funeral, writing an obituary or visiting a shiva home, “people really don’t know what to do,” says Michael. “People are out there searching for how to follow traditions and customs.”
The company was built as a “focused niche” dedicated to end-of-life memorialization, he says. Shiva.com and eCondolence.com feature extensive resources on expressing condolences, understanding religious beliefs, and coping with loss.
“The educational side is where we always like to start,” says Michael. “But there’s a massive void in the market. And an opportunity to capture some of the $30 billion a year that’s being spent in this industry. We can make sure that consumers have the proper direction and streamline the entire process from beginning to end.”
There was a “natural gravitation,” he says, to adding resources on end-of-life planning, like “pre-need” burial or funeral insurance and selection of funeral homes and cemeteries. Users can dive into thorny problems associated with the deceased’s affairs, as well: social security, selling property, closing accounts.
“With technology, we can grow from an integrated resource to a full-blown marketplace covering everything people need,” says Michael.
Service and ease as a value proposition
The differentiator of S2, Michael says, is “blending technology with personal services: white glove treatment to make it easier during a difficult time, addressing this with a sensitivity and appropriateness. At the same time, making sure we’re looking out for the consumer who’s not aware of the unknowns –– negotiating on their behalf and presenting them with offerings that are different than what they’re used to getting.”
In the context of sympathy gifts, people aren’t looking to negotiate or haggle, he notes. “They’re looking to get it done and move forward.”
That’s an opportunity to offer convenience over price. As an example, S2 Brands connects users with local sources for Shiva meals and other food offerings like fruit baskets, baked goods and savory snacks. “We do same-day, hand delivery in 4,000 cities now,” Michael says.
Fold bereavement support into company culture
“What do you do when a coworker passes away?” asks Michael.
Employee assistance programs often provide suicide prevention and addiction services, he says, but there are limited resources for dealing with grief: “Studies are showing there’s an economic cost to businesses when they don’t provide sufficient and appropriate resources to employees who lose a loved one, or if they don’t handle the loss appropriately within the workplace.”
Baby boomers are aging: most of their cohort are heading into their 70s. But every generation is using the Internet, Michael says. “Aging parents dying, parents, grandparents … how do we use technology to bridge every generation who’s going to encounter this? It used to be that seniors don’t use the internet. That’s not true anymore.”
Keep it human
Michael models a company-wide moral compass: “knowing that there’s pain,” he says, is paramount. “Helping people solve problems is easy when you have the right philosophy. Then, adding appropriate ways to generate revenue isn’t difficult.”
After years in the business, his sage advice on preparing for what happens to us all is quite simple: “Sit in a room with your loved ones and just talk. There’s no substitute for human interaction.”
“Leveraging technology is great. We’re there as a tool to help in this process. But the number one thing is communicating, whether it’s with your spouse, your brother, your mother … a good line of communication with your family is the most important thing.”