“There’s a shift from dealing with death ‘reactively’ to ‘preventatively'”: Interview with Closure’s co-founder Graciëlla van Vliet
Death is one of those topics most people prefer to avoid. Thus, it comes of no surprise that innovation in the funeral industry has been prolonged considerably with consumers reluctant to explore new options at such a heavy life moment, and many investors cautious about investing in this sector.
Now, however, we witness a visible positive shift of interest in the deathtech sector due to the coronavirus crisis, which is speeding up the adoption of such kind of solutions, for example, the one offered by the UK-based company Farewill, who recently raised €22.1 million to modernize the death industry.
One of such innovative death tech solutions is offered by Rotterdam-based Closure. Founded in 2017, this startup offers a service for the relatives of a recently deceased person to stop their subscriptions, contracts and accounts through one central platform. Founded by two female entrepreneurs, this startup won Phillips Innovation Award in 2018, which made them the best student-entrepreneurs of the country that year.
We spoke with Graciella van Vliet, Closure’s co-founder about the expansion of deathtech, the importance of pivoting during the pandemic, landing funding at this challenging time, female entrepreneurship and her predictions for the future of the sector.
Hi, Graciella! Thanks for joining us. Could you tell us more about Closure? How did you start it?
I started Closure together with my co-founder Chantal in 2017. When Facebook sent a notification to congratulate her with the birthday of her deceased grandmother, it got us to think about all the services a person nowadays leaves behind after passing away. Besides all the traditional contracts, subscriptions and accounts such as bank accounts, insurances, utilities, telecom, charity, sports clubs and magazines, the amount of subscription-based services has been rapidly increasing (think Netflix, food delivery services, (motor)bike sharing, etc.). After a death, families must inform all those organizations one-by-one, which is a time-consuming process in which one is continuously confronted with the loss of a loved one. Hence, this “digital legacy” becomes more and more of a burden for relatives. The urge to do something about this growing pain amongst relatives was deepened by our interest in data and efficiency, both being econometricians who love to optimize. Therefore, automating a (cancellation) process while contributing to a social cause, appeared to be both a rewarding and exciting challenge to us.
Has Closure raised any funding in 2020?
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Closure has received two loans; both used to increase the pace at which we expand our service. Since then, we have been growing both our tech and sales team to expand our network of partners and enhance the platform. For example, we have been applying machine learning techniques, such as NLP (natural language processing), to automate further our service, of which we have already seen the effect: we can currently handle more than 1000 cancellations a day per support employee.
How did Closure manage and pivot since the start of the coronavirus pandemic?
The situation affected our business in both a good and a bad way. As our target group – corporate providers and funeral organizations – was affected by the outbreak, either because they lost revenue or because they were busy adapting to the new situation, this logically also affected the pace at which we onboarded new partners. On a more positive note, though, we also learned that – even in such a traditional business as the funeral market – you could work remotely just fine, saving a lot of unnecessary travel time, costs and energy. Hence, we are considering to go partly or wholly remote and start working with flex offices in the cities our employees work in, and maybe just rent a place to come together every once in a while. Time will tell if this is in practice the most beneficial way of working, but at least we are striving to figure out how we can learn from this situation and how we can adjust based on those learnings in the most optimal way.
What predictions do you have for the evolution of the deathtech sector, since the coronavirus pandemic?
I believe that the coronavirus pandemic, being a threat to especially the at-risk groups, causes people to be more conscious of the fact that we will all die someday. This consciousness, combined with the trend that “death” is becoming less taboo, causes a shift from dealing with death “reactively” to “preventatively”. That is, more people start preparing for their funeral instead of avoiding the topic altogether. This shifts people’s roles regarding funeral services and duties; it is no longer (solely) the relatives who decide and arrange everything, it’s (also) the person who is preparing for his or her funeral. This will give rise to more and more (digital) preparatory services, where people can write down their wishes, such as who will inherit that painting, what music is played at the funeral, and so on. To support this statement, in the US will writing companies have seen massive spikes in their business since the pandemic. Even with the economic slowdown resulting from the pandemic, death care services are projected to grow to a $102 billion (approx. €86.7 billion) industry globally this year. Responding to this trend as well, Closure will soon be launching a preparatory cancellation service.
How have your objectives and goals changed since the company has grown?
When we launched our platform, we almost got whiplash from the number of roads we could take to broaden the business. For example, similar to the funeral sector, we could expand it into a general cancellation service, or for the situation where someone moves (abroad), marries, divorces. Another approach could be broadening our scope of funeral services. We decided to go that way, as we learned that the degree of after-care (support after the funeral) currently is quite limited. Hence, we decided to solve this need with a comprehensive, automated platform, set-up as a checklist that takes relatives by the hand and guides them through this period of mourning.
What is your long-term vision for Closure?
It’s Closure’s mission to soften the pain for relatives. From day one, we have aimed to become the centralized party to finalize one’s digital legacy globally, as the pain of having to inform all kinds of organizations of passing away is known everywhere.
As a female entrepreneur, what has been your biggest challenge up until now?
Currently, there is a lot of awareness for female founders, which I believe is a great and necessary thing, primarily when you are operating in a traditional industry and are experiencing gender disadvantages and prejudices. The downside is that being a female entrepreneur, the focus is often about you being a woman, instead of how great your business is. We love what we do at Closure, and we strongly believe in creating significant added-value to society. Hence, I think, this message should also be getting awareness and attention.
What more can be done to develop female entrepreneurship in the Netherlands and Europe?
Give the stage to female role models and get students engaged in entrepreneurship early on. First, showcase what unique businesses those women are building, more than the fact that they are women. Secondly, completing an internship, doing a board year, and participating in top sports are often rewarded. However, becoming an entrepreneur still seems to be underexposed. I believe this is a pity, as experimenting with entrepreneurship during your studies when you don’t have that many (financial or other) liabilities yet, can be the perfect timing. Although entrepreneurship can result from any area of expertise, quite some student entrepreneurs originate from a technical university (in which there are fewer women). Hence, it might be helpful to motivate women in other fields of study as well to start their businesses.
What is your advice for female entrepreneurs in the Netherlands and Europe-wide?
Just do it.