This casket startup is taking on big funeral industry with a focus on direct-to-consumer innovation – GeekWire
Another company with ties to the Seattle area is getting into the business of making after-life decisions and purchases easier through the use of technology.
Titan Casket is a new startup that’s bringing direct-to-consumer convenience, savings and customer service to the often emotional task of purchasing a casket. The company’s co-founders include a husband-and-wife team in Bellevue, Wash., and a longtime casket manufacturer and supplier on the East Coast.
Titan’s mission is to make it easy to buy a casket online, through its own marketplace and even on Amazon, where it’s the top casket seller. The goal is to educate consumers and save them money during a process in which grief usually trumps the notion of shopping around and higher funeral home prices pass as acceptable in the moment.
“Most customers go to a funeral home and they buy their casket and the prices are exorbitant,” said Titan co-founder Josh Siegel. With a tech background that includes more than eight years at Amazon, Siegel is currently the chief product officer at RealSelf, the Seattle cosmetic treatment review startup. He’s serving as an advisor to Titan while his wife Liz Siegel and Massachusetts-based Scott Ginsberg serve as co-CEOs and run Titan’s day-to-day operations.
The reason behind high prices at funeral homes, according to Titan, is because two large manufacturers control most of the casket market and they only sell to funeral homes, and “it’s really up to the funeral home what to charge,” Josh Siegel said.
Ginsberg said a casket that Titan charges $1,000 for can range in price from $1,800 to $3,300, depending on the funeral home.
“Directors know that people don’t shop,” Ginsberg said. “You’re going to go to the same funeral home you’ve always gone to. It’s not right, it’s not wrong, it’s just what people do. The director kind of knows he has you.”
It’s a process that Ginsberg started seeking a solution for five years ago. With more than 20 years in the casket business, Ginsberg was laid up in 2016 after a skiing accident. He said he bought a “zippy new laptop” and started figuring out how to sell online, first on Amazon.
“I sold one, then two, then three and it just started to snowball,” Ginsberg said. “But it’s not my ball of wax,” he said of running an online marketplace. “I’m more of a product person. I have the vision of where I know it should be.”
He found Josh Siegel through the Columbia Business School’s alumni directory. They started kicking ideas around. But a visit by Ginsberg to eyeglasses retailer Warby Parker sealed what he thought they should strive for — to be “the Warby Parker of caskets.”
“I’ve always loved their website,” Ginsberg said. “I called Josh up, I said, ‘Direct to consumer is it. I think it’s time. The marketplace is there, people’s mindset is there more so than ever.’”
An increasing number of startups are innovating to bring change to the $20 billion funeral industry. In Seattle, Recompose has gained attention by offering an alternative choice to conventional burial and cremation methods by turning human remains into soil. Portland, Ore.-based Solace has added digital convenience to the process of planning and facilitating cremation services. In May, a team from the University of Washington called AfterLife Listings won the $25,000 grand prize in a student startup competition for its idea to simplify planning and transactions related to burial plots.
“The whole industry and this business in particular is very mission-based, and everyone doing death tech has a similar ethos,” Siegel said. “It’s been very rewarding building this and helping families.”
Siegel had experience at Amazon running the tech giant’s home entertainment store, so he was used to shipping big items like TVs. But more importantly, he and his co-founders have learned from Amazon’s customer service principles.
“Part of it was me being there, but part of it is you’ve seen those same principles now in many direct-to-consumer companies, where they are taking care of the customer first and foremost and building through word of mouth,” Siegel said. “If there’s any industry where that matters, it’s this one, both because it’s the right thing to do and because it’s not a refrigerator that can be delivered late or be replaced.”
Titan launched as a fully realized business in January 2020, is profitable and the founders have not raised venture or any outside capital to date. They’re open to that option if it means they can scale faster in terms of inventory or invest it back into tech. Titan has grown 5x from last year and they have warehouses in the Northeast and in Los Angeles to be able to better stock inventory and hit shipping targets all over the country. Liz Siegel and Ginsberg handle the bulk of customer service and sales, which is facilitated in online chats or phone calls with customers, and there are two other employees on the operational side.
The plan is to ramp up and hire more customer service reps and maintain a high bar.
“It’s a core capability of the company. It’s not something you’d want to outsource,” Siegel said. “A lot of the magic is not in the technology, it’s in the deep product expertise that Scott has and the customer service and operational intensity of Liz.”
Liz Siegel has literally gone from the cradle to the grave with her retail experience. A lawyer before she and her husband had three kids, she previously ran her own baby products company.
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“It was kind of a way to dip a toe into retail, see how things worked, particularly with Amazon and building websites and all that sort of thing,” she said. “I kept it going for a while and then once Titan really started to take off the Seattle baby stuff had to take a back seat because now it’s all caskets all the time.”
Titan can ship to funeral homes and customers are able to bring in their own casket because of a federal law called “the Funeral Rule,” enforced by the Federal Trade Commission. It states, in part: “The funeral provider cannot refuse to handle a casket or urn you bought online, at a local casket store, or somewhere else — or charge you a fee to do it.”
“In all fairness, a lot of funeral homes are wonderful to work with,” Liz Siegel said. “There are the occasional bad actors, but we like to have good relationships with funeral homes and to work closely with them.”