I’m delighted to feature Carrie Weeks and Fran Glover from A Natural Undertaking on the day that they’re also featured on the nationwide Small Business Saturday Small Biz 100 blog.
I first met Carrie, now co-running a funeral director based in the Moseley/Kings Heath area of Birmingham, almost exactly 20 years ago, when we were studying for a Master’s in Library and Information Studies. Who would have known that two decades later, we’d both be successful businesspeople, me an editor and Carrie a funeral director? Well, actually, I don’t think the link is too tenuous, as, like the librarians we thought we were going to be, we are helping people and providing information. I wonder where our course-mates are now! I’ve been watching Carrie’s business, started up with business partner Fran Glover, grow over the last year or so, and I have to say that if I could have predicted a business that was going to be a success, it would be this one, as they’ve planned, branded, networked and worked their way into an excellent position already. Let’s meet Carrie and find out how the business started and has been doing …
What’s your business called? When did you set it up?
Our business is called A Natural Undertaking, and we’re an independent Funeral Director. We registered as a company in May 2014, ran our first funeral in September 2014 and officially launched the business in November 2014.
What made you decide to set up your own business?
I had just come through a period of enforced unemployment while looking after my daughter, who was very poorly. When she got better, I was in a position where I had no job. I decided to take the idea I’d had in the back of my mind for years and find a way to try to do it – “if not now, then never” was the thought behind it.
Plus, for the previous 25 years, I’d worked for other people. I’d reached a point where I’d seen a number of friends setting up their own businesses, and realised that it was possible.
Obviously, there was a career path where I could work for a funeral director rather than setting up on my own, or in a partnership, as I eventually did. But as an independent company, we can see the process through from beginning to end, and can be flexible for our clients. That really appealed to me, and continues to appeal.
What made you decide to go into this particular business area?
Although it might seem like an odd choice to some people, I had a long-held belief that the funeral business had not changed for the past 100 years, and funerals I had been involved in didn’t reflect how interesting people were and how society has changed.
We have also changed as consumers: the advent of the Internet has given an opportunity to change the business model, giving interesting challenges. In the old days, you’d have a local funeral directors on the high street, which probably ended up being bought out by a big company, selling packages which suited them. Now, the process can be broken down into its component parts, giving people choice and exposing the myths about what can and can’t be done.
I’m also passionate about helping people and giving them choice and options. As a funeral director, every client is different, and I love finding out about people and giving their loved ones the choices that will help them through their grief. It’s rewarding for me and it helps them at the same time.
Of course, I did a large amount of work experience and training in the industry before I took the plunge myself.
Had you run your own business before?
I hadn’t run my own business before, but I’d worked at a business library helping start-ups and with social enterprises, helping them with their business plans, so I had the theory behind the business side of things (and got experience with the practical side once I’d worked out this is what I wanted to do).
Fran had run her own business and also had marketing experience, and that’s how our business happened: she came in to give me support as a friend and mentor, then decided to join me and become an undertaker. She saw that this was a viable business proposition with a gap in the market as well as being a way that she could feel she was doing something more meaningful.
How did you do it? Did you launch full-time, start off with a part-time or full-time job to keep you going … ?
In the 12 months before we started trading, I did a lot of work experience with like-minded funeral directors across the country. A vitally important aspect of this was networking and identifying individuals and companies in the whole movement that’s been recently opening up the ‘death conversation’ – with the Natural Death Centre, death cafes, death salons, the Good Funeral Awards and a loose network of operators who were interested in the same things that we were.
I identified the leaders of the conversation and made contact with them in order to learn from the best; the pioneers. I went to see them, they recommended me to others, and I met all sorts of people. I have to say that I found people outside the mainstream welcoming and supportive of our plans.
Being a funeral director isn’t a profession with a single career path. There are legal responsibilities and health & safety and risk management considerations, but unlike in the US, there is not a universally recognised system of qualification. We surrounded ourselves with brilliance, knowledge and wisdom, in effect apprenticing ourselves to the best people.
This period of fact-finding and training overlapped with us registering as a Limited Company – it was important to us from the start to take the less risky route with limited liability. We went in full-time committed from the start, but built the business slowly.
Two things that helped us in the beginning were support from the Chamber of Commerce, including a training event called Ready for Business, and the associated support of a mentor, who for a few vital months helped with our business plan and acted as a sounding board and a source of external accountability.
Before we started pitching for any business or running any funerals, we developed our branding and worked on our brand development, pitching ourselves, the language used on our website and marketing materials. We leased a vehicle and equipment and obtained a government Start-up Loan.
We always made sure we were covering our costs, and continue to do so.
What do you wish someone had told you before you started?
That this is a 24-hour business, both from the point of view that obviously someone could ring us in the middle of the night to ask about our services, but also more fundamentally that if it’s your own business, you can’t switch off. It even invades your dreams!
What would you go back and tell your newly entrepreneurial self?
Don’t worry about what other people in the business are going to think about you. We started out scared about upsetting The Funeral Business – but it’s not about what they think, it’s about what the individual families we are helping think.
Do a good job, one family at a time. Some people might call us a Disruptor, we simply believe that we are a business that’s helping to change the business model. Having 35 families and counting that are really pleased with what we’ve done for them gives us the confidence that this is needed.
The main message: you have a right to do this.
What do you wish you’d done differently?
I wish we’d had the confidence to have a higher profile locally early on, to have had more guts to really promote ourselves locally. The funeral business works on quite a small network of word-of-mouth and reputation: now, people who have been to our funerals get in touch when it’s time to organise one for their loved one.
What are you glad you did?
There are a few things we’re really glad we did:
- First of all, we put in place a network of support right from the beginning. Written into our business plan and future plan is the aim to make our own lives better, too. That means having cover from our associates so that we can have family time and take holidays, and maintaining a good work-life balance right from the start.
- We’re glad that we spent time, money and effort on the branding, getting a proper design for our brand, website and marketing materials, being sticklers for detail, working out what we wanted and getting it: the right name, the right feel. It was a bold decision to put the branding on our vehicle, which is non-traditional in the business but has resulted in us picking up work.
- We’re also glad that we’ve been part of the bigger conversation about death and dying, that we’ve networked and taken full advantage of the opportunities that are offered to us. If you give people quality information and work for the good of the industry and society as well as your own business, people will be able to make more informed choices, and will go to a business that allows them to make these choices, that will deliver them. The things that we do now: having stalls at local street fairs, running death cafes, educating the public on the choices available, will ultimately benefit our business as well.
What’s your top business tip?
If you just do the best job you can, every single time, take every opportunity to learn from what you’re doing, and don’t worry about everyone else, that WILL pay off.
How has it gone since you started? Have you grown, diversified or stayed the same?
We’ve been growing steadily as our confidence has grown, including more work coming locally through word-of-mouth and our growing reputation. We’ve been running more creative funerals and getting recognition for that – we’ve started developing a real USP in that area. We have the confidence to offer families different options, so people are going for them.
We have received recognition for making natural, ecologically friendly, green options available as an integral part of what we do. We incorporate this naturally, for example encouraging people in Birmingham to realise that they can have a natural burial, even if they live in a big city. As part of this recognition, in September 2015 we were awarded Green Funeral Directors of the Year at the Good Funeral Awards. We were also nominated in the Most Promising New Funeral Directors category. As all of the nominations come from families who we have helped, this meant a lot to us.
We were also chosen as Virgin Start-up Ambassadors in May 2015. We got to have lunch with Richard Branson, who told us he thought our business was “100% a great idea”. We’ve been involved in networking and coaching events through this, and also write a monthly blog post for Virgin.
Finally (for the moment), we have been selected as one of the Small Biz 100 for this year’s Small Business Saturday and we’re featured on 1 October 2015. As part of this nationwide event, we’re trying to get local businesses involved in talking about small businesses and encouraging people in the area to use them.
All of this has helped us to raise awareness not just of our business, but of some of the conversations people should be having about death and dying.
Where do you see yourself and your business in a year’s time?
- We want to have a higher percentage of our funerals to be from the Kings Heath and Moseley area and a higher percentage of those to be natural burials, because those are beautiful.
- We want to be seriously considering our own premises and what those would be.
- In parallel with the business development, we would like to be more visible and high-profile around Birmingham as facilitating the death conversation.
- We want to make sure that we’re continuing to look after ourselves.
- We want to bring other local companies into our network so that we can run our business within a local, sustainable supply chain.
- We want to be making sure that people have more information and better choices about funerals for themselves and their loved ones.
They have 1-year, 5-year and 7-year plans; they used their experience and knowledge and added in specific training; they network with the best in their industry niche; they’re already winning awards; and they’re doing things ethically and kindly and supporting other local businesses. With all of that on the go, I’m confident that we’ll see Carrie and Fran’s business grow and thrive over the next year, and many years to come. What a long way from our library studies for me and Carrie!
You can find A Natural Undertaking online at www.anaturalundertaking.co.uk
Carrie Weekes or Fran Glover are available 24 / 7 on Phone: (0121) 444 0437 and Mobile: 07986 423 146 and you can email them, too.
If you’ve enjoyed this interview, please see more small business chat, the index to all the interviewees, and information on how you can have your business featured (I have a full roster of interviewees now so am only taking on a very few new ones). If you’re considering setting up a new business or have recently done so, why not take a look at my books, all available now, in print and e-book formats, from a variety of sources.