[Photo credit: Becca Lemire]
Startup founders can easily be swayed by investor advice and money. Willful CEO Erin Bury said a recent mentorship sprint with the FounderFuel program made the three-year-old company question its business-to-consumer (B2C) customer model. But the Toronto-based startup, that helps people create wills online without a lawyer, stuck to its current growth plans by coming back to its mission.
“Investors will always try to get you to change your business - adjust the revenue model, expand into different markets, change your marketing efforts, maybe even rebrand,” said Bury, who joined the team full-time in March. “Sometimes that advice is solid, but sometimes it’s not advice that’s right for you - so remember your mission, and do a gut check to ensure a change aligns with why you built this company in the first place.”
Bury and Willful co-founder Kevin Oulds recently returned to Toronto from four months in Montreal completing the FounderFuel program, backed by Real Ventures. We sat down with the new CEO to talk about business building: hiring for the CEO role, expanding into new markets, and getting the product right:
YouInc: You came into Willful as CEO in March. What gaps needed to be filled? And, what do you want to achieve in the next year?
Erin Bury: I decided to move on from the communications firm I had been running for the past five years to find a new challenge, and I knew I wanted to work on a single product versus at a services business. Joining Willful was always an option Kevin had suggested. I’ve been involved with the business as an investor and advisor, and so when we got an injection of funding this spring, I knew it was the right move for me.
Kevin had been running the company with a tight-knit group of contractors since launching in 2017; they had done an amazing job building partnerships with lawyers, building a brand, and building a beautiful platform, but they needed help to bring more strategy and long-term vision to the company, and to run the day-to-day hiring, finance, and operational aspects of the business. Because I have a strong background as an operator, and I understand how to build consumer brands, I knew I could fill the gaps on the team, while still ensuring the existing team members continued to shine in their respective areas.
Since joining in April, we’ve completed the FounderFuel program, launched in two additional provinces, formed partnerships with companies including Wealthsimple, and been featured in news outlets like Bloomberg and Toronto Life.
In the next year we have plans: to be live across Canada by the end of 2019 (right now we’re in five provinces); we’re working on partnerships with some of Canada’s largest financial institutions, insurance companies, and fintechs, and we’re expanding our team to amp up our development and growth marketing efforts. Our goal is to be the go-to consumer brand in Canada for estate planning, and while we have a long way to go, we’ve built a solid foundation with thousands of customers across Canada.
LAUNCHING IN NEW MARKETS
YI: Have you had to treat each market with a separate strategy or could you create a ready-to-launch model?
EB: Kevin and I aren’t lawyers, so we knew we’d have to partner with estate lawyers to ensure we created solid legal content and have their advice from day one. In the early days it was difficult to find partners - not all law firms see technology as an opportunity, and some of them see us as competition. But, luckily we found great legal advisors in each of our active provinces, who have helped us create our legal content from the ground up, and adapt it for each market.
Every time we launch in a new province, we commission research about the estate planning habits of the people in that province. And, we work with our lawyers on a marketing campaign that highlights the importance of putting a plan in place.
You don’t need a lawyer to create a will - what makes a will legal is that it was created by you in sound mind, and signed by you and two witnesses who don’t benefit from your estate. But we know that to trust an online service like Willful, you need to know that the documents you’re receiving are solid, so our legal advisors help to instil that trust.
MARKETING TO TARGET DEMOGRAPHICS
YI: Talking about death is uncomfortable. You've created a clever marketing approach called "adulting" to attract a younger customer demographic. Is this working?
EB: Like Kevin, so many other people have experienced the death of a family member or friend, or they’ve been an executor for someone’s estate, so they understand how integral planning is. But we’re trying to target the broader market of Canadians who maybe haven’t gone through a loss, but who have children, assets, or a spouse, and need to put a plan in place.
No one likes to think about their own mortality, but creating a will is exactly the same as life insurance - it’s about protecting your family after you’re gone. Life insurance has better branding: it’s not called death insurance, so it feels more approachable. We’re trying to make estate planning more approachable through an educational, user-friendly brand, so that people feel empowered to take this step.
We use the “adulting” theme because it’s easy to relate to; millenials know we should have things like life insurance and RRSPs, but we don’t always make it a priority. Our message is simple: while we’d like to think we’ll live to 100, no one can predict how long we’re here, so take 20 minutes and cross this simple “adulting” step off your list so you have peace of mind that your family is protected in case the unexpected happens.
LESSONS FROM FOUNDERFUEL
YI: What would you like to share with fellow entrepreneurs from your experience with FounderFuel?
EB: It’s important to focus on your mission and not get distracted by the different stakeholders, who will give you advice.
When we were in the FounderFuel program, we did a series of “mentor sprint” days, where we met with 100 plus entrepreneurs, investors, and business leaders who offered us advice on our business. Several of them asked why we were building a B2C business, and selling wills to consumers versus going strictly B2B and either selling our software to lawyers, or to large companies.
It was definitely something we had considered and struggled with; it made us question our business model. But we went back to the original mission that started with Kevin’s uncle: to make sure every Canadian adult has a will and estate plan in place. We can’t achieve that by selling our software to other companies; we can only achieve that by building a brand with Canadians and by partnering with the types of companies who can help us with distribution.