Jeff Friedman believed that modern families—especially Baby Boomers—wanted to do more to honor their loved ones than the standard funeral in a dark and gloomy funeral home. The consumer had changed but the industry had not. He wanted to focus more on the experience of the celebration than the location of the chapel. He now has several locations, will sometimes meet at the family’s home, and will conduct a celebration of life almost anywhere the family wants it.
Russ: Welcome back to the BusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio and seen online at TheBusinessMakers.com, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business. My guest today: Jeff Friedman, founder and president of Distinctive Life. Jeff, welcome to the BusinessMakers Show.
Jeff: Thank you for having me, Russ.
Russ: You bet. Tell us about Distinctive Life.
Jeff: Distinctive Life Cremations and Funerals was founded to provide an alternative to the traditional funeral service. We really try to encourage people to have a true celebration of life that's not the traditional cookie-cutter funeral that you may have been to.
Russ: Sounds to me like it might be a little bit of a disruptive model and trying to change this, this particular ceremony.
Jeff: It is a very disruptive model, but it is a model that's giving families what they want. It's giving the families a true memory of the celebration of life.
Russ: Okay. Now you mentioned cremation and funeral services. So you do both?
Jeff: We do do both. We specialize in families that choose cremation; however, with the way we're set up is we work with a lot of families at their churches or we do have a chapel here in Houston that many families can use as well for a traditional funeral.
Russ: Okay, so what percentage of these services do you do that involve cremation over traditional?
Jeff: I would say over 90 percent of our families choose cremation. While we still service about ten percent traditional funeral and burial, 90 percent's cremation.
Russ: Okay. And you mentioned 2012, so you're approximately two years old. Are you just in this location here?
Jeff: We founded Distinctive Life Cremations and Funerals in 2012. I originally founded Paradigm Funerals and Cremations in 2001, so we've been around for quite a while. We've grown to five locations here in Houston and two locations in Dallas.
Russ: Okay. Well, that's pretty interesting. So that means success. People are lining up for your services and feeling good about, right?
Jeff: Yeah, the response we've got has been very positive. As a funeral director you always like to get thank you notes, but to really see the faces and hear the stories of people is an amazing thing.
Russ: Okay, well, the facility is quite unique. I've never been to a funeral home that looked anything like this. But even the pictures, the photos, the ambience, and the products makes me think that you—when you said celebrate the person's life, I mean, you do it in a very unique sort of way and really get into who they were and what they were all about in this service, correct?
Jeff: Yeah. You know, cremation offers so much more ___________ and personalization that our locations are very open to giving a variety of options. A family could walk into a bright place that's open-aired, nothing—no dark rooms, and they from the start could start seeing all the options they have to memorialize their loved one.
Russ: Give me an example of some sort of new edge, new opportunities that maybe one of these baby boomers justified having a service that focused on a certain kind of—tell me about that.
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah, a lot of times when we're listening to the families and we're making arrangements we get to hear some side conversations. One of them we actually heard the family talking about how they should have wine served at the funeral. And we actually recommended having the service at the Tasting Room in Uptown.
Russ: Oh, wow.
Jeff: And we had the guy's five favorite wines there to be served, and it was great. The family came, their friends came, had great fellowship, shared stories, and enjoyed wine.
Russ: Wow, that's unique. Give me another example. I like that.
Jeff: Well, we've also had a service at the bowling alley where the gentleman was a league bowler. So it was neat to have—be there on the league night that he would bowl in and have all his trophies set up at a table. It was a lot of fun. There were a lot of cheers to him and people were bowling strikes and toasting him. It was a great time.
Russ: All right, really cool. I mean, you know, you mentioned your prior company, Paradigm, but it was kind of moving I guess in the direction of what you end up as Distinctive Life, right?
Jeff: It was moving in the direction, but the baby boomers really have become more open to this. You know, they've changed every industry they've been a part of it; you know, the funeral industry is not immune to it. So we started really seeing this about five years ago where families really wanted something more than the traditional funeral. They wanted something more than what they were getting elsewhere.
Russ: Okay, so—but I take it that your other company at least back in the beginning was a traditional funeral home.
Jeff: It was—I've always been located in a retail center. I've always been about saving on my overhead and letting the brick and mortar places be there and I was ________ the alternative in saving families money by focusing on service and not so much on facility.
Russ: Okay. But along the way I guess you kept seeing this sort of opportunity evolve. Was there a tipping point when you said, "Well, I'm gonna dive into it"?
Jeff: Yeah. About five years ago I really started listening to the families and looking around the industry and seeing that the consumer has changed but the industry hadn't changed. The consumers were wanting something different than the dark and gloomy funeral home, but the industry just kept wanting to bring everybody into the funeral home and keep the cookie-cutter funeral. So five years ago I really started listening to the families and looking at what they wanted and trying to answer for what they wanted and not what the industry wanted to keep.
Russ: Okay. One thing I know that I've had experience and lots of friends have had this experience—one thing they wanted was not to spend so much money. I mean, my goodness. You could go to a traditional funeral home, and man, they would make you feel badly if you didn't buy the most expensive casket. Then you had to buy some kind of vault to protect the casket and it just went on and on and on. So I assume this might be a little bit less expensive.
Jeff: This is definitely more cost-effective. It's inexpensive compared to the traditional funeral homes. One of the things—and I went through all those classes in mortuary school where they taught us how to tug at your heartstrings and how to sell you the most expensive casket. But now families are really focused on, you know, celebrating the life and they're not caught up in the, oh, I need the gold casket and the expensive liner. Families are becoming more educated. They're looking online. They're a lot more willing to talk about funerals.
Russ: Right. I've even had friends and stuff, their parents passed away and they were cremated, but they still wanted them to be buried, the urn to be buried in a cemetery. I guess that's sort of common, but the options really get opened up when you have a cremation service.
Jeff: Right, the options have definitely opened up from burial to churches are even starting to have their own urn gardens.
Russ: Oh, wow.
Jeff: But also we see a lot of families that are scattering. We're fortunate enough to work with Celestis where we could actually have somebody go up into space, as well as a firework company outside of California. So we do all kinds of things.
Russ: Well, and just looking around in here, obviously there are a lot of specialized urns across the spectrum that I would assume that family members get quite interested in, you know, when they sort of see one that brings home the personality of their loved one.
Jeff: Exactly. You know, the whole purpose of the urn is to tell the story. You can look at some—at an urn and tell something about that person and what they stood for. We also not just have urns but we also have jewelry that holds cremated remains.
Russ: Oh, my goodness.
Jeff: And that's been a great—you know, families take great comfort in that.
Russ: That's really cool. Okay, so you're here in Houston with multiple locations.
Russ: Are you outside of Houston?
Jeff: We have two locations in Dallas. So it's been great to work with both the Houston and Dallas market and introducing Distinctive Life to them.
Russ: Is there anybody else doing a very similar model that you know of?
Jeff: No, there is nobody else. We've had to write the book, learn the lessons. And, you know, luckily our families are very open with us, so we're able to accommodate. And each family we serve just makes us that much better for the next one as we learn more.
Russ: Great, Jeff. Well, I know as you know that this is a business audience and they're probably sort of interested and obviously it's growing, going to other markets. Give us your vision. Five years from now what do you see Distinctive Life being?
Jeff: You know, I see many locations serving many families. A lot of—one of the messages we're really proud of is that we can come to the families' home and meet them so it becomes less about the facility and more about the family. So I'm looking to expand all over Texas and outside of Texas in the next five years.
Russ: Really great. Well, Jeff, thank you so much for sharing your story with us.
Jeff: Thank you for having me.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Jeff Friedman, the founder and president of Distinctive Life. And this is the BusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio, seen online at TheBusinessMakers.com, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business.