Q&A: Pete Saari, Founder Of Foreverence
Death is big business in America. In fact, the most recent data from the National Funeral Directors Association finds industry revenue now tops $16 billion annually with consistent sales growth of more than $1 billion every five years. Meanwhile, as Baby Boomers become the industry’s predominant consumer base, changing preferences and economics are creating a rift between traditional and new-age values, resulting in a never-before-seen demand for crematory services.
Pete Saari, founder and CEO of Eden Prairie-based Foreverence, believes his business idea couldn’t have come to market at a better time. Since 2014, the company has provided individuals and families the option to fully customize an urn through the use of 3D printing technology. (Its first creation was for Bob Casale, guitarist and founding member of the band Devo.) Saari spoke with TCB about how publicity has given the company a rare edge, the increasingly common choice of cremation over traditional burial services and why he’s hoping to transition Foreverence’s brand away from the association with death.
Note: This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
TCB: How did you come up with the idea for Foreverence?
Saari: I have an entrepreneurial background, so this is my fourth new venture and startup. This was special to me, because this is the first time I had the product idea. Usually I’ve gotten involved with operational or product-centric people and then build the sales and marketing side of their business. So this is the first time I get to be the product guy, so that is kind of enjoyable for me. But the genesis of the idea came when I was doing some consulting work for a friend of mine who runs a company called Next Technologies, which sells 3D-printing systems. I got a good familiarization with the technology and what it is capable of. And I was sitting at home one day reading a copy of Time magazine and there was an article about cremation. I hadn’t really given cremation a whole lot of thought until then. It was talking about how cremation was this secondary end-of-life choice for people, or in other words, it was considered this alternate choice for people who wanted to take care of their end of life affairs on the cheap. But this article was talking about how that is no longer the case. The cremation rate is about to pass the 50 percent threshold in the United States—so more people are being cremated than not—and it’s gone up dramatically in a very narrow window of time. Literally 20 years ago it was 15 to 20 percent, and now it’s over 50 and it’s trending toward 70. Depending on what data set you look at, this year or last year was when the rate transitioned to over 50 percent nationally.
Why is cremation on the rise?
I think there are a few reasons. One is that people are less influenced by religion and religious norms than they used to be in the past. It used to be that your religion sort of dictated how you handled your end-of-life affairs. The other thing I would say is we are a much more transient society than we used to be. The whole gravesite experience has become less prominent, you know, because grandma might be buried in Dallas, Texas but now I live in Minneapolis. And I think the third part is this Baby Boomer desire for personalization. The thought that “I want to do something different. I don’t want to do something just because that’s how it’s always been done. I want to do it my way and leave a smaller footprint.” It’s just become the more practical and pragmatic choice.
How have you tried to uniquely position Foreverence within the funeral services industry?
There was a market gap for high-value cremation for individuals and families who desired a high-value cremation product. It just didn’t exist. The reason for that is this false presumption that I think many funeral professionals still have, which is that people who choose cremation are doing so because it is a cheap alternative—not out of matters of practicality and pragmatism. So I looked at what that segment of the industry was calling “custom” and everything I saw was extremely ordinary. In fact, if you Google “custom urns” what you are going to get is every single color of vase that you could imagine. Before I even started the business I went to a funeral directors trade show in Las Vegas just to walk the halls and see what was available, and sure enough that’s exactly what I found. Whether it was an urn manufacturer, an urn wholesaler or distributor, everyone had these products that they called “custom,” but that just meant “I can have it in blue or in green” or “I can have the flowery one or the one with a baseball on it.” So one of my first business challenges was re-educating this industry on what custom can mean these days.
Changing industry norms is a daunting task in itself. Why do you think you’ve been the source of chatter in the urn industry?
I say our business is inherently interesting, and the reason for that is people have an interest around death and dying and some of the creative things that people are doing with their end-of-life choices. And then you blend that with the idea of 3D printing, which is interesting for a completely different reason. Those two emerging-growth interest opportunities smushed together have become something people like to hear about and read about. We’ve been on CBS, ABC, Huffington Post, TMZ, People magazine, I just did an interview with Playboy magazine. I’m always a little bit surprised by it, kind of in a humble Minnesotan sort of way, like “Golly gee, people are really taking an interest in this.”
Could you tell me about some of your more unique or unusual urn creations?
Well one of the founders of the band Devo [guitarist Bob Casale] passed away and we did a piece for his family in the shape of the iconic red hat that the band members wore. In fact, we actually did two pieces because his family was separated by way of divorce with one half living in Los Angeles and the other in Akron, Ohio. Since then, we’ve also done a piece for Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead. And that was an interesting piece because they gave us complete freedom of design for what we thought would be appropriate. So we were the ones that came up with the cavalry hat design for him and the family liked it so much they actually invited me out to the ceremony. I was at the funeral in Hollywood with Gene Simmons, Ozzy Osborne, Dee Snider, Slash and all these people. So you can imagine what that after party was like.
That sort of publicity must give Foreverence a special edge against competition. How important has brand positioning been to you?
Well, people are coming to us at a time of grief and traumatic sadness, and I would like our site and our brand positioning to give them a break from that. For instance, go ahead and look at other urn sites and see how many of them are only advertising price. It’s literally a “20 percent off if you buy now” sort of thing. I even saw one recently that had a holiday special. It just seemed ridiculous, but I think that illustrates where the funeral industry is at with cremation products. They still have this antiquated mindset that people who choose cremation have done so for financial reasons and that’s just not the case anymore. So I really think our approach to marketing and brand positioning will help us succeed in the future.
How large is your operation?
I’m a little reluctant to talk about specific scale numbers just from a competitive standpoint. We use technology from a company called 3D Systems, and the reason for that is because we use an extremely large platform, ceramic color printer. In an average year, though, about 2.5 million people die in the United States and about 1.25 million of those people in 2016 will be cremated. So right now our market share is small, we only started selling product in late 2014. Well actually, the Devo urn was the very first urn we made, and that was April or May of 2014. But our traction has really been over the course of the last year. It was probably a good eight months before we were out there on our feet. I mean, this was a completely disruptive product for an industry that generally rejects disruption and new ideas, so it took us a little bit of time to get approval from funeral service providers.
Do you have any plans to open a brick-and-mortar location?
We do not yet. But I like to dream big and I when I was at that convention at Las Vegas, I was walking through one of those high-end forum shops at Caesar’s Palace and they have all of these niche-y products that people spend tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on. So I thought if we were ever to do something like a storefront it would have to be in a very high-end boutique operation, so a retail operation is not that farfetched. We’re in the act of transitioning our product away from being a death care product to it being a lifestyle product. I think there is a movement that is coming down the pike, which is people taking care of their end of life affairs at a young age. And by young age I mean 40s, 50s, 60s, which we’ve seen in our business already.
Do you have any competition for truly customizable urns at the moment?
Not that I’m aware of. We are the lone dog for now. I suspect that competition will come, but we are also executing on an IP strategy. So in other words, we have design patents on some of our pieces already and we have also applied for utility and method patent protection on using this particular technology with this particular material for this particular application—it has to be very specific and narrow. But we are patent pending on this idea.