Big Ideas


I started to write this as a “2008 Wrap-up” but it wasn’t working.  I focused on the ways the blog and business had worked together, but it started reading like a chronology and laundry list, rather than a real discussion of how the blog has helped me and my business grow.

So I’m starting over here, with a bullet-point list of how the blog has helped shape my business and how I think about my business.

The blog lets me “launch” new products on the cheap.  I get to introduce new products, get feedback and then rework my offering before I spend lotsa money advertising or changing the website.

The blog helped shape our convention booth design.  Starting in May 2008, I posted several items about new thoughts on booth design.  I showed photos of our booth from previous conventions and offered a few new ideas.  The remarks I got from our readers helped me reshape my design.  In June, we tested out the design (with cheap parts) at the IFDF Convention in Daytona Beach.  Based upon the success of the layout, we upgraded to better shelving that was easier to pack and better-looking.

The blog gives me a place to talk business strategy and get feedback.  In the post Be Agressive. B. E. Aggressive!, I used the blog to discuss, in free form mode, our business’ use of money.  And while I didn’t throw our purse wide open, the post and subsequent discussion helped me realize that we need to buy new equipment when we need it, rather than using the old stuff until it falls apart.  It’s also helped me plan my purchases at the end of the year (right now) so I get the full tax advantage.

The blog helps me think about the industry in abstract ways.  In the April post, Do Funeral Homes REALLY Need the Internet?, I rambled about how I think funeral homes will use the Internet in the future.  Besides starting some important discussion with several readers, the post also kickstarted some thinking about my own website and how I interact with our cot cover customers in cyberspace.

I use the blog to make important business decisions.  Our June trip to the KFDA convention was done by car, precisely because I wrote a post for the blog that looked at the expenses for flying or driving and weighed the benefits of each.  The research I did for the post helped me ultimately decide to rent a car.

The blog lets me think big and sometimes fail.  In one big sweeping post, I told everyone that I’d be using my knowledge of Orlando to write a special brochure and website for 2008 NFDA Convention attendees.  In that post, I laid out an ambitious plan to make our company integral to the experience of attending the convention.  And then we didn’t do it.  Any of it.  While I didn’t follow through with this one (because of time, cost, etc.), the blog lets me dream big and get immediate reaction to huge ideas.

The blog is a great place to dissect an experience.  The needs of a blog post (or magazine article) are pretty specific.  In my experience, the framework provided helps focus my thoughts and provides a matrix for explaining an event, deconstructing the ingredients and understanding the outcome.  In 2008 KFDA Convention: Day 3 and Wrap-Up, I looked back on our June 2008 experience and figured out what went right and what needed adjusting.

 The blog archives my thoughts on industry issues as they evolve.  In the article Serious Money is Coming to Online Obits. And Why it Won’t Work., I predicted that the funeral home-funded version of Tributes.com would have to transition to an ad-supported service in 18 months or less.  Just six months later, they’re running banner ads on almost every page.  With the blog, I can search more than two years of my thoughts on issues like cremation or pet funeral services and see how my own opinions and observations have evolved over time.

The blog secures new business.  I added four consulting clients this year, all because they saw the value of my knowledge and, more importantly, recognized that I am a “thinker” in the industry.  Does that mean I’m the best?  Far from it.  But it means that I have spend considerable time thinking about these issues and researching the information.  Even better, my clients tell me how much they enjoy my work (pat on the back, please) and that my services are a good value for the money spent.

The blog jump-started my book.  No, the book isn’t ready yet; I’ve decided to work on it some more and make it truly spectacular.  But the blog gave me the start I needed and helped me build the framework for the book.  Plus, the feedback from readers led me to see what path the book should take.  It’ll be done sometime in 2009, I promise.

The blog got me a speaking gig!  My first big speaking engagement was partly because of all the writing on this blog.  I presented “Tried and True Marketing and Merchandising Techniques” at the 2008 OGR Conference in Key West in November.  From that gig, I booked two presentations at the IFDF Convention to be held in St. Augustine in 2009!

The blog attracts people who help my business grow.  Many of the industry folks who have helped me spread word about my cot covers and expand into new markets (we just sold to an Australian distributor!) came from this blog.  In fact, every time I turned around at the 2008 NFDA Convention, I was greeted by someone else who reads the blog!

The blog helped me plan our most successful event ever.  The 2008 NFDA Convention was so successful for us because I planned a good location, upped our booth size and laid out an effective plan.  Without the written planning I did on the blog, I might not have seen the opportunities or acted upon them.  A recent study found that those who consider themselves “lucky” are simply more observant of new opportunities and willing to act on them.  My luck continues to improve because the demands of blogging help me focus my attention and expand my thinking.

The blog directs people to my retail website.  In fact, www.cotcovers.com is the most clicked link from this site.  In the last year, 379 people visited the retail site and looked at our covers. 

In all, the blog takes a lot my time, but it also focuses my thinking and helps me make important business decisions.  And while I don’t think every business needs a blog, I know that mine benefits greatly.

PEARL HARBOR MEMORIAL CEREMONY by escapedtowisconsin.
Photo by Flickr user EscapedtoWisconsin

Yesterday was Pearl Harbor Day.  Don’t feel bad if you didn’t remember.  I didn’t turn on the TV all day and didn’t think about it until my head hit the pillow last night.

Reflecting on what Pearl Harbor means to me, I was struck by how far away (in time) the event feels, and yet, how relevant it all still seems.

The attack on Pearl Harbor helped push our country into the thick of WWII.  Those first bullets and torpedoes fired from a Japanese plane occupy such an important place in our history, as their effects reverberated through the lives (and deaths) of so many young men and women of the era.

Without the Pearl Harbor attack, my grandfather, who I wrote about in the post, A Death in the Family: Part 2, might not have enlisted in the Army and would not have been shipped off to England.  He wouldn’t have married an English woman and had two children before divorcing and returning to Michigan. 

How many others found their lives irreversibly altered on December 7th?

I thought about this because we don’t “commemorate” the victims of Pearl Harbor on December 7th the way we commemorate all military forces on Veteran’s Day.  Placing flowers or flags on the graves of those who experienced the attack firsthand might honor their memory, but identifying and locating the graves might be harder to do.

But so many others were affected by that day!  Why should we reserve the “commemoration” for only those who were in Hawaii that day?

So I thought I’d tell you blog readers to put some flowers or U.S. flags on the graves of all WWII veterans this week. 

But then I realized that I’ve already talk about this and many funeral homes already do that at other times of the year.  So I researched the blog (over 1,000 posts on lotsa topics, so it took some time) and realized that I’ve shared a lot about placing flowers on graves, like these posts:

Memorial Day: A Fistful of Flowers and Flags
A Trunk Full of Flowers

But then my thoughts took a wide turn toward a bigger idea (falling asleep really jumbles up my brain!).  Why should we restrict flowers or flags to military personnel?  And why do we have to put our name on the bouquet?

What if there were a “secret flower giver” who started putting beautiful arrangements on graves?  Would people start talking?

Better yet, what if your community were struck by a “secret memorializer” who placed a wreath, with a photo and life story, in public places every few weeks?  Would people talk, tell their friends, report it to the police?  Would the local news station run a story on the sitings?

What am I saying?  Heck, I’m saying that someone ought to be that “masked memorializer” and start sharing these life stories in places other than just the funeral chapel.

Want to do it?  First, you have to forget about publicity.  This isn’t about getting your name in front of every person who sees your work; your aim is to create a strong impression with those interested enough to find out more.  You’re also looking to create buzz.

Secondly, you can’t just memorialize people whose services you handled.  It would become pretty obvious that you were only looking to publicize yourself if you do that.

How would this work?  You’d select some people to remember.  They can be city founders or influential neighbors.  Why not choose some local teachers and church members who always worked behind the scenes?

Next, you get some beautiful wreaths made by your local florist.  But make sure you swear the florist to secrecy!  Heck, you might negotiate a good discount from the florist for the publicity he/she will get when the story breaks.

Alternately, you can use an artificial wreath and change it every time you change the person being remembered.  If you plan to continue this even after you’re discovered, it would be nice to lower your recurring costs.

You should print a photo of the person (if available) and their story.  You might include relevant sources for more information about their life or the work they did while alive (“To donate to Johnny’s favorite charity, contact Hospice at…”).

Now, choose a popular local place to situate the memorial.  It should be on public property, unless you can swear another local business owner to secrecy.  Just make sure that wherever you put it, it won’t be easily removed by a code enforcement officer.  Hopefully, the sacred nature of a memorial will make any public officials think twice before removing it.

And don’t tell anyone that you’re the person doing this!  It should be a quiet gift to your neighbors.  In fact, humans are so curious, if this is a truly interesting project, they’ll work to find out who did it.  You will probably have more trouble trying to keep  your identity hidden!

Make sure you change out the wreath at an appropriate time when no one is expecting it.  You want to create buzz over a few weeks before it’s revealed that you’ve been the one working to remember so many fine people from your community.

Hopefully, this type of random, unmotivated sharing will encourage others to see you as someone who truly appreciates your neighbors and their important life stories.

Of course, if you try this, let me know how it turns out!

A new facility, Pet Heaven Funeral Home, just opened in Orchard Park, New York and it reassures me that traditional human funerals aren’t going away, even though cremation keeps rising.

I know what you’re thinking:  “How can a PET funeral home tell you anything about human funeral homes?”

For starters, Americans often treat their pets the same as or better than they treat the human members of the family. 

Secondly, there is no industry prejudice against pet cremation like there is in the human memorialization market so there is little pressure on consumers to make a forced choice for burial and traditional services.

And still, people choose to bury their pets and more folks are beginning to choose services for their animals.

Yes, there are still low-cost pet cremation providers and they will continue to thrive, just like low-cost human cremation providers.

But the pet funeral industry, which used to be 95% communal cremation arranged through your veterinarian, is growing up and the lack of artificial industry pressure means the result is a more natural reflection of what Americans really want for their loved ones.

So how does this help traditional, human funeral homes?

It tells us that, at some point, the prejudice against cremation needs to fall away, as we embrace cremation and burial as simply disposition options, while we learn that the real work of funeral homes is to provide context for grief and a venue to share and process emotions.

If all you provide your human clients is a disposition, there’s no reason for them to choose you over a less-expensive option.

I had the great pleasure of being a guest on a teleseminar about funeral blogging, hosted by my friend, Funeral Futurist Robin Heppell.

Now, Rob poses the question:  Do you have a business mindset for funeral service?

To help you hone your mindset, Rob’s offering a series of free teleseminars focusing on the importance of having and taking a business approach to deal with the issues that owners and managers in funeral service face today.

There are three sessions, and each one features knowledgeable guests who will help you improve your business.  Here’s the details:

Session 1: “Having a Business Mindset for Funeral Service”
Robin will be hosting Nancy Lohman and Todd Van Beck as they will share their insights into why it is important for owners and managers to think strategically and have a business mindset to face the challenges of Funeral Service today.  Register at Funeral Manager Secrets.
Monday, August 4, 2008 at 2:00 pm Eastern / 11:00 am Pacific

Session 2: “Handling Price Shoppers is Easier When You Differentiate Yourself”
Robin will be hosting Mike Kubasak as they share their experiences with Price Shoppers, how to handle them, and how to win them over without lowering your price.  Register at Funeral Manager Secrets.
Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 2:00 PM Eastern / 11:00 am Pacific

Session 3: “Increase the Value of Your Firm with Strategic Mindset”
Robin will be joined by Bill Bischoff of Johnson Consulting Group who will share his experiences in creating strategic plans as well as why having a strategic plan can increase the value of your firm.  Register at Funeral Manager Secrets.
Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 2:00 PM Eastern / 11:00 am Pacific

The best way to experience these Teleseminars is live.  But even if you can’t be on the line for the live session, you can still get access to the recordings and a wealth of support materials.  But, either way, you have to pre-register.  Go to Funeral Manager Secrets to sign up for this exciting training.

Robin Heppell, BT Hathaway, Brian Hanner and I will be taking part in this great teleseminar:

EVENT:  Funeral Blogging 101
DATE & TIME: Wednesday, July 30th 4:00 pm Eastern / 1:00pm Pacific
FORMAT: Simulcast! (Attend via Phone or Webcast — it’s your choice)

In this Funeral Blogging 101 teleseminar, you will learn:

* about basic blogging terminology
* what are the different blogging platforms and services
* what to write about for your first post – and future topics
* how often, what tone, and other issues for your “Blog Plan”
* how to get started today!

To register, visit:
http://www.funeralblogging101.com/

I watched the finals of the tennis world’s French Open last month and marvelled at the ease with which Rafael Nadal dispatched his opponent in straight sets (6-1, 6-3, 6-0).

In fact, he didn’t lose a set during the entire tournament.  He played his best and won big.

And his opponent was Roger Federer, who’s won the last five Wimbledon titles and has been called the best tennis player of his generation.  Others claim that Federer is close to being the best player ever.

Except, he can’t seem to beat Nadal on a clay court.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “being the best” lately.  Trying to choose advertising for upcoming magazines, deciding upon which fabric patterns need to be added or deleted from our offerings and planning for future product lines have all put pressure on me to figure what might make us “THE BEST COT COVER COMPANY” in the industry.

And then I had a small epiphany:  we don’t have to be THE best. 

Often, trying to be THE best ends in failure, as you realize that you don’t have the necessary tools, personality or funding to achieve the goal.  THE BEST is a lofty height to reach, and the path, in any field, is littered with the deflated egos of those who couldn’t make it.

But we all strive for THE BEST, because we’ve been told that’s the mark to aim for.

I’ve decided to aim lower.  I’ve got some good resources (tools, skills and cash) that may not be the best ever, but I know how to use them.  If I can figure out how to use what I have to make this company OUR best, we might just make a huge impact on this industry.

First, being OUR best is a goal I know we can achieve.  Second, using our resources to their greatest potential will yield unbelievable results for our small company. 

Think about it – while only one person, company or team can be THE best, being YOUR best is attainable. 

RELATED POST:
Stop Competing on Their Court

In between showings of our beautiful cot covers to attendees, I had time to chat with Ryan and Spencer from Hilltop.net about the nature of trade shows and how to grab the attention of passing funeral directors.

Ryan’s early pitch to passersby was “Do you have a website?” which occasionally yielded a “No,” providing an opening for him to talk about his easy-to-use and inexpensive web service.

Unfornately, everyone who answered “Yes” kept walking, as it was clear, at least to them, that he wasn’t offering anything they needed.

After discussing the “art of the pitch” with Ryan and Spencer, I suggested they look more closely at what their company really does.

Does Hilltop.net make great websites?  Sure.  But if I’ve already got a website, I don’t have a “I need a website” problem.

“But,” Ryan countered, “We make websites a lot easier.  With our software, you can upload obituaries to your site in seconds, without having to know any programming.”

“And you don’t have to resize photos,” Added Spencer.

So the problem that visitors might have isn’t “I need a website.”  It’s “My website is too hard to update and maintain.”

Ryan and Spencer decided to start asking variations of the questions “Do you have an easy-to-update website?” and “How fast can you add an obituary to your current website?” to more accurately focus their visitors on what their company really does.

As for our cot cover business, I learned from several of my new customers and those who chose not to buy that certain features of my covers are more desirable than others.

In fact, I got a lot of upturned noses and dismissive waves when I mentioned that the ULTRA model of our covers features a second pocket.  Turns out no one cares about another pocket.

I also tested my new “don’t contaminate your suit pocket” line on folks and found that it worked better than I had anticipated.  Here’s how the “contaminate” pitch goes:

And the DELUXE cover features this VersaPocket.  It’s got a compartment for paperwork, so you don’t have to shove the paperwork under the deceased’s feet anymore.  And this outside compartment is for gloves.  Now, you don’t want to leave those gloves at a family’s home, but you also don’t want to shove them in your pocket because they’re used gloves.  This pocket is made entirely from our FluidBlocker lining, which is impervious to fluids.  Why contaminate your pocket – I don’t know about you, but I only have this coat drycleaned once a month – when there’s such an easy, sanitary place right here on the cover.

And it worked!  Better than imagined.  And now it’s part of my aresenal.

Why is it so effective?

Because, like my pitch about our CleanEdge binding protecting the lower edge from dirt and my pitch about the soft yet protective features of the FluidBlocker lining, the VersaPocket’s compartments for gloves and paperwork solve a specific problem that many funeral professionals didn’t even realize they had.

To put this into a wider consumer perspective, imagine music before the iPod or other MP3 devices.  No one had a portability problem (the Walkman debuted in 1979) back then.  The iPod solved a problem few knew they had:  storage.  It seems like a huge issue now, but few people could carry all their music with their Walkman.  In fact, people often created mixtapes or carried a box of cassettes to expand their music selection.  Later, CD wallets boosted the number of albums that could be easily transported.

If you had been visiting a consumer electronics show in the late 90’s early 2000’s and been asked “do you have a portable music system” you’d have pointed to your Walkman or transistor radio and kept walking.

Why talk to a guy selling portable music systems when you don’t have a “portable music” problem?

Luckily for their bottom line, Apple and others didn’t sell early iPods or MP3 players as “portable music.”  They asked the question, “can you carry and access all your music instantly?”

Asking the right question translates into real money.

What else worked?  Well, we also got a lot of people into the booth by asking if they’d ever seen one of our new-style covers.  If they had, we asked if they’d seen them in person and then asked permission to show them the two reasons why our covers are so much better.

The most important point for us was getting guests into our booth to look at our covers.  Once we got them to agree to take a look at our product, we generated sales almost 1/3rd of the time.

Knowing the right question, related to a real problem your market experiences, can be the difference between profit and debt.  Choose your questions wisely.

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