Willful: tackling the taboos around end-of-life planning

Photo of Erin Bury Willful CEOwillful logo

This month, we interviewed with Erin Bury, CEO and co-founder of Willful, an online platform that makes it affordable, convenient, and easy for Canadians to create a legal will online. She shared about Willful’s empathetic approach and how preparing for death and celebrating life is changing.


What kind of research went into understanding your target audiences before you started Willful? What analysis do you do on an ongoing basis as you evolve and grow?

In the early days of the company, our team was limited and we didn’t have the resources to do comprehensive empathy mapping, customer persona building, and market research. Prior to launch, it was mostly through interviewing potential customers and researching the life events that lead people to create their will, like buying a home, having a child, or retiring.

After we launched, we validated our hypotheses about our customer personas through customer research and surveys. After we hired our full-time Product Design Lead, he developed a more comprehensive approach to our customer personas and ongoing research and feedback framework. We now have comprehensive customer persona profiles informed by years of research and customer feedback; empathy maps for each of those personas outlining what each persona thinks, says, feels, and does; and a framework for ongoing user research and testing that helps us to validate and test new products or product improvements. We also speak to our customers daily, since lots of people have questions about getting their will done, so we use those conversations as an opportunity to learn more daily to validate or build on our personas.

Wills and end-of-life planning are topics people generally try to avoid thinking about. How do you drive a sense of immediacy and priority, or even, make it a pleasant experience?

It would be very easy to build an online will company that focused on fear and anxiety—”you might die tomorrow, get your will done now”—but that’s just antithetical to our core values at Willful. We launched the company because we had a family member pass away unexpectedly, and when that happens, you’re navigating grieving while trying to honour a loved one, and you’re trying to answer the questions about their end-of-life wishes that they may not have answered while they’re alive. Our goal has always been to empower families and give them peace of mind, and our values are empathy, purpose, and empowerment—not fear. We know that many of our customers create their will because they’ve lost a loved one, or they’ve been diagnosed with a disease, or they are scared about COVID-19—but we never use that underlying fear or anxiety in our marketing; rather we highlight the accessibility, affordability, and ease of use, and motivate people through the promise of peace of mind and a weight lifted off their shoulders. Does it always work to stop procrastination and encourage action? Definitely not. Human nature is to put things off unless there’s a deadline; and while there is a deadline to create your will, you don’t know what it is—and you hope it’s years, if not decades down the road.

In what ways do you connect with your consumers?

Our average customer age is 44, and we have customers that range from early 20s to their 80s and above, so the key is communicating with customers in the way that best fits their preferences. We offer customer support through the phone (people can book a 20-minute call to ask questions), live chat on our website, email, and social media, and we connect with customers regularly through social media content and emails. To reach potential consumers, we have a variety of channels, primarily media/PR, content marketing, paid search, social ads, partnerships with companies who share similar audiences (for example CAA, Sonnet, and Wealthsimple), affiliate partnerships, and partnerships with financial planners and other professionals who encourage clients to finish their wills. A big focus for our marketing is education—there’s so little education about estate planning, so first we need to tell you why you need a will, and explain how to do that and the key components—then we can hopefully convince you that we’re a great place to get it done. We are an online platform though, so the majority of our communication is online (although we do speak at a lot of events and lunch & learns—so hopefully those return to in-person at some point!). To date, most of the focus with existing customers has been on completing their will and power of attorney documents, but we’re building out a strategy for how to ensure people are reviewing and updating their documents annually, and compiling information outside their will that would be helpful to their executor and their family.

What have been your top challenges since starting the business? Since the onset of the pandemic?

The biggest challenges for the business have been around distribution and funding. For any startup, building the brand and getting in front of potential customers is always the biggest challenge. I have a strong background in brand marketing and PR, so we prioritized PR, SEO, and content marketing early on, knowing we’re a search-driven business. You start your search for will options on Google in many cases. But we’ve also prioritized partnerships, since it’s so much easier to increase distribution through existing audiences versus building your own audience one by one. Scaling distribution in a cost-effective way will always be a challenge. The other challenge has always been funding. It’s hard in general to get funding for a business, but especially difficult when you have two non-traditional founders (Kevin is a first-time founder with no business background; I’m a woman and traditionally fewer investment dollars go to women) who are building a company in the budding industry of “death tech.” Many Canadian investors focus on B2B companies with recurring revenue who sell in the U.S., so as a Canada-only B2C transactional business, we heard a lot of nos. Luckily we were able to fund Willful through a combination of friends and family funding, angel investors, Clearbanc, and most recently, venture capital funding from a Montreal firm called Tactico. In every case, the investors who said yes just innately understood what we were trying to build at Willful, and in many cases had been an executor or seen firsthand how important solving this problem is.

When COVID-19 hit, we realized that Willful would be a business that saw business increase, not decline. So the biggest challenges during this time have been in supporting our team with their mental health.

What have you learned about Willful consumers that would apply to other areas of wellbeing marketing?

I’ve learned that people naturally procrastinate on the things they *should* do, even if they know they’re important, unless there’s a deadline or a very clear sense of urgency (for example, a nagging spouse). I would imagine that’s true for many other areas of wellbeing. For example, we know we *should* eat healthy, meditate, and get enough sleep, but we often don’t because we either put it off or don’t prioritize it. While I don’t think we’ll ever solve procrastination, I think as wellbeing marketers we have to either create urgency (for us that’s been through things like time-limited offers), or pair it with activities they have to do (for example we’ve explored partnerships where you can get your will done when filing your taxes).

The pandemic has obviously changed the way the world thinks about wellbeing. What are the top three changes you have observed? How would you say this has impacted Willful?

The biggest change I’ve seen through COVID-19 is that it has created a sense of urgency for people around estate planning. We saw a big influx of traffic and sales in the spring, because all the folks who had put “get a will” on their to-do list for years all of sudden knew they couldn’t put it off any more. The pandemic has created a shift in people’s thinking in a few important ways: one, it created a sense of urgency around emergency planning documents like wills and life insurance that had been put off for years; two, it highlighted that the unexpected can happen anytime (so it’s better to be prepared), which will hopefully encourage people to prioritize things before they need to; and third, it made people prioritize their mental health and self-care in order to survive a stressful and uncertain time – and part of reducing anxiety is having peace of mind around important to-dos like estate planning.

What positives have come out of the pandemic for Willful?

While COVID has led to increased sales at Willful, I think the most positive thing that came out of it for us was validation that staying true to your values can help you succeed in tough times. We knew people were scared and anxious when COVID hit, and it would have been really easy to play into that fear to get people to buy wills. Instead, we went back to our values of empathy and empowerment, and asked how we could add value during a very hard time—which resulted in us offering free plans for healthcare workers (we’ve given out over 2,500). We also went back to our values when navigating how to motivate and support our team—which meant we were open about the struggles we were facing, and we supported our team with extra budget to use for therapy, and paid mental health days off. I don’t think you have to sacrifice your values to build a successful company – in fact, I think you only succeed if you have a clearly-defined set of values and you stick to them no matter what.

Where do you foresee the greatest opportunities for the growth of Willful?

Contrary to what many investors have told us, I don’t think death tech is a niche industry—not only because everyone passes away, but because there has been so little innovation in this space for decades, and the way we plan for and deal with death is changing. Our burial preferences are changing, as more people prefer cremation or green burials than ever before. Our celebration preferences are changing, as many prefer the idea of a wake or celebration vs. traditional funeral – and COVID has normalized virtual celebrations of life that can include family from all over the world. Younger generations are more apt to talk about and plan for death vs. older generations, so it’s becoming less of a taboo topic. And we’re on the cusp of the largest wealth transfer in history—an estimated $1 trillion will change hands in Canada by the end of this decade. So with changing attitudes and a generational shift, we’ll need companies like Willful to provide tools, products, and support to families. We feel we’re well-positioned to be at the forefront of these shifts, and our ultimate goal is to become Canada’s first consumer brand that’s synonymous with end-of-life planning.

Posted on: November 13th, 2020 by

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