Ex-Nike leaders reimagine funeral experience with new startup that simplifies cremation services

Keith Crawford, left, and David Odusanya, co-founders of Solace, a Portland-based company reimagining traditional funeral experiences. (Solace Photo)

Entrepreneurs and innovators set out every day to give life to products and services across the tech landscape. A new startup out of Portland is looking to disrupt death.

Solace is the creation of Keith Crawford and David Odusanya, two former creative directors at Nike who want to bring funeral services into the 21st century. They are starting with cremation, and a digital platform that simplifies the process and pricing around end-of-life decisions while relying on design and customer obsession to rethink the approach.

Crawford first thought of reimagining the funeral experience after the death of his father in 2013. In a traditional funeral home he felt the pressure of the upsell, and was confused by a complicated matrix of paperwork and pricing.

“I left that experience thinking, ‘It’s so strange to me why this industry feels very stuck in time and not evolving and not modernizing and not putting the family first and foremost,’” Crawford said. “I think people enter this moment of life not knowing what to do or what to expect. So we just started to really try and craft this much simpler approach to it.”

(Solace screen grab)

With nearly 40 years between the two of them working on global initiatives for Nike, Crawford and Odusanya left to start their own design agency with the intention of being an incubator for ideas. They took with them an obsession around the consumer and brought that into their thinking at Solace.

“One of the biggest problems is that family is not the center of the conversation,” Odusanya said of traditional funeral operations. “It’s about profit, it’s about transaction, it’s a very competitive, fragmented market. So we brought that simple thinking into it and it just transformed the way we approached it and the experience of the family.”

Solace’s solution is to offer customer service around the clock and a single, all-inclusive price for cremation services. The option to deal with everything online in as little as five minutes is meant to give time back to people who are grieving.

The company recently expanded into Washington state, and Seattle and King County are now in the coverage area. Solace employs about 10 people and partners with firms in Oregon and Washington to handle the pickup, cremation and return of remains.

More and more people are choosing cremation over traditional and more costly burial options, according to figures from the National Funeral Directors Association, which puts the rate well over 50 percent in the U.S. Crawford said on the West Coast the rate is much higher.

“Honor Life, Lived” Solace says on the packaging it uses to return cremated remains. (Solace Photo)

And Solace aims to become a recognizable brand that people know to turn to. The funeral industry today has no such thing.

“If I was to kick the bucket right here, you’d be Googling ‘funeral home Fremont,’” Crawford said from GeekWire’s office’s recently. “It used to be a yellow pages sort of thing, or you knew of [a funeral home].”

Solace’s tech is not revolutionary — it’s tech that exists but that is being applied to an industry in a new way. The website is the front end, and on the back end there’s a customer service platform and a communication platform that the co-founders call state of the art for the industry.

“We have tons of ideas on how technology can help power a better experience,” Crawford said, adding that cremation is just the start for their services. “It’s not about technology for tech sake or innovation for innovation’s sake. It’s about solving problems for people using the power of technology.”

After six months in operation they’re hearing from families who appreciate the ability to move through the process on their own terms. Even the sleek packaging used to deliver cremated remains back to loved ones has been well thought out, and has the look and feel of what you’d expect from designers paying attention to those details.

“It went from dread to delight,” Odusanya said a customer told them in response to using Solace.

Solace is open to working with others in the funeral space who are thinking outside traditional ways of doing business. Crawford and Odusanya have met with Katrina Spade, the designer and entrepreneur who founded Recompose in Seattle. That company is generating buzz with its plans to convert human remains into soil.

For now, Solace believes the trends are headed in the right direction, and people will ultimately look for death care services to be very easy and tech powered.

But Crawford said it’s important to remember how personal everything is in the space they have entered.

“It’s partly about technology and modernization, but the other half of it for me is that it’s a human moment and it’s emotional. It’s not about one-click cremation, robo truck comes and you roll the body in,” he said. “There’s always gotta be a humanity to this or it’s just going to be wrong. That doesn’t mean you don’t use technology to make the core experiences way easier and better and more efficient.”

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