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the challenge

Andrew Smith founded Final Wish, a website devoted to life’s end, after thinking about what he would like his funeral to be like during a long hospital stay.DARRYL DYCK

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

For Andrew Smith, a six-day stay in hospital got him thinking about life and death.

Granted, he was only having a toe removed. But what would happen if he passed away? Did his family know what kind of music he would want played at his funeral, or whom he would want in attendance?

"I thought, I really need to get this stuff written down. But then I decided there's a lot of people in the same situation as me, so if I can create a website where people can do it at home, at their own pace, that would be awesome," says the 44-year-old from Halifax who now lives in Vancouver.

The result of his thinking was Final Wish, a secure website that stores information that people would want shared at their time of passing. That includes what should be done with social media accounts and who should look after pets. Upon death, that information can be accessed by preappointed confidants.

While joining the website and using its basic functions is free, visitors can also pay $25 a year for a "gold" version that allows users to upload a slide show of life events, set to music, that can be played at a funeral or celebration of life. Clients can also write the story of their lives, to be read by future generations.

"I can poll any room and ask how many people have their final wishes written down – and, if so, are they current – and I can guarantee there'd be a high percentage of people who haven't," Mr. Smith says. "It's a needed service. To make it a positive experience and very user friendly, that was my goal."

Though work on the website started in 2012, Mr. Smith, who runs the business with his wife, Shireen DeBeer, had trouble getting things off the ground. He says he wasted two years of time and money employing a friend to design it, but then hired Sam Razi, an experienced Web developer, to take over.

End-of-life preparation is a hard subject to talk about, he says. "I wanted to make the site vibrant, and that's why I have pictures of people enjoying life. That's what it's more about, it's about being prepared, whether you're 30, 40, 50, 60, any age really."

Mr. Smith estimates he has spent about $30,000 to launch the business, including trademarking Final Wish in Canada and the United States. He acknowledges that he has a couple of competitors in the United States and Britain, but they don't offer everything that Final Wish does.

He is aiming to attract 5,000 to 10,000 users in the first year, and is putting his faith in social media campaigns and piggybacking on other companies, such as life insurance firms, to spread the Final Wish message.

Mr. Smith thinks his target market is baby boomers, though he acknowledges this may not be the case, and that he might need to pivot and shift focus.

The Challenge: What can Final Wish do to ensure a successful and profitable launch?


Katherine Roos, executive director of the business incubator Imagination Catalyst, OCAD University, Toronto

Preparing for somebody to die and communicating about your last wishes is deeply personal, deeply emotional. Though it's quite an attractive website and seems easy to use, it's not super personalized. There's not a picture or name associated with the owner of Final Wish on the site, and there are no samples for visitors to view. That would make me hesitant to jump in and share that kind of information.

They need to spend a bit more time talking with their prospective customers and understand what they want that site to look like as a repository for that deeply personal information. Mr. Smith might want to consider finding a user-experience person or a digital marketing expert to help his team better understand how to build a site that builds trust, so that customers will have faith that if they provide their last wishes now, but don't anticipate needing them for a number of years, that the site will still be around.

Mitchell Osak, managing director of strategic advisory services at the business consultancy Grant Thornton LLP, Toronto

There's a need in the market for this, but I think it will be a challenge to convince enough people to pay money for it.

Final Wish should pursue any strategy that does three things. One is to build mass awareness as soon as possible. Social media is a good, economical way of doing that. The second is they've got to communicate what their business is. I think they've done a very good job of that, beginning with their name and a very simple, straightforward website. The third thing is to convince people to engage with them. So just blasting this out in cyberspace and getting free publicity is great, but then they have to close the deal and that means getting users and potential customers to think about their own mortality, to think about their own wishes and define their confidants.

Pushing as many people from the awareness stage all the way through to the closing stage will be a function of how clear their message is, the customer experience on the website, and how easy it is to use.

Gary Carmichael, vice-president of government and corporate affairs, Arbor Memorial Inc., Canada-wide funeral-home chain, Toronto

Any planning that somebody can do about their inevitable demise will make it easier on loved ones. But this is stuff that we also do at the funeral home, and we don't charge them an annual fee to do it.

It will be up to the public to decide whether they see value in this, or whether it's something that most funeral homes can do and it would all be included in the funeral-home pricing. I think they should partner with a funeral provider, which would help families make the proper arrangements.


Personalize the site

Mr. Smith should look for ways to make people feel more comfortable sharing personal details on the site.

Promote, promote, promote

"Build it and they will come" doesn't apply in the online world – he should promote aggressively on social media.

Look for partners

He should investigate partnering with funeral homes and other end-of-life organizations.

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Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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