Building a Direct to Consumer Brand in Canada

Erin Bury and her husband, Kevin Oulds, are on a mission to ensure that more Canadians have wills and powers of attorney.

They co-founded their direct to consumer company, Willful, in 2017. The idea came after Kevin’s uncle passed away without a will that specified his wishes for after-death events like cremation vs. burial or what sort of memorial he preferred

“We thought, we have all these great digital tools–yet there’s no tool that actually helps you facilitate those conversations with loved ones, then also stores your wishes,” Erin says.

“The product is kind of like TurboTax for estate planning,” Erin says. “It’s a simple solution and it’s affordable.”

For individuals and families who have a straightforward, simple estate–like kids, a pet, and basic assets–Willful is a great option that allows them to set up their will and power of attorney themselves in under 20 minutes. Once someone prints their will, they must then take the proper legal steps of having it witnessed and signed in person.

“We’re taking this really uncomfortable thing that no one likes to think about–and that can be very cost-prohibitive and inconvenient–and making it a more accessible, affordable, easy thing to check off your list,” Erin says.

Plan costs range from $99 to $249.

Major Life Events Dictate Audience Messaging, Marketing Efforts

Rather than marketing via fear tactics or doom-and-gloom messaging about the inevitability of death, the Willful team markets their product around major life events. They also segment their audience according to these events.

“It’s about legacy and peace of mind,” she says. “It’s about leaving your family with a really good set of plans”.

“Everybody dies, but we can’t mass market with that message. So we focus on a few key audiences, and all of them are people going through major life moments.”

Willful’s audience segments include:

  • Parents. In particular, Willful markets to new parents who need to stipulate things like guardianship and inheritance terms.
  • Newlyweds. Newlyweds need to create a new will because an individual’s will is invalidated as soon as they marry. “Getting married is the catalyst to either update their will, create a couples’ will or mirrored will, or just to create one for the first time,” Erin says. 
  • Divorcees. Newly-divorced individuals will want to update or create a new will to ensure their ex-spouse does not receive part of their estate.
  • Homeowners. Once an individual or couple has purchased a large asset like a home, they want to make sure it passes down to the right person after they pass away. Assigning power of attorney is also essential to ensure that an incapacitated person has designated someone to take care of bills and other ongoing expenses around that asset. 

Erin says Willful’s best marketing strategy is through affiliate partnerships. The company partners with family lawyers, mom bloggers, personal finance professionals, mortgage brokers, or any business that communicates with people during transitional seasons of life like those listed above.

In addition to affiliate marketing, Willful leverages PR, Facebook, Instagram, Google Ads, and influencer marketing (creator media). Influencers tend to be very open to working with Willful, according to Erin.

“Over half of Canadian adults don’t have a will,” she says, “so one in two influencers we reach out to either doesn’t have a will, or they have a story about how they paid a ton of money for it. Or they have an out-of-date will because they’ve had kids.”

Erin’s team has even partnered with a dog spokesperson to talk about planning for pets in a will.

Raising Capital vs. Building on Revenue

Venture capital investors have a tendency to overlook opportunities based on geographical considerations. While Willful is revenue generating, they operate solely within Canadian markets which has made it challenging when engaging US based VCs.

“We’ve really focused on raising money from angel investors,” she says. “We also went through an accelerator program, and we found it difficult to raise capital outside of it” .

Entities such as Clearbanc have “become the great equalizer,” according to Erin. “They don’t care whether you’re a man or woman, and they don’t care where you’re based. All they care about is whether you’re selling something–and whether they’re confident they can get their money back because they see your growth.”

Erin advocates growing a business slowly over several years, using revenue from the business to build rather than taking on VC. 

“You can always go raise a series A five years in the future–no one’s stopping you. But if you take $1 of VC today, you have to be scaling and giving a return to investors.

“When I was a journalist, I was guilty of reporting on funding rounds like they were something to celebrate. Unfortunately, we don’t celebrate the founders who don’t take a dollar of anyone’s money. They’ve bootstrapped, they grow slowly, and when they stop, they keep 100% of that.”

On average, venture-backed founders only own about 7% of their business when they sell. 

When it comes to scaling a company, Erin recommends focusing on building products and services that people like and use, then building on revenue over time. 

“There’s nothing wrong with scaling slowly, keeping your burn rate low, and being thoughtful about the type of money you take on. Not every business has to be a VC-backable business.” 

How Collaboration Can Help Businesses Grow

As a direct-to-consumer business in a relatively small niche, Erin says Willful has benefited greatly from collaborating with businesses that might normally be considered direct competitors. Because wills and power of attorney laws change based on country, province, and state, it doesn’t hurt Willful’s bottom line to work with competitors.

“We have become such good friends with our competitor in the U.S.,” she says. “We have calls with them once a month where we share marketing tips.

“We’ve been very fortunate in that sense. A lot of other consumer products aren’t that close with their competitors because they’re just worried they’re going to launch in their markets.”

To hear Erin’s interview at the Commerce & Conversations Edition of influenceTHIS, click here.

About MNP – As a leading national accounting, tax and business consulting firm in Canada, we support tech, media & telecom companies through all stages of their life cycles. How? With a vast network within the space, combined with extensive service offerings tailored to your needs. We can secure grants or government incentives, assist with public transactions or going across the border, and structure your business through corporate finance and tax planning for growth or exit strategies. 

Written by Haley Walden

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