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Local couple changing funeral industry by thinking outside the box

26 February 2020

The death industry as it’s cheerily known, is not the most obviously appealing when it comes to career pathways, but ‘death care tech’ is currently transforming the age old sector bringing it right into the 21st century.

Leading the way in reinventing how the cemetery and funeral planning industry is managed is local couple Leona and Seán McAllister, whose business Plotbox provides death care management solutions to assist companies involved in the business.

PlotBox is a cloud based management platform offering services including comprehensive mapping of cemetery sites, digital recording and storage of deeds and relevant documents, plot management and memorial management. Along with a whole host of advanced finance tools, the services all run from a single application accessible from any device anywhere in the world. Visitors hoping to trace loved ones can even avail of cemetery maps online to aid them in their search.

Next week the couple will be sharing their unique Start Up Story during one of the highlight events of Enterprise Week 2020, being delivered by Derry city and Strabane District Council. The McAllisters first came up with their idea ten years ago, and after a few years of ‘hustling’ to sell the concept in an antiquated industry, have now successfully extended their reach to the US and Australia as well as N. Ireland.

Looking back at where they started their journey, Leona recalls the challenges of getting such a niche idea off the ground.

“We always get a few raised eyebrows for being in death care tech!” she admits. “The idea came about around 10 years ago when my husband, our CEO Seán, was running his Engineering Survey business and he was asked by our local parish to survey the graveyard. “He did that, and because it was our Parish he wanted to do a bit extra so he took photographs of the headstones and asked me if I would transcribe the inscriptions. It was a simple concept but an important one that was missing in this industry in terms of being able to link data to plot locations. He had the idea that we could do this service for other Parishes and it just grew from there with PlotBox as you know it now, being created in 2013.”

While the idea generated a lot of curiosity, when it came to securing tangible investment, there was a bit more reluctance, a challenge faced by many local fledgling enterprises. With a more privatised approach to the funeral industry in the US, the McAllisters set their sights on getting established there.

“There was a lot of interest initially,” Leona recalls. “Investors love a niche product and an industry that has not been disrupted. But without pointing to a company in the space who had done it before I suppose it wasn’t easy to get data on actual market size potential to demonstrate the scale of the opportunity, which is what investors really want to see. We hustled for quite a while with no investment to firstly prove we had something people wanted to buy.

“In terms of agencies, we received fantastic support especially from Invest NI and other programs such as those offered by Catalyst Inc. But the markets we operate in are different in terms of approach. They all serve families and they bury and cremate our loved ones, but they often have different models of operating.

“We found early success in California where there were naturally more early adopters and an openness to technology. Also, there are more private organisations in the States compared to the cemeteries in the UK and Ireland, which are run by Local Authorities, so there were quicker decision times which was key to early growth.

“All our customers, whether it’s location or type of organisation, can have different strategies for success. For example, Local Authorities here are increasingly more motivated to ensure they are GDPR compliant and are embracing ‘digital’ which is now well supported by government initiatives and frameworks like the G-Cloud framework encouraging a move to cloud services. Other customer types can be more interested in finding new plot inventory where they have space issues, minimising risk or increasing sales.”

With an expanding team the couple can now be more flexible in the delivery of services, aiding their international growth plans.

“There have been a few challenges over the years in expanding,” Leona admits.  “In the early days Seán and I would both have had an evening shift to cover support for our clients in the States. Now, especially with Australia, we have the team in place to make sure we are offering support around the clock.

“Culture is another important thing to consider for expansion. It’s important for all staff to be the right fit for the company and it can be difficult to achieve a consistent culture so many miles apart. Last year we hired a Head of Talent and Culture to help with that, as well as other initiatives to make sure our staff have a flexible career path, opportunities for travel and more.”

With support services for local businesses improving locally, Leona is impressed by the changing environment in NI, and she will be encouraging other small companies to make the leap of faith when she comes to Derry next week.

“The ecosystem for a company like ours has definitely improved. We’ve noticed a change in terms with more of a focus on Digital especially with Councils and a little less red tape. We’re also seeing more flexibility with the availability of suitable office space that’s not just in the cities. 

“For anyone hoping to get their idea off the ground, I’d suggest getting connected within the start up world in NI. We first took part in a business ready programme with our local business centre before getting onto the Invest NI Propel Programme back in 2012/13 when we had some traction in sales, but we didn’t have product/market fit. We then moved on to a Springboard programme offered by Catalyst Inc. So there’s a lot of support, advice, mentorship and grant support available, you just have to find the right path for you depending what stage you are at. 

“We’ve a strategy for where we want to get to in terms of growth, customers, people and processes. We’re always improving the product and services we offer and are continually innovating to do things better. We’ve a few initiatives within the company right now. I’m heading up our Customer Success initiative which I’m really excited about and we’ve just recently hired a Customer Success Manager to proactively ensure our customers are getting the best value from PlotBox to meet their desired outcomes.

“We’re also about to launch our PlotBox Destinations Programme for graduates who get an opportunity to join the business and work in Australia or North America for a year and then come back to NI where they can have a variety of career options within PlotBox.”

You can hear more about the Plotbox story when Leona and Seán McAllister share their Start Up experience on Thursday March 5 at Magee Campus. To register for the event or any of the wider programme of free events taking place during Enterprise Week go to derrystrabane.com/enterpriseweek or register via the What’s On Derry Strabane app from Google Play & Apple App stores.