A Unique Business Model for Death

photo credit: 4.bp.blogspot.com

It all started with a personal tragedy for Dr. Ramnik Parekh, an eminent doctor and occupational health giant, in Mumbai: the death of his father, who was transferred from one tattered ambulance to another (the first one broke down along the way) during his transfer from the hospital to the crematorium, with scant dignity and respect. He found people running around haphazardly to make arrangements impromptu, and with little decorum. What compounded the question was the lack of knowledge in the younger generations about who to call and what to do in the event of a funeral. It moved him deeply enough to question “isn’t there a better way to do this?”

Culture and traditions are eroding with the younger generation

A man of deep-rooted values in cultural heritage, tradition, and rituals, Parekh found, through his interactions with his extended family and generally younger people in society, that younger generations had no idea what to do when a relative dies. Hindu tradition dictates specific rights and rituals to be performed upon the death of an individual, as it also is the case for Islam and Christianity. Usually, the elder people in the family know about how to perform these rituals that have been learned from the previous generation. Across the world, he sees that cultural heritage is being gradually eroded by the adoption of different lifestyles and a multi-cultural outlook — not a bad thing in and of itself — but risks losing such cultural rituals and traditions eventually into obscurity, something he could not bide by.

According to Parekh, “one citizen dies every 4 minutes in Mumbai- population 20 million; the younger generation of the affluent now live abroad. India is a country of diversity, demanding 24 different kinds of rituals; rituals for a widow differs from that of a married woman within the complexity of the matrix of religions, traditions, and cultures.”

The big idea — an end-to-end outsourced death service

Since he could not convince the mass scale of the younger generation to take on the educational of the correct rights and rituals, and since the younger generation may not be able to count on the elder in the family to know these rituals in subsequent years, he conceptualized a new service — a service where the rights and rituals would be performed by qualified people and would be delivered on-demand in an end-to-end solution. Considering the fact that India is predominantly a Hindu population, and then Muslim, followed by Christians and others (Jews, Buddhist, etc.), he pareto-curved this idea to capture 85% to 95% of the population (Hindus and Muslims) — a strategic choice which minimized operational complexity.

The problem — eastern death services are elaborate and fragmented

In most western cultures which are predominantly Christian, the funeral business is quite well organized, with some countries or regions having chains of funeral parlors, and actively in consolidation mode. Most eastern cultures are not this organized about death. Hence this presents a unique opportunity to gain market share in a nascent marketplace for such services which are growing in demand. Each different sub-culture and religious faction in India has its own rituals and traditions which need to be respected, with specific clothing accessories, religious text passages to be read, specific procedures to be followed, and specific manners in which to handle and manage the deceased. In addition, there are also administrative regulations dictated by the city municipality and coroner’s office that must be followed.

The solution — a customer-centric societal service for death

Antim Sanskar Seva (last rites service in Sanskrit) was born in 2008: Parekh bought a van and converted it into a hearse, adorned by the livery of the service. He hired a crew of four to handle all the activities that need to happen at the time of a funeral. On their website, they present themselves as:

A service that helps the family of a deceased person perform the last rites and facilitate funeral arrangements and transportation to cremation site with decorum and dignity. From arranging for the body to be moved from the hospital to home and then to the crematorium, to providing all the material for the last rites, which includes arranging priests, Antim Sanskar Seva ensures that the entire process is smooth dignified and easy for the family.

Antim Sanskar Seva offers compassionate Funeral services to help lighten your burden & support you go through the difficult times that follow the loss of a loved one. When loved ones pass away, you want their bodies to be handled with care and help with the last rites. We provide guidance and facilitate funeral preparation, transportation facility and all the essential requisites at the crematorium; locate a priest if required. We believe in paying tribute to your loved ones with compassion and thoughtful personalized arrangements for the Last Journey.

Antim Sanskar’s hearse. They provide “a stately & Respectful Farewell to Life.”

A holistic solution portfolio

Once a phone call is made to the service, the team springs into action, by reserving a time slot at the crematorium or cemetery, arranging for the death certificate, logistics for transporting and embalming the deceased, co-performing the last rites and rituals with the family to guide them and / or do it for them, respecting the matrix of culture / religion’s specific needs and procedures, as well as the disposal of the ashes as desired by the deceased and / or the family. The service even coordinates the procedures for organ donation to the public services.

The business model of death

We use the Business Model Beacon framework (Parekh, 2016) to analyze this business model of Antim Sanskar Seva. The business model has two central components: the Society component and the Customer component. These two components, and predominantly the Society component, drive the configuration of the entire business model. The service has been conceptualized as one that fills the void of knowledge in society as a whole, which cannot be made up in any other way (in the short term). This drives the configuration of the other components. Let us look at them one by one, using the graphic below, which shows the primary relationship between the two central components (Society & Customer) and some of the other defining components of the business model.

Enterprise Financial Model (EFM)

We observe that the Revenue model is dictated by the Society component, insofar as the fact that the service is billed at cost, and is waived if the customer cannot afford it. This ensures that society has complete and full access to it no matter what their income level. The business accepts donations as well, and in many cases, the people who can afford it are paying more than cost, because they recognize the value in the service and are grateful for the high level of customer satisfaction that they have experienced. In some ways, think about this as a ‘freemium’ model where some people pay for the service that subsidizes the majority and enables the service to function and grow. The enterprise is designed as a not-for-profit organization.

The Cost model is also driven by the Society component, in that the cost must be managed down to be balanced with the Revenue component. In order to manage costs, procedures are well-documented for each activity, and alliances, partnerships, and complementary services are negotiated to offer the best deal on different elements of the full funeral process, without compromising on quality and customer experience.

Internal Operating Model (IOM)

The Product Portfolio is essentially the range of funeral ‘kits’ that are kept on hand so that the business can cater to a range of religious and cultural streams. They cater to about 85% of the population, but don’t strive for 100% as it would tremendously increase the complexity and cost.

The Brand Management and Sales Management model had to be worked out carefully because of the obvious sensitivity to the topic. Since this is a not-for-profit organization working almost entirely off of donations and billed at cost, the budget for marketing was almost non-existent. However, Parekh had the idea to use the hearse and the team as one-to-one marketing with customers. They would assemble outside a hospital in the morning, creating brand awareness and fielding questions with hospital staff so that they too could communicate the brand and value proposition to the relatives of people who passed on in the hospital. In the afternoon, the team would assemble with the hearse at the local crematorium, where a plethora of people passed through each day, again, to create brand awareness and show the relatives of the deceased their hearse and their pitch for themselves and other relatives. In the evenings, they would assemble outside parks where senior citizens would often walk and get together. The team would tell these senior citizens about the service.

The Supply Chain model is also streamlined such that the time taken and procedures are optimized for each step of the process, creating a low-cost and high speed model, with minimum complexity. This is also determined by the focus on Society and Customer, as this is one of the differentiating characteristics of the Antim Sanskar solution and value proposition.

The Coordination component is configured based on the Society focus, which dictates what specific rituals must be coordinated based on the specific customer preferences and societal norms.

The Organization model is one that is also dictated by the Society component, so that the employees are representative of the different religious groups of the customers they serve, and can take the lead for different religious ceremonies depending on the specific tradition or cultural norms that must be followed.

Network Partner Model (NPM)

The Complementors and Suppliers are also chosen based on the Customer and Society components as to what is permitted by the religious and cultural norms.

The Environmental factor is accounted for through an optimized ‘kit’ for each type of ritual and religion. In total there are 24 kits which can address a diverse need of different types of rites and rituals across different religions and traditions, with a minimum of wasted materials and preparations.

Ten years of proven success through this business model

Since its inception in 2008, the organization has provided death related services to about 10,000 people. Over time, Parekh found that he didn’t need 4 people per team, but only 3. It has grown from one core team of four staff to 5 teams, with 15 people in total, and one manager to coordinate the services and operations. The organization today is flush with working capital and is planning on expanding even further. The freemium model is working well for this business.

The Antim Sanskar Seva team and fleet of hearses in 2018.

The public has shown full support for this organization

The public is ready for this market, and with over 10,000 funerals managed across different religions, rites, rituals, customs, and traditions, Parekh has a lot to feel proud about. The Times of India ran a story in 2014 during the growth phase of this service, highlighting the positive reactions from the public. Another widely circulated publication, the Indian Express also ran a number of stories about the service, with widespread support for this service. An opinion piece by Bhavin Jankharia, for the Bombay Mirror was impressed enough with the service that he wrote a piece about it when he used the service for his own family member who passed away:

“NGOs like Antim Sanskar, started by Dr Ramnik Parekh, are amazing. For Rs 4,000 [about $57], they come home at the appointed time in an ambulance, prepare everything, take the stretcher to the ambulance, drive to the crematorium and wait till the end. In this day and age, when we barely remember any of the rituals that need to be done and those who do remember are the ones dying daily, they are a boon.”

What’s next? A whole new crematorium concept!

Today, Parekh has handed over the reigns to his younger brother, Dr. Bharat Parekh, a retired radiologist based in Mumbai, who leads the strategic direction of the business and the fundraising activities, as Dr. Ramnik Parekh moves onto his next new initiative, a new crematorium for Mumbai.

At the age of 83, Dr. Ramnik Parekh is not satisfied with what he’s achieved, and feels that there is a next logical step to the Antim Sanskar Seva service. In Part 2 of this series, we will go into the crematorium project in more depth, and the business model around that as well.

Disclaimer: Dr. Ramnik Parekh is my father, and whereas I have always admired the service that he has started, I had always been curious to analyze it through the lens of business model dynamics.

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