If someone called you a “Disruptor” would you take that as a compliment? Damn right you do! Disruptive technologies challenge the norm.
In this month’s issue of American Funeral Director (January 2017), Thomas A. Parmalee has a one-on-one conversation with Requiem Founder and CEO, Mark Alhermizi where he labels him not only as an Idea Man but a Disrupter.
The Disrupters: Requiem Aims to Reshape Funeral Service
From Death Comes Life.
It may sound impossible, but for Mark Alhermizi, it’s true.
Alhermizi, the founder and CEO of Requiem, an app that notifies people of a loved one’s death via text message, was optimistic when his father, Isaac “Ike” Alhermizi went to a Detroit hospital Oct. 20, 2014, with a headache.
The “headache” ended up being “a bleed” in his brain, and he slipped into a coma. While he came out of it, Ike Alhermizi suffered a blood clot that led to another coma and a series of strokes. He died Dec. 3 at age 77.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way – in fact, the younger Alhermizi was supposed to still be celebrating the sale of Gas Station TV, the company he co-founded in 2006 with Mo Alcaptan and David Leider. Rockbridge Growth Equity bought the company only months before the elder Alhermizi’s death.
While his father fought for his life, Alhermizi had something else weighing on him. One of his sisters, Vivian, was in the same hospital, and she had given birth to a premature baby that did not survive. But less than 24 hours after Alhermizi’s father slipped into his final coma, she gave birth to a second twin that survived. Her name is Zoe, and today, she’s a vibrant 2-year-old.
The fact that Ike could not meet his newest grandchild made his death somehow even more heart-breaking, but that feeling was compounded by a secret Alhermizi had been keeping from everyone, including his dad: He and his wife, Mary, were expecting twins.
“My dad somehow knew he wasn’t going to make it before he went unconscious … I was the one who didn’t believe him, and out of that disbelief came so much regret,” Alhermizi said, recalling how he never told his father the good news.
Alhermizi and his wife would welcome a healthy boy and girl to the world in the spring of 2015. They named their boy Isaac in honor of his grandfather, and their girl Leo in honor of Alhermizi’s father-in-law. The couple also has an older son, Max.
Welcoming their two new arrivals was life changing, but the death of Alhermizi’s father left a tremendous void in his life – as well as the lives of everyone at Gas Station TV, where the elder Alhermizi continued to work even after the business was sold.
“My dad was in charge of delivering perks to the team,” Alhermizi said. “He was almost like the company mascot.”
If there’s one thing that rivals the role family plays in Alhermizi’s life, it’s business. In fact, one of the best pieces of advice he ever received was this: “Life and business are not mutually exclusive. Business and life are one and the same,” he added. “So balancing them is balancing both and living life is having both.”
The second piece of advice Alhermizi likes to share came from the same person – an elderly man who has been his friend for 20 years. “His advice was when your plate gets overloaded, you go to Target and you buy a bigger plate.”
The connections between life and death – both physically and in business – are not lost on Alhermizi. “The irony here is that Max (Alhermizi’s oldest son) was born with the launch of Gas Station TV, and then our twins were born within a few months of launching IZI Ventures (which includes Requiem),” he said. “When I grow my life, I am able to grow the professional side – my business.”
A Funeral Gone Wrong
Death is never easy, especially when it comes unexpectedly in the midst of so much joy, pain and regret.
But Alhermizi’s journey had only just begun.
His son, Max, who was 8 at the time, was devastated after the death of his grandfather. Max would be a pallbearer at his grandfather’s funeral.
“My dad somehow knew he wasn’t going to make it before he went unconscious and dictated a letter to me for Max, which was a very special gift,” Alhermizi said.
Although Alhermizi knew nothing about planning funerals, as the “second in command” of the family, everyone looked to him to make decisions.
The family held services to honor their loved one, but as time went on, Alhermizi kept learning about them – even though he spent about $6,000 on obituaries.
In a message titled “Why I Built Requiem” included in a brochure that the company handed out at the National Funeral Directors International Convention and Expo in Philadelphia in October, Alhermizi shared how terrible he felt every time that happened. “Not only did my case of mourning fog let my family down, I felt like I had let my father down,” he wrote.
Alhermizi learned a hard lesson: “Relying on word-of-mouth, newspapers and Facebook to spread the message is unreliable, and often too late. These channels were not built to communicate the news of a passing in an efficient, accessible, or appropriate manner.”
As an entrepreneur, he was driven to create a solution, which is why he built Requiem, which he considers a tribute of sorts to his dad. “We’ve created a new model for the industry – one that liberates you and families from an antiquated process,” Alhermizi, whose company was the exclusive black diamond sponsor of the NFDA convention, told a crowd of attendees at the general session. “In a few simple steps, a family can create an announcement and broadcast it out to all contacts in their phone so it can go viral throughout their personal network. It will drive traffic to your website, and most important, it’s free for you and your client families.”
In an interview, Alhermizi would elaborate, “My sisters and I blasted news of our father’s death out to everyone in our address books via text, and I didn’t have a way to do that with my Dad’s phone other than to go in and get the phone numbers.”
At the NFDA convention, Alhermizi was surprised at how fun and personable convention attendees were. “It’s probably just a function that these guys are all funeral directors and have great personalities, and you can’t be successful funeral directors without great personalities,” he said.
Alhermizi also discovered some ways he might make his app better, including integrating it with funeral home software. “Other than funeral homes that do not use software, every single funeral home said, ‘I would love it if you were integrated with my software or if I could push export to Requiem, and that way I could hand it to a client family and they are done with it because I already had their information in the system,” he said.
At the NFDA convention, Alhermizi was thrilled with the reception his team and his app received. “I knew we were going to make a splash, but I didn’t know how big a splash it would be,” he said. Most importantly, attendees validated his business model. “I had 70-year-old men and women telling us, ‘It’s about time someone like you made this,’” Alhermizi said.
Alhermizi, who works mostly with millennials, has a theory about why it’s taken so long for someone to bring such a solution to the market- place. “The reason this app didn’t exist until today – and this is a theory of mine – is that most mobile- based businesses and app-based businesses are created by young people,” he said.
Those young people, he said, have by and large not had many experiences with death. “That was my biggest challenge – getting them on board,” Alhermizi said of his younger colleagues. “I knew the core product we needed to create, and they knew how to execute it – and we finally came together. They started to embrace it … they started to see how people were chomping at the bit to get this service and app, and that is when it really started taking off in earnest for us. ”
A Busy Man
While Alhermizi is bullish about Requiem, you’d be sorely mistaken if you thought it was the only business venture he had going.
Once Gas Station TV was sold, he founded what he calls “a family office” – the Detroit-based IZI Ventures, which is a “private holding company of the Alhermizi family portfolio of businesses and investments,” according to its website. It includes three units: IZI Opportunity, which invests in strategic opportunities across real estate, credit and private equity; IZI Media, which builds and invests in content, distribution and technology across the media space; and IZI Mobile, which builds, funds and acquires disruptive mobile applications and businesses, and includes Requiem.
Alhermizi is particularly excited about IZI Mobile, which he thinks will ultimately produce “my next Gas Station TV.” He explained, “Its mission is to build and launch mobile-based apps and platforms and to find the next big thing that we can really sink our teeth into.”
IZI Mobile, he said, is “an in- house venture builder.” He added, “It’s not an incubator or venture capital firm that includes outside entrepreneurs. I have my own team of entrepreneurs, developers and marketers, and we use our own ideas and capital to build new media and new economy businesses.”
It remains to be seen if Requiem will be his next big winner, but Alhermizi thinks it’s possible. “Requiem has taken off way bigger and faster than we expected,” he said. “My goal has always been to throw stuff against the wall and see which one we are going to devote all our time and resources to, and Requiem is basically shaping up to be that one app we can sink our teeth into.”
But it will be no easy task, he said. “You can launch an app all day long – you can launch five apps anytime, but taking one of them and building it into a real business is a very different, onerous, time-consuming endeavor. We can design and build an app and get it out, but that is literally 5 percent of building a business behind an app. That is only the beginning of the work.”
It wasn’t always like this for Alhermizi, who got his start as a lawyer after graduating from the University of Michigan Business School and the University of Michigan Law School. It didn’t take him long to realize that he was an entrepreneur at heart, and he became an investment banker. He’d go on to head the worldwide mergers and acquisitions and corporate development practice for New York advertising agency J. Walter Thompson.
While he’s a Michigan guy at heart – having been born and raised in Detroit – he lived in New York for nine years while at J. Walter Thompson. “We made a lot of people very, very wealthy,” he said. “After socking away deal money from being a deal guy and banking guy, I decided to start my own private equity firm and went out looking for deals in the new media space and came across the Gas Station TV concept.”
Alhermizi worked his magic to strike a deal with Wal-Mart and Murphy Oil to install televisions at 1,000 gasoline stations, and he was in business. The company went from 0 to 100 employees, with 100,000 televisions at 10,000 gasoline stations and significant earnings.
Eventually, the company was running on autopilot, and Alhermizi started to entertain offers, knowing that someone else could put a lot more capital behind it. He found the perfect suitor in Dan Gilbert (the managing partner of Rockbridge Growth Equity as well as the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans and the majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers).
“He presented a price that was aggressive and something I couldn’t ignore,” Alhermizi said. “It was the right thing to do for my team and my partners, and I chose to do the deal and move on, but it didn’t take away my entrepreneurial spirit. It just put a big chunk of change in my pocket.”
And so IZI Ventures was born.
A Path to Profit
Alhermizi has not forgotten the important lessons he learned running Gas Station TV – and you can bet he’ll be applying them to Requiem.
“If we build the right product that serves the funeral director community – and most importantly families – we will create a user base and audience, and that traffic will itself have value,” he said. “How we leverage that down the road, I don’t know. I don’t know what it is going to be yet, but I do have some ideas.” He added, “I can very much afford to build this thing until we figure out how we will monetize it.”
When he operated Gas Station TV, he had 50 million customers – the viewers at the gasoline stations – who he called “my real audience,” he said.
Those viewers paid nothing to watch television while filling up, and the gasoline stations didn’t either. A third-party client – advertisers – were where the company made its money.
“We will have a different revenue model here,” Alhermizi said. “It won’t be advertisers, but you see the similarity here. We will never charge families. It is a free app for them to use, and we will also never charge funeral homes.”
Think of it as a bartering arrangement, he said.
“We are giving funeral homes a free tool to give to their families, and in exchange, funeral homes are helping me by giving that tool to the families – so I wouldn’t want to charge them and break down that relationship,” he said. “I could never charge them enough to equal the value I would get from building a broader network. It doesn’t pay for me to charge them.”
That model seems to be something new for the funeral industry, Alhermizi said, observing that when he went to the NFDA convention, every booth featured companies trying to get people to buy something. “That is why attendees were so surprised by us,” he said. “We were there to give them something that would help their client families without a charge.” He added, “It used to cost me $20,000 to outfit a gas station, and I never charged one. How could I do that with a new economy model?”
So you can take it to the bank: “I am never going to charge them (funeral homes). I am never going to charge the families,” Alhermizi said. “We will build a network and a business that is going to leverage the traffic. We will build the user base and find some other means of generating revenue. Is it something in preneed sales? Very possibly.”
“What you see in our app is a tool to make your circle of friends and family aware of the passing, and of course, related services in a very modern, mobile, central way,” he said. “It is very automated, turnkey, very fast, easy and powerful – and of course, if you update a service, everyone gets notified immediately. Internally, we call that the ‘at-need side’ of our app.”
But the allusion to preneed is no afterthought for Alhermizi.
“Let’s say you and your four siblings lose your father, and you create a memorial, and all of you are managers,” Alhermizi said. “One of you would create a memorial, and a few of you could chime in, and then you would all on your own download the app because it is all server based. You’d enter your contacts and choose who you want to choose and send it out to your contacts.” And soon, you’ll also be able to use the phone of the deceased to send out a notification to his or her contacts, Alhermizi said.
So if you send a note to a friend, the app will notify him or her that if they give the app access to their contacts, it will notify them whenever someone in their address book or someone within one or two degrees of contacts dies. “Now, we are monitoring for deaths that are of people in your friend’s address book or related to people in his book,” Alhermizi explained.
As a result, the app will expose more people to death at a younger age on a platform they are used to using. “We will have this ongoing dialogue on our app, which gives us a way to have a conversation if someone is thinking about preneed,” Alhermizi explained. “In a very gentle and modern way, we could approach them about preneed … I think that is going to be how we end up monetizing our solution – helping funeral homes with preneed sales and preneed leads.”
For instance, when you blast out a note to your 500 contacts, those are 500 people who have not had a loss, and they will be invited to partake in your loss. “Those people download the app, and once they do so, we ingest their contacts,” Alhermizi said.
The app’s database, Alhermizi said, will quickly include millions of consumers. “This is where being a mobile-centric platform will be driven down to the younger generation, because we are using a tool they are comfortable with,” Alhermizi said.
All this is down the line, but Alhermizi is prepared to do the hard work to make it happen. “First, we have to build a network. Two, we have to get people comfortable using the network. Three, we have to figure out how to introduce that messaging to them in a way they are going to respond to, and I am good at that.”
Posted by: Katie Wallace, Manager, Client Relations