When former Nike executives Keith Crawford and David Odusanya started CO-Lab last year, like most new agencies, the question was how they would carve out a unique space in an already crowded field. While the duo inked a few smaller deals with brands, they also had a few ideas of their own they wanted to take a closer look at pursuing.
Based on their own experiences of losing loved ones, one of the internal discussions that came up was the idea of reimagining the physical funeral home.
“The one I went to [when my dad passed away] was beige, sort of gloomy and almost out of a Hollywood set,” Crawford recalled.
But what he and Odusanya hit on wasn’t necessarily only the funeral environment itself but rather the overall experience. Since both worked at Nike, a brand that is more consumer centric, they found the funeral process clunky and less than friendly. The pervasive upselling was also troubling, especially when people are in a more vulnerable state due to the death of a loved one.
Where they landed was the newly launched Solace, a digitally led, end-to-end cremation and death care resource focused largely on the consumer. After doing some research, they learned funeral and death services hadn’t seen innovation in decades.
“We realized very early on that the reason [the industry] hasn’t evolved is that it lives in a vacuum,” Crawford said. “No one wants to think about it until they have to and, when they’re in the middle of it, they want it to be over as quickly as possible.”
“It’s still working on a 19th-century model,” Odusanya added. “Yet, consumers live in the 21st century.”
Making a difficult process easier (and more affordable)
One trend that appears to be evolving in the United States is the popularity of cremation. Globally, cremation rates vary—countries like Japan, Nepal and Thailand, for example, have cremation rates over 95%—yet according to the National Funeral Directors Association, cremation in America sits at around 50% and is expected to increase to 63% in 2025 and almost 80% in 2035.
Prepaid cremation and funeral services (often sold via direct TV advertising) have been around for several years, and prices can vary. Solace has an inclusive model, with pricing at $1,175 (not including death certificates) that also includes a more stylized and structured white boxed urn (that could very well feel at home on the shelves of an Apple store) as opposed to the usual black box generally used for a decedent’s ashes.
The price is well below the national average of $2,300 for direct cremation which, according to Jeremy Frank, Solace’s chief operating officer and another Nike alum like Crawford and Odusanya, is often more of a base price that can include hidden add-ons for things like implants and device removal.
Additionally, the traditional paperwork can be clunky—funeral homes still use typewriters and fax machines—and unnecessarily complicated. In the case of Solace, the process is designed to be simple, intuitive and far less time-consuming.
“We want families to spend time with each other in a difficult time like this,” Odusanya said. “We don’t want them to have to chase [paperwork and planning] down.”
The site’s visuals are calming, and the interface feels similar in some ways to other startups in its simplicity, elegance and consumer-centricity. There is no waste; there are simply the resources people need in a tough time when a loved one dies, packaged in a way that takes the tension out of the process.
The site also provides a great deal of useful information, while stripping away the superfluous, that people can use for planning, including worksheets in fillable PDF format that organize relevant information for next of kin and a decedents after-life wishes, including remembrances and celebrations.
“We want to help people plan for the inevitable,” Crawford said. “These planning tools are not monetized, and we don’t store any information. So far, we’ve had a great response for this.”
But it’s the emotional support and higher-touch aspect of the service that dominates the conversation. While the mechanism for ensuring the cremation service is flawless, Solace’s founders are highly focused on what’s known as concierge-style “death care” with 24/7 access to help either online or by phone.
“We’re not trying to make this a cold, digital solution for people,” Crawford said. “This is a technology-enabled service that’s powered behind the scenes by great people.”
A pivotal hire for Solace was funeral director Malisa Riceci who has over 15 years of industry experience. At first, she wasn’t exactly high on the idea of a digital solution—“I’m a very analog person,” Riceci said—but was convinced after her husband said the idea was “brilliant” and that he would have loved something like it when his mother died.
Likely one of the most critical pieces of Solace’s success lies in the care team that will grow over time. At present, there are nine on staff, including the brand’s founders, and all are trained in the delicate balancing act of empathy while servicing clients. To that end, Riceci has looked to hire the likes of preschool teachers, counselors and those in pediatric medicine, careers that require patience and a softer touch.
“You don’t know what you’re walking into every day and you’re helping people who might not be feeling that great and not at their best that day,” she said. “You can’t take that personally, and you are always going to need to be there to help them.”
The next steps of disruption
Looking at the brand on the surface, one could be excused for thinking Solace has a national footprint. Yet, at present, the company is licensed to operate in three Portland metro area counties and one in Washington state, just across the Columbia River from the city.
Moreover, the considered design may lead one to believe that the company has been around for a long time, though it launched just a week ago. In fact, in their initial research, those around 30 years old believed that the service already existed.
“They assumed that this was something that you could do already because that’s the way (digital natives) think,” Crawford said.
Further research indicated that consumers liked the idea of the more moderate price point, which would allow them to spend more on celebrations and memorials.
“That was an interesting insight we didn’t expect,” Odusanya said. “It helps us to understand and meet the needs of people as we move forward.”
However, the hard work of branding is just beginning, and Solace does face some competition in the direct-cremation category with a company called Tulip Cremation that was founded in San Francisco in 2017 and serves markets like major metro areas of California, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Seattle, Tampa and Orlando. Additionally, some funeral homes are creating more hybrid models to take some of the friction out of the planning process, yet Frank feels that the rising tide can help everyone.
“It’s great to have others disrupting this industry,” he said. “That can only help the consumer and our focus is going to be on delivering the best service as we build out this brand.”
Another critical part of developing awareness is local outreach to hospitals and hospice care centers. While most simply give out a list of providers to families seeking cremation or burial services, Solace has found a welcoming community that is willing to share their unique service to those in need.
“Everyone has been really excited about us,” Riceci said. “They’ve been really open to learning more about what we’re doing. When they meet us, they see that this is a genuine team that cares deeply about the work we’re doing.”