As part of a regular series powered by Dell Small Business, BetaKit asked business leaders to share their experience starting a business, and how their solution is disrupting an industry.
In 2012, Kevin Oulds experienced a family crisis that changed his life forever. In the months that followed his uncle’s tragic death, Oulds learned about the importance of a will and the inevitability of death. A few years later, Willful was born.
Willful is an online platform that makes it affordable, convenient, and easy for Canadians to create a legal will online. The platform guides users through its simplified services to create a will as well as power of attorney. Earlier this year, Oulds’ partner, Erin Bury, formerly managing director at Eighty-Eight Agency, joined Willful as CEO to help expand the company across Canada.
BetaKit sat down with Bury to talk about how Willful is using technology to make it easy for every Canadian to make a will.
After Oulds’ uncle passed away, Bury remembers how hard it was for the family to deal with things like burial plans. Even though Oulds’ uncle had a will, it hadn’t been updated in a while, so the family was left to make difficult decisions during a really tough time.
“We quickly realized that no one likes to think about death.”
Bury reminisced about how Willful started as a company called Final Blueprint, a platform that helped people store everything outside of a will – life insurance policy, bank account information, even notes to loved ones. “But we quickly realized that no one likes to think about death,” said Bury.
Although death is an inevitable human experience, about 57 percent of Canadians over the age of 18 don’t have a will, and 10 percent of those who do, have one that’s out of date (typically, a will needs to be updated after life events like marriage and kids).
Bury compared Final Blueprint to a vitamin versus a pain killer. “If you ask someone to think about death and talk about what’s nice to have versus what’s needed, they won’t do it,” the CEO said. Final Blueprint shifted focus in 2017, and Willful was born.
Estate planning in the digital age
“The estate planning industry right now is mostly offline,” Bury said. Today, if you want to create a will, you have to find an estate lawyer, make an appointment, and go to their office. Once the lawyer has prepared a draft of your will, you and two witnesses must sign the physical copy and store it in a physical space. The lengthy process is probably the reason why so many people avoid creating a will. That, and the high cost.
With Willful, you can create a legal will in less than 20 minutes without having to visit a lawyer. Bury notes that you’ll still have to physically sign the papers and store a physical copy, because the courts don’t recognize digital signatures, but Willful removes the inconvenience of having to go to a lawyer’s office and being charged hundreds of dollars per hour just to ask a question. Digital convenience and affordability are what make Willful unique.
It is also why the company has already been able to expand to five provinces, BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Nova Scotia. “We plan to be live across Canada by the end of the year,” Bury said.
But because a will is so tied to geography, the company has to be smart about how quickly it expands.
Focused on user experience
The Willful experience starts with preliminary questions about a user and their family, including residence, marital status, and more, then moves onto specific questions about life situations. The answers are used to create a customized estate plan that adheres to provincial estate laws. The end result is a PDF document that a user can download, print, and then sign.
“Willful’s technology could have existed 10 years ago, but no, Willful could not.”
Willful makes the user experience easy by making sure the technology is organized and running smoothly. Matt McFadyen, Willful’s VP of engineering, told BetaKit, “Willful is a React app with a Rails API. The complexity is in ensuring the business logic is implemented correctly.”
Since neither Bury nor Oulds had a technical background before starting Willful, the company had to find a tech lead right from the start.
That’s where Matt Holtom came in – the company’s VP of technology, who joined Willful in 2017 to start building the back-end technology. McFadyen joined earlier this year to expand the engineering team.
Now that Willful has technical leads in place, Bury said it is solving for user adoption. “Getting people to care about a subject that they avoid talking and thinking about is challenging,” Bury said. “How do you get people to have a sense of urgency for a topic they think is decades away?”
Even though people are hesitant to openly talk about death, Willful is a step ahead because of its focus on making the process of talking about death easier. It helps that people use and trust technology differently than they did 10 years ago.
“10 years ago, we were just starting to consider buying clothes online,” Bury remembers. “Our generation takes that trust for granted.”
Today, Willful focuses on making sure the user experience (UX) is seamless. “Yes, Willful’s technology could have existed 10 years ago, but no, Willful could not have existed 10 years ago because the way people care about user experience is different now,” Bury said. Because of this, the company is careful not to integrate new features without considering the impact to the platform’s UX.
The future of death
When asked about how future tech trends will impact Willful, Bury said she thinks about how much we live our lives online.
“Think about the huge digital trail you’re leaving with online subscriptions, social media accounts, and digital assets like photos and music,” Bury pointed out. “Our ever-increasing digital footprint will impact what we’re doing.”
“Our ever-increasing digital footprint will impact what we’re doing.”
Who will shut down your Facebook account when you die? Or make sure your monthly subscriptions are cancelled? Bury imagines a sort of concierge service in Willful’s future, where your digital life gets shut down with one click. It sounds morbid, but necessary.
Bury also pointed to blockchain and digital signatures and storage as things she’s watching closely. “How will blockchain affect digital storage for Willful? Could people use blockchain to store different versions of a will, or will it just help people keep a record?” Bury shared.
The team has not done any government lobbying yet, but Bury acknowledged that it will be necessary to get governments involved before rules change. “We’re open to banding together with other companies, including competitors,” Bury said.
For now, Willful is focused on expanding the platform across Canada, providing a suite of digital products that help people deal with their estate, and helping people put those plans into action.
“We want to give people a solid plan,” Bury said. “And we’re using technology to make that simpler and easier.”
Image courtesy Willful. Photo by Becca Lemire.