Some entrepreneurs start a business to get rich, others to radically change the world. Steven Mitchell says he started one for revenge. The IT analyst had to organise a funeral for the first time when a colleague passed away. With no prior knowledge of how the process worked he came up against funeral directors who were inflexible and demanded massive fees.
‘Less than one in 10 people ever go to more than one funeral director,’ he says. ‘They go to the one in the high street or they go to the Co-op and they get a price and go home. And they think it's the same price or same service but often it just isn't.
‘I started to think: if you can compare everything else in life online, why can't you compare funeral directors?’
That’s why he came up with Compare the Coffin, a modern solution to the age-old problem of having to deal with death. The website functions partly as a lower-priced coffin shop, offering everything from lavish American caskets to custom-printed and colourful cardboard versions.
Customers can also fill in a form with the details of their ideal funeral, from the music they want to how they want their body to be arranged. This is put out to funeral directors who can then bid to hold the funeral, competing both on service and price. Compare the Coffin doesn't take a fee for this - all it requires is that you buy one of its coffins.
Reaction from the industry has been mixed. Some have embraced the opportunity to get new business and Mitchell says there are now 500 directors signed up to the site. Others haven't been so keen, with some refusing to compare prices and one even trying to force a family to pay a £250 surcharge for using their own coffin – although he says a quick phone call sorted that out.
'It's like an anathema that someone should dare to do it,' he says. But since he created the business in 2012 revenues have grown steadily - it's sold 1,000 coffins and the website is attracting around 5,000 visitors per month.
‘I wasn't interested in making money to start with, it was literally about getting back at the director who ripped us off,' he says.
The majority of customers get in touch by phone rather than doing it all online. Mitchell says the first call many people make it just to check that it's actually real.
In the future Mitchell has his eyes on international expansion and says he would be open to offers from people in other European countries to use the name as a franchise. His other challenge is simply getting the word out – shopping around isn't top of most people's minds when they are organising a funeral but Compare the Coffin wants to make it easier.
‘My competition is ignorance – it's that people don't know they can do this,’ he says.
He's already having to field calls late at night and when on holiday and as the business grows this looks set to continue.
'It is what it is, but it's absolutely amazing how it's taken over my life,' he says