Our parents, who are your average next-door neighbors, paid $10,000 to do estate planning including a will, health care proxies and other relevant documents. Our CTO paid over $10,000 for estate planning for his grandmother, which was thousands more than the assets she had remaining at her death. Our now estate planning lawyer never had a website for her practice as she didn’t have to advertise -- she was constantly inundated with calls and cases of people who needed her help, some to plan and some to recover from not planning.
We researched estate planning more and found that only about 40% of Americans have even just a will and only 18%, per Merrill Lynch, have done estate planning. Everyone needs estate planning – if you don’t have it, our team is the living proof that you will pay thousands and thousands to lawyers to settle your loved one’s affairs. Our first thought was, wow, someone should fix this. Then, my sister and I looked at each other and both said, “We should fix this.” Thankfully, our partners agreed and, thus, Gentreo was born as we believe that all families should be able to protect their choices and assets in way that is easy to use, accessible and at a cost that is affordable.
Lots of people think you only need to do estate planning when you are older (wrong) or when you think you are about to die (wrong). Estate planning is something you can need every day, like if you are traveling and you need someone to take care of your pet, they need a pet power of attorney to get care for your pet if your pet has an emergency need. This is my favorite part of our product as our dog Butter is part of our family. You need a pet power of attorney if you travel and someone is caring for your pet!
How did you get your first three clients?
We partner with financial service providers and others to provide estate and family planning services. We used our own personal network and then added advisors with outstanding networks too. We let friends and colleagues know what we were doing, we showed them the product along the way and now they use it.
How did you validate the idea?
Lots and lots of user interviews and then testing. The moms in my son’s school’s parking lot provided lots of stories about their own experiences and then many acted as product testers for us. My sister had been head of marketing for the National Association of Home Care and Hospice and knew the industry needs well. Our lawyer has practiced law in estate planning for over twenty years.
Have you raised any money?
While developing and building the product, for a year and a half, we self-funded. We also did the Babson WIN (Women Innovating Now) Lab which provided lots of help in getting off the ground. Recently, we raised initial funding as we get the product out to the market.
Who is your target demographic?
Gentreo’s target customers are about 30 to 65 years old. Many are those going through what we call Gentreo Life Inflection Points™. From birth of a new child to a parent having a fall, these are the times when people realize the need for estate planning.
Our product was built to be co-branded. From the beginning, our research showed that customers would do estate planning if asked to do so by some type of partner organization like a financial planner.
How did you fund the idea initially?
We used our own personal savings. Some advice I can give is make sure your spouse, partner, or whomever is in your life knows what you are doing. Going from a pretty good salary to none and spending money is quite a lot to take on.
Where did you meet your founding team?
My son’s school’s parking lot is where we met our lawyer. We asked her if she knew any estate planning lawyers who were looking for a bit of a career change. Mary Kate said she herself wanted a career change from being an estate planning lawyer and was planning to go back to school to be a nurse. We convinced her to join us. I have children, she has children and they play together quite a bit. Our CTO and I have been connected for twenty years. He was the third employee at a start-up I worked for out of business school.
Ask for help and keep your network up to date. You never know who might be able to introduce you to that one person you really need. We also tapped friends looking for work or who had been doing consulting and liked the idea of working with a start-up.
What about family members starting companies together? Any advice?
My sister and I are two of our four co-founders. Julie is our Chief Marketing Officer and I am the Chief Executive Officer. This isn’t always viewed favorably and a few people suggested changing our last names on slide decks (I didn’t change my last name when I got married). But, that wouldn’t be true and we want to do business with people who believe in us. We argue like most sisters, but we also know how to separate work from family life and family life from work. We know what we are good at and what we are not good at.
If you are starting a business with a relative make sure you have pre-existing agreements in place for how you will handle disagreements and who final decision-making authority. Also, it is hard not to work 24/7 when starting a company or to go from talking about going to the beach on a Saturday morning to talking about the latest building in QA testing. Know this upfront and figure out how you and your family member want to manage this.
Are there any new services you’re working on?
We are working on making sure our partners and their customers love Gentreo. We have special requests from some partners about what their customers might like better. We put those at the top of our development list as our partners are the key to our market.
Would you ever sell the company?
If you are looking for venture capital funding, a good friend of mine who is a venture capitalist would tell you that the answer is NO, an emphatic NO. I got a pretty good talking to on this one. Even if you have friends who have sold their companies for a billion dollars, even if the market is insanely down, the answer is NO. You need to love and be passionate about what you do or great venture capitalists don’t want to invest in you. We are passionate about estate planning and making sure everyone has access to it and knows they need it. All of us at Gentreo are out to forever improve estate planning and make it easy, fast and affordable for all.