Death of a Tradition

After selling Gas Station TV in Detroit, Mark Alhermizi used his technical skills to transform how people share the news and memories of a deceased loved one.
Illustration by James Yang

Just weeks after the greatest business triumph of his life — an achievement he wanted more than anything to share with his father, Isaac — Mark Alhermizi found himself devastated.

His father, the man he’d considered his inspiration throughout his life, was rushed to Beaumont Hospital with a severe headache. The elder Alhermizi spent the next six weeks in a coma, and at that point his family had no choice but to make the gut-wrenching decision to turn off life support.

There’s no good time to lose a father, but the timing of this was particularly bitter. Alhermizi, the founder of Detroit-based Gas Station TV, had realized a healthy return on his investment by selling his creation to Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quicken Loans Inc. in Detroit. Even more exciting, Alhermizi’s wife was pregnant with twins, and the couple was eager to share the news with his father.

Suddenly they were planning a funeral and dealing with the task of informing hundreds of people of the sad news. As he struggled to cope with the loss, Alhermizi decided to take a few months off work. During the downtime, something started to bother him as a human being — and to stir him as an entrepreneur.

Families shouldn’t have to work so hard, he thought, to inform people of a loved one’s death in the immediate hours and days after the passing occurs.

It’s long been a fact of life that when a loved one dies, people expect you to let them know. Funeral homes can help with the placement of obituaries, but there’s still a lot of calling, texting, and social media posting involved.

That’s a lot to place on a grieving family. After going through the process, Alhermizi decided there needed to be another way. He pulled his tech team together and, while the buy-in wasn’t immediate, the ultimate result was Everdays, located in downtown Birmingham.

Funded by $5 million in startup capital — from Alhermizi and four other investors — Everdays is a downloadable app that allows the families of recently deceased people to make a quick and easy announcement that’s automatically pushed out to all the contacts on their phones.

Not only that, but those receiving the message can forward it to their own contacts. The whole thing can happen almost instantaneously, and no one has to make a phone call, send a text, or post something on social media. No longer is it necessary to rely on that old standby, the newspaper obituary.

“After my dad passed, I spent six grand on obituaries, did Facebook, did texting, you name it,” Alhermizi says. “We had a good turnout (at the service and funeral), but I’d estimate I still missed 30 percent of the people (I wanted to reach). A year later, I would still bump into people who would say, ‘Hey, how’s your dad doing?’ ”

Everdays rolled out early in 2017, with Alhermizi and his team approaching funeral homes and offering them the app for free. More than 450 have accepted, and today Everdays is being used by the families of one-half of 1 percent of all those who die in the United States daily.

Michael Lope, co-owner of Wm. Sullivan & Sons funeral home in Royal Oak, says he was unsure at first when Alhermizi knocked on his door, but he quickly came to see that Everdays would help the families who come through the funeral home, and that was enough for him.

What’s more, in addition to offering the app for free, Alhermizi wanted Lope’s input, so he could make sure the app delivered what families really need.

Mark Alhermizi
Mark Alhermizi

“We worked together on some things, making sure it was the right format, the right information going out to people,” Lope says. “It has the maps, it has the times, it has the obituary, and you can add photos and other information.”

That’s one of the most dynamic aspects of Everdays. Once a person receives the announcement on the app, he or she can add photos, memories, or comments of condolence. Eventually the content builds, which often saves families the time they would otherwise have to spend digging up old photos or asking people to share information.

Lope says 75 percent of the families who come to his funeral home have decided to use Everdays — not surprisingly, older people tend to be the holdouts — and he’s seen a significant easing of the burden on those families. “There are so many things that have to happen in a 48-hour or 72-hour time frame,” Lope says. “Just to relieve one burden is a huge deal, and I think once people realize that’s what this is doing for them, it will grow even quicker.”

Alhermizi started getting attention from funeral directors when he attended an industry conference in Philadelphia in 2016. He describes his presentation as the talk of the conference, as funeral directors sensed Everdays would offer things the industry needed.

“It helps the funeral home by building a relationship with the broader community,” Alhermizi says. “They’re now reaching potential customers they’ve never been able to build a relationship with. It used to be they would just build a relationship with the widow, but now it extends not only to the full family — cousins, (other) relatives — but also to the broader community.”

Families who come to see funeral directors are generally put into one of two categories: at-need and pre-need. The at-need family already has experienced a loss and needs to make arrangements immediately. The pre-need family, on the other hand, is looking to essentially purchase a policy to provide for funeral services at a future time when they might be needed.

According to Alhermizi, at-need services are relatively stagnant, prompting funeral homes to look for better ways to promote pre-need policies, which is now a $5 billion industry.

Many funeral homes are still resorting to the printed mailer they send throughout the community to promote their services, although some may offer to host a luncheon at a local restaurant, where they can discuss the option with interested community members.

Alhermizi sees Everdays as a huge opportunity for funeral homes to better promote pre-need arrangements. To that end, he recently signed a deal with Portland, Ore.-based Precoa, which specializes in marketing pre-need funeral packages. Precoa will provide the platform by which Everdays will help to market pre-need services.

The key to everything, including Everdays’ own monetization, is the audience the app builds. In that respect, it’s a similar proposition to Gas Station TV. Alhermizi didn’t charge gas stations to display Gas Station TV at their pumps, and he didn’t charge gas station customers for watching it. Rather, he was able to take the audience he reached and monetize that audience by selling ads to accompany the content.

Monetizing Everdays comes down to the size of the audience, but it’s also about the moment. Most people give little thought, particularly in advance, to matters like elder care, life insurance, or pre-need funeral planning, but when someone close dies, those thoughts are more prominent — and Alhermizi believes it presents an opportunity to reach people when they’re more receptive. That’s why he focuses on building the percentage of daily U.S. deaths that use Everdays.

“It helps the funeral home by building a relationship with the broader community.” — Mark Alhermizi

“Why is that the gauge?” Alhermizi asks. “Because that’s my core asset. The announcement is my core asset. And the more announcements that get generated, there’s a community around each. The more announcements, the more audience I have.”

Perhaps fittingly, the experience of selling his own staff on Everdays was a reflection of this principle at work. Alhermizi’s mobile development team consists of five millennials. It’s a team he put together and felt close to, and Gilbert agreed they could stay with Alhermizi following the Gas Station TV deal.

But none of them was too excited about an app for funeral homes. That’s probably generational, Alhermizi notes, as statistics show that once you turn 50, you’re touched by the death of someone close to you two or three times a year. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t on the minds of his team of millennials.

That changed when Alhermizi’s lead developer, Nick Jensch, found himself returning to his hometown in Connecticut for the funeral of his grandmother. During his trip home, Jensch was directly exposed to the burden funeral announcements placed on his family. It was no longer just an abstract concept for him.

When Jensch returned to Detroit, he told Alhermizi, “I get it now. Let’s build this thing.”

It took some time and a few iterations; the early branding idea of “Requiem” was determined to be “too deathy.” Eventually the team decided the app would perform best on a Software As A Service (SAAS) platform.

The monetization strategy wasn’t obvious. In fact, Alhermizi admits that as recently as a year ago, he didn’t know how he would monetize Everdays. Lope thinks he could have charged funeral homes for the use of the app.

“But I think the fact that he kept it a free service is something that’s going to help his business grow, because more people are willing to try it,” Lope says. “As I told him from day one, if this is helping my families and it’s not costing them anything, why would I not do it?”

Except that you have to get paid somehow. Fortunately, deals like the one with Precoa are emerging as the answer to that quandary. Because of the larger audience Everdays can help Precoa reach, Alhermizi believes there’s an opportunity to double the pre-need funeral services market from $5 billion to $10 billion a year, especially given the potential to reach younger buyers.

“The average age (of a purchaser) now is 72,” Alhermizi says. “Every year I drop the average age, I add 3 million potential purchases at $10,000 a pop.”

Everdays will be paid a commission on any sale Precoa makes that results from a click on the Everdays app. Tracking it via the technology is easy, and actually making the sales will determine whether Everdays can tap the value of an audience like Gas Station TV did.

Either way, taking on the challenge is the sort of thing that’s been in Alhermizi’s blood for a long time. A graduate of both the business school and law school at the University of Michigan, Alhermizi practiced law for four years (“I hated it,” he says) and then opened a Troy-based sports bar called Spectadium.

“It was a pretty big success, but I learned the bar/restaurant (business) wasn’t for me, so I sold it to Mr. B’s. I had quit practicing law, but I knew business pretty well, so I started doing investment banking for a couple of clients.”

In 2009, after working for J. Walter Thompson in New York, he decided to bring his skills home, since Detroit can use big-media businesses, too — as can a lot of families, particularly when they’re going through one of the toughest times of their lives.

Alhermizi knows that from personal experience, and he’s the kind of guy who looks at a life event and sees opportunity. Once he scales up Everdays, for example, he can essentially use the same platform (using different names) to announce births, weddings, graduations, and other life-affirming moments.