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May 27, 2019 · 11 min read

Winning in a new industry with best practices from another sector with Dave Ugan

How can best practices from one industry change another industry? 25-year Technology Executive, Dave Ugan joins Ledge in the episode to deep dive into a real example: how he spent 6 years bringing UX, CX, and technology from the hospitality and attractions industry to the end-of-life (yes, funerals) industry.

Dave talks about the importance of iterating, of targeting open-minded customers early so you can turn them into evangelists, and how to take the critical feedback that helps your product leap forward. He also walks us through the critical pricing determinations that helped fuel growth.

Dave Ugan

Technology Leader | Strategy | Digital Transformation | Program Management | Cybersecurity | E-Commerce |

Dave Ugan has focused his career on utilizing cutting edge technologies to grow or turn around businesses.  He has digitized business models, patented new technologies and built software applications.  He holds certifications and degrees in security, quality, digital marketing and recently received a patent for developing a multi-sensory room for the funeral industry.

Read transcript

Ledge: Dave, thanks for joining us. It’s really cool to have you on.

Dave: Hey, Ledge, it’s great to be here on a cold afternoon in Orlando.

Ledge: Would you mind giving your two- to three-minute background story of you and your work? It’s good for the audience to get to know you a little bit.

Dave: Sure. I’m a 25-year IT guy the last six years or so having worked in an organization where we’ve taken the attractions industry best practices and technology and applied them to the funeral industry which is a pretty big leap but it has actually worked on extremely well.

We’ve added a lot of technologies into the traditional sector and actually received a patent for the main technology where we put a multisensory room into a funeral chapel to celebrate somebody’s life; and it’s been an interesting runoff, to say that much.

Ledge: I’ve got to hear the links between the attraction industry and the funeral industry. Tell me that story. That sounds super interesting.

Dave: The way it was kind of teed-up was we looked at the emotional content of a family planning a vacation and the problems families have with funerals that it’s a very emotional, highly charged situation. Also, when you look at a funeral, when you look at a large family or a significant family vacation to some of the bigger attractions, they’re at about the same price.

And so, the private equity group that owns our company basically saw this opportunity where “Hey, we can change the funeral industry, an industry that has a very bad reputation and a very bad customer experience by using all these folks from the hospitality and attractions industry.”

They brought about six of us together into the current company and we studied the funeral industry for about a year and then started bringing in all the hospitality and attractions technologies, best practices, and customer service components.

Ledge: That makes a lot of sense. I’m brought to some of the celebrations that we have for family members when they pass away. It’s really all about weddings and funerals. Sometimes, these are the only times you’re going to see these people. And so, I can totally imagine that bringing that together into a joyous setting makes a whole lot of sense. It’s really a brilliant innovation.

What’s the technology hook? You’re a technology professional. Where does that fit in?

Dave: The main technology that was really bridging the gap between attractions and funeral was the actual funeral service itself. People are used to walking into a funeral chapel with people in dark suits and mourning whereas we kind of flip that model over; and now people walk into a chapel and the entire back wall is covered in high definition video. When you walk in and start looking at this high definition video ─ it could be a mountain seen; it could be travel; it could be a military celebration, or baking, whatever, any sort of theme that celebrates this person’s life ─ you actually start smelling the theme as well.

For golf, we have fresh cut grass; for baking, we have fresh cookies. We’ve done a mountain scene where we did pine trees. As you continue to walk into the funeral chapel, you actually hear the wind rustling or the birds chirping or the golfers in the background. And it blows people away.

Then, they actually start the funeral service and say, “Look, we couldn’t bring everyone to the golf course today but we’re going to try and bring it to you.”

And through the sight, sound, and smell, it really relaxes the audience and it gets them more involved and they really appreciate it. It’s just a lot less mournful. It’s a lot more celebratory.

We ended up putting all this technology controlled simply by an iPad mini. It’s almost a rack worth of equipment but you’re controlling microphones, videos, smells. You can change a theme during the funeral session. We have a picture-within-a-picture component where you can bring in family photos within the mountain scene or the golf scene.

The response has been overwhelming from the public. We’ve ended up putting close to sixty of these multi-sensory funeral rooms and it really has changed the industry. Now, we’re watching a lot of the largest players in the industry do similar experiences.

Again, from our customer surveys and satisfaction measurement, the families are just thrilled with this whole celebration of life versus the mourning of death.

Ledge: That makes so much sense. It’s fantastic. What does the technology look like for the audience who likes to dive in and think about how you would actually build things of this nature ─ multi-sensory? What kind of custom software? What are the actual components?

I’m just interested in the tech and hardware stack, so to speak.

Dave: Let’s start with the hardware stack. If you think about any sort of a large projection room that’s interactive, you’re going to have to have basically one processor attached to high-def camera going out and video play.

Basically, every projector has a Mac behind it. From those Macs, they need to be tied together into a central switch which is also controlled by a Mac. And then, you can use basically a private wireless network to access control to that switch. And then, all of the other components in the room like external microphones, the set generator, again, are all controlled by the wireless network going into the central switch. And it seems to perform pretty well.

The software is really where a lot of the magic happens. There’s switching software that can be used. However, we ended up coding quite a bit of the software to one of our vendors and that’s their proprietary piece. But it’s worked out extremely well.

A lot of the coding has been done in C++ or C# and that’s where a lot of kind of the mojo was.

Ledge: And that’s all running on a centralized ─ just a Mac laptop like client-side application?

Dave: Initially, the design came out such that it was running on a Mac laptop but if you thought about the traditional funeral person, the funeral parlor owner, they were a little older and a little less tech savvy. So we ended up doing a design such that they could control all this from a tablet, a Mac mini. And it had to be really push button, easy use, real time on the fly; and I really kind of designed it towards a smartphone because everyone was familiar with the interface, what sort of response they should expect.

I think the biggest part of the success of this system is the UI. You can’t just hand a Mac mini to a 70 year old and say, “Okay, here’s how you turn on the sight.”

If you have pictograms, I’ve you’ve got everything laid out right in front of them and it looks similar to their iPhone or their Android and you also make the statement of “Look, you can’t break this. You just can’t break it and if you absolutely have to, here’s how you reboot the system.”

That really gained a lot of adoption and people started very quickly once we’re able to implement that UI component of it.

Ledge: So much of that is interesting from the product mindset just like you can’t separate engineering software from product or from user experience because of that adoption curve.

So how many iterations ─ did you have to go through a lot of that? Was it a very lean approach to try to get to ─ what’s the right way to control this stuff?

I’m sure we all remember ten years ago when you had six different remotes to try to do your home theater, and it was a disaster. Nobody could even do it. And now, we are seeing that coalescing into a set-top box and probably even an IOS or an Android to control it.

It’s that same type of paradigm but you’re dealing with a bunch of technology, and that could be very intimidating. I’ve never used this smell generator. That sounds amazing. I’d like to have one.

How do you put all that together? What kind of iterative process was that?

Dave: It took two iterations to get it right, to get it down to where we could hand it to somebody and they could use it fairly quickly. Time-wise, that was probably about a year, maybe eighteen months, to get to that second iteration.

We knew we hit a homerun when in the third iteration when people wanted to use the system. Funeral home owners wanted to use the system ─ you’re going to love this ─ to broadcast Super Bowls.

So if you think about these big funeral chapels, they kind of get people in there outside of a funeral. They try and do community events. They try and do first-responder events which do pretty well. But we kept getting requests like, “When can I put a football game on this huge projector?”

So we added in some software so that we could take cable television feeds. We had to construct the imaging, of course, but once we did that, then we saw the funeral homes using these systems for almost as much of non-funeral activity as funeral activity.

The Super Bowl was kind of a big joke and a big party but that was third iteration; and once we hit that one, we started getting internal and external demands for the system all over the company and even outside the company.

Ledge: And so, do you anticipate having different lines now? Obviously, you’ve broken out of the bounds of the end-of-life industry? Are there applications of the technology that you intend to…

I don’t know. Maybe my kids would want to watch Netflix on this system. Are you thinking about expanding and growing the market from that success?

Dave: With the third generation, we could take a television ─ a live feed, a live stream, let’s say. That was the last piece that people wanted. And we included a few more features outside of just a cable TV stream.

This is strange. We’ve seen a few of our funeral chapels turning into almost dance halls. And there are some larger communities here in central Florida where we put these funeral systems in but the funeral home was always more of a community-event location and we saw these locations starting to put in alcohol service. Then, they went as far as putting in actual bars. And in the funeral chapel, they started putting in dance floors all around this multi-sensory room saying, “If we can use it for funeral, let’s also use it for dancing. Let’s use it for a Halloween party.”

We’ve just watched people run with it. And they’re kind of using side components or external components to augment the existing technologies which has been pretty cool.

Ledge: My head immediately goes to ─ we have a lot of eSports enthusiasts around here who hook up the old Xbox and have a competition.

That’s fantastic. That’s really neat. From an entrepreneurial perspective, you, guys, have to be very proud of that ─ to have evolved the technology through multiple industries and then created a demand category onto itself.

I wonder, abstract maybe some of the learnings there on how you did that. We, obviously, deal with a lot of entrepreneurs and even large companies that are interested in launching new tangential products.

What could you offer from that perspective and that expertise as to hopping best practices in this industry to make a new market segment?

Dave: I think some of the biggest learnings was that we needed to get in front of the funeral directors who were really open-minded because it was such a radical concept, to begin with. And once we’ve identified those as our subject-matter experts, that was a great hit. Then, we started getting fans right away.

I think the second thing was with the iterations. Even though we thought we had the perfect idea, it really took us to the third generation of software release to get it right and understood. And we needed to be open-minded about that which helped as well.

The first two, I’d put under collaboration and communication. The third thing that was a different surprise was how to price this, and that was a lesson. We thought, you build it and they’ll come which, I think, a lot of entrepreneurs think. But we found that as we built it, it was very hard to explain to the public; it was very hard to sell to the public. So we ended up keeping the systems on; and when somebody walked in the home and they saw it running, then they got it immediately. And that helped.

But as far as pricing it, we just included the whole service, the whole multi-sensory experience with every service rather than making it an a la carte cost. And by doing that, everyone was able to take advantage of it.

Some people wanted something very simple. They didn’t want a lot of multi sensory; they wanted a very traditional funeral. And that was fine. We would just change it to a very simple cross image or a crucifix or whatever they wanted. We were still able to give them some multi sensory but keep it very plain.

We literally had one where they wanted the Grateful Dead. And so, we had a Grateful Dead concert playing in the background. But we couldn’t come up with the scent they wanted because it was illegal and we ended up giving them a barbecue scent.

The minister showed up in tie-dye It was incredible how wild some of these things got. But it was fun.

So “listen to your customers” would be one of the biggest lessons out there.

Ledge: That’s excellent. Dave, this is really exciting. We love hearing about technology used in interesting ways. Thanks for joining us today.

Dave: Happy to do so!