My big idea: Poppy's funerals

Poppy Mardall has created a more compassionate, cost-effective, and helpful funeral service
BizAge Interview Team
Clare Montagu, CEO and Poppy Mardall
CEO Clare Montagu and Poppy Mardall

Hi! What's your elevator pitch?

Poppy's is an ethical funeral directors on a mission to give people the funeral experience they need, want and can feel proud of. We know great care can transform your experience around the death, and for the rest of your life. We take that responsibility seriously, establishing your priorities and moving heaven and earth to make them happen. 

Why does the market need it?

The funeral sector is unregulated and poor service and care has become the norm. Care for the body is a production line, industrial-type experience where the dead are unnecessarily wrapped and stored in plastic, often in open metal racking on industrial estates when families assume the people they love will be personally cared for in the small high street shop they visited when they arranged the funeral. Families can be pushed to buy things they often don’t need which harm the planet, like embalming, a highly toxic, invasive and unnecessary procedure. A government investigation into pricing in 2021 identified ‘serious concerns’ about the funeral sector: funeral directors pushing up prices 6%, twice the rate of inflation, year on year because their vulnerable customers didn’t have the knowledge to push back.

Buying a funeral is known as a 'distress purchase' because grief is a very vulnerable time. Personal, supportive care for grieving people, and for the dead, should be the norm. 

Where is the business today? 

We currently support 300 families a year across Greater London, which represents 0.55% market share. Our pricing is competitive: in the last quarter, the average funeral cost to our clients was £4,133; this compares to a London average of £5,385. Recommendation or past experience of Poppy’s is an important driver for our clients: around half of our clients come to us via word of mouth or because they have used us before. We have an outstanding reputation in the sector and we are known for the exceptional care we give our clients, living and dead. Almost all our Google reviews are 5* and our clients are evangelical about the support they receive from the Poppy’s team.

We applaud and encourage diversity amongst our team, reflecting the diverse community we work in. A significant minority are LGBTQ+, 29% are aged under 25 or over 50. We have a largely female workforce, which is unusual in the funeral sector.

What made you think there was money in this?

My background is in art and I spent my 20s working for Sotheby's auction house as a 20th Century British Art expert. I got to that classic quarter life crisis moment wanting more meaning from my work. I travelled for a bit and contracted typhoid in Ghana. A long period of recovery followed but the extended break gave me time to think more deeply about what I wanted to do. That period of time coincided with a bunch of television exposes into the funeral sector showing manipulative sales techniques, poor care for the dead and an inflexible approach. I reached out to innovators in the sector and a number of funeral directors were kind enough to let me learn from them. What I saw and experienced concentrated my determination to launch a deeply personal service built around the needs of grieving people. From the beginning, the service at Poppy's has been defined by outstanding care for the living and the dead. For some families, this might mean an emotionally engaging experience, or it might just mean ensuring affordability or getting it done quickly – we don’t have a view on what meaningful looks like, our job is to clarify and facilitate our client's priorities.

I used the name Poppy’s because it was fresh and friendly with the obvious associations with remembrance, but also made it really clear I was a real person and accountable.

As I grew Poppy’s I built a team who shared that same desire to deliver great customer service, and the principles which inform our approach to clients (inclusive, empathetic, human, responsible) inform how I support my team.

How did you research the niche?

I watched exposes. I met tons of people and talked through my ideas, honing them along the way. But the most helpful thing I did was spend time in mortuaries. Seeing good care and bad care crystallised what could be possible at Poppy's.  

What's wrong with your competitors?

They take a corporate, patriarchal, patronising approach to their work. They are trying to roll out production line processes which don't suit this deeply personal and important rite of passage in people's lives (just like they didn't historically with maternity care). People are individuals and the public are waking up to the ways in which they have been patronised, overcharged and underserved by funeral directors for a very long time.  

What is your biggest strength?

Our thoughtful, passionate team who think openly and broadly about what might be best for their clients. Out of 15 people only one comes from the funeral sector. That's not a coincidence. 

What's going to make you a success in the market? A unique selling point?

Outstanding, transparent and flexible care. Treating you and the person who has died as human beings with personal needs.

What is the secret to making the business work?

Remembering the grieving client will someday be you. Remembering the person who has died will someday be someone you love. Treating people - both living and dead - as if they are precious. 

What's the main challenge? 

Getting people thinking about death care before it's too late. We live in a society that doesn't like to think about death. This is why over 90% of people walk into the first funeral directors they see on the high street with no expectations or standards for their experience and endure whatever package they're sold or price they're charged. It's why the funeral sector has been able to exist in its current under-functioning form for so long. We at Poppy's have this huge creative opportunity/challenge to get people thinking proactively about the care they'd expect to receive so they can ensure they get an experience that is good enough. That is very hard and also very interesting!

How do you market the company?

One way is through outreach programmes we have with organisations like Maggie's, and hospices. And we have a very informative blog we are really proud of, called Talking Death. We're also launching some exciting new branding soon, so watch this space.

What funding do you have? Is it enough? 

Right now we're funding ourselves through retained profit. It won't be enough for the whole journey but it's enough for the next year.

Tell us about the business model

Our pricing is very competitive. The average cost to our clients is £4133 against a London average of £5283.

What were you doing before?

I was an expert at Sotheby's auction house - no connection there beyond great client service. I was also a volunteer at Samaritans and at Royal Trinity Hospice where I learnt a lot about caring for vulnerable people with deep respect and with a spirit of empowerment.

What is the future vision?

We want personal, outstanding care for the living and the dead to become the norm when someone dies. For us at Poppy's the first step is tripling the number of clients we serve across Greater London over the next three years and beyond that getting to 5% market share (about ten times the size we are now). There are great opportunities beyond that - we could take our service to other progressive cities and we could support the introduction of sustainable death care technologies like resomation and human composting. But for now, we have plenty to be getting on with!

Written by
BizAge Interview Team
April 26, 2023
Written by
April 26, 2023