The Internet may seem to offer it all, but creative entrepreneurs are still coming up with businesses that you might not expect to go looking for online.
Sure, you may order books and clothing from online stores – but funerals?
Mississauga, Ont.-based Basic Funerals claims to be the first cyber funeral company, finding a niche among clients who prefer to select caskets and services from a computer in the privacy of their own homes.
Started by licensed funeral director Eric Vandermeersch and serial entrepreneur Dominic Mazzone in January, 2009, it has already arranged 1,500 funerals in Ontario and has begun offering its services in Illinois and Colorado.
"I figured somebody in the funeral industry had already done it, but no. I was really surprised," Mr. Mazzone says.
Family therapist Pat Roles has also found her space in cyberspace, offering online individual and family counselling from Vancouver. "It's more flexible," she says. "[Clients]can do it in a whole variety of time frames. Some people like to work late at night, when their families have gone to bed."
Moreover, Ms. Roles, who has developed a specialty in adoption reunion guidance, says she is "finding that there is nothing much out there [for families going through such reunions]so they are finding me online."
There are ties that bind such businesses, says Paul Cubbon, a professor of marketing communications at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business. They both fill what he calls a "passionate niche." That is, they need a critical mass of consumers who become emotionally connected to a product or service.
This connection, he says, can ensure the success of companies selling uncommon products or services online simply by being accessible on the Internet and, therefore, to a market with specific interests but widely spread out. They need customers "who really care," he says.
They are also able to harness the power of search engines and specialized online communities through social media, he says.
Mr. Mazzone notes that funeral homes traditionally operate out of location-based businesses and spend a lot of money on premises and staff, creating a high-overhead model. "It is twice as expensive at a funeral home, and [with us] there is no sales pressure; we have a strict no up-sell policy, which is contrary to the entire industry, he says.
"Our goal is to be as automated as possible," he says. "The model allows us to offer services at about half the price of traditional funeral homes."
Arrangements for a funeral or memorial service can be done online, by phone or in person with local licensed funeral directors who are engaged by Basic Funerals. It sublets existing facilities for visitations, memorials and funerals.
The two set up in Ontario first because that is where Mr. Vandermeersch is licensed. They eventually plan to roll out their service to other parts of Canada and the United States. Mr. Mazzone says they are targeting more populated areas with regulations that are easier to meet, and where they can make contact with local practitioners who can fulfill the services on the ground.
"We are so efficient with our model, we could open anywhere," Mr. Mazzone says. "We really want to be everywhere, but each jurisdiction has different rules for opening the business, so we are looking at those on the path of least resistance."
Ms. Roles, meanwhile, makes her contact with clients via e-mail and Skype. She offers a full-range of e-counselling services, but finds that her specialty and having proven herself an expert in it has created a niche demand for her skills. Her clients come from across North America, Europe and the Middle East.
Dr. Cubbon says there are common elements among businesses you wouldn't expect to see operating exclusively online. For one, just the fact that they are different works in their favour, he says.
Still, he says businesses fulfilling passionate niches are still in the minority online. "They have to have established expertise and have it work in a process that systemically looks for conversations [about the subject] that are happening online," he says.
"I equate it to being like an iceberg. The conversation is always happening, but a company typically only sees what is above the waterline. Using social media smartly is being able to systemically monitor and look for opportunity."
Mr. Mazzone certainly thinks he's found his niche.
"This may not sound new in terms of other 21st-century industries, but it is very new for the funeral industry," he says. "We grew north of 500 per cent last year, largely by word of mouth. I think the need is there."
Special to The Globe and Mail