“Big, taboo topics”: This is what happens when you launch a digital will business in the middle of a pandemic


Aaron Zelman (top right) and the Willed team. Source: supplied.

Entrepreneur Aaron Zelman had been working towards his startup’s March launch date for six months, and when COVID-19 hit, like many others, he had to have a long think about his business strategy.

But, for Zelman, the challenge wasn’t a financial one. Rather, it was all about perception.

Willed is a digital solution helping people get their affairs in order and their wills in place, quickly and cost-effectively.

Created with law firm Vault Legal, and co-founded by Vault head of legal Ryan Solomons, the platform is designed to make it simple for people to spell out how they want their assets to be distributed when they die.

Now, it’s launching in the middle of a deadly global pandemic. And, while the startup’s offering might be more necessary than ever, the optics are a little off.

“Our message has always been relevant, it just so happens that we’re launching it at a time that it’s extremely relevant,” Zelman tells SmartCompany.

“It’s tricky not to be seen as trying to take advantage of the timing.”

The problem Willed is solving is one that’s close to Zelman’s heart.

His professional background is in life insurance, he explains. But, for all three of the co-founders, it’s more personal than that.

“We all have our own connection to loved ones dying prematurely,” Zelman explains.

“It’s been not just shocking, but very devastating in terms of life’s arrangements.”

Their own experiences have given the founders a sense of how disruptive it can be if a person doesn’t have a will in place. But, they also have a sense of the fragility of life in the first place.

“We know that things happen,” Zelman says.

“Most people live with an element of denial.”

It’s this urgency that has shaped Willed, he explains.

“That’s the philosophy: ‘Things happen. Get prepared.’”

Taboo at the best of times

Having worked on getting Willed up and running for months on end, as Zelman and the team approached the launch date, the extent of the COVID-19 pandemic started to become clear.

The chief says he never considered delaying the launch, though.

“Our message hasn’t changed — we think it’s really important to get a will,” he explains.

And, financially, the business makes sense both for the founders and the customers.

“We’ve actually priced a product that is probably 10% of what a cost might be with many lawyers.

“So if you add increased urgency, convenience and relevance among consumers, with something that’s highly affordable, we think we’re onto a winner.”

However, Zelman has had to think carefully about the messaging around the launch.

Initially, some of the Facebook advertising the business had in place was “perhaps read the wrong way”, attracting the wrong kinds of comments.

“People are saying things like it’s poor timing, and they’ve made comments about funeral homes cashing in, as if we’re trying to do the same,” Zelman explains.

And he’s taken that feedback on board. This is a tricky time for everyone, he notes, and anyone peddling a product has to be mindful of the context around it.

“You can’t, in today’s world, just say ‘get your will sorted’, and not be mindful that there’s a context,” he says.

“People are thinking about death.”

The fundamental messaging of the business hasn’t changed. Most people do want to get their life affairs in order, Zelman says. But, focusing on the consequences of not doing so probably isn’t the right way to go.

“We always wished to stay away from fear-based messaging,” he says.

“People don’t want to be thinking about leaving a burden to their family or getting old or being sick,” he explains.

“These are all big, taboo topics on any day of the week.

“There’s heightened levels of fear and anxiety, which we actually want to help reduce.”

The good kind of attention

Willed might not have had the launch Zelman had in mind. But, he’s looking to the future.

This kind of technology has the potential to succeed anywhere, he notes. But, the business will focus on Australia for the time being.

“Our global ambitions at this point are not really our priority,” the founder explains.

“There’s huge market potential in Australia alone.”

At the same time, he notes this is a relatively new market, and there could be big financial rewards up for grabs for anyone involved.

Zelman doesn’t go into too much detail, but he reveals the founders have had several high-profile investors making them investment offers.

“We have politely deferred,” Zelman says.

“At this point, we feel like we have the means to drive it the way we want to, organically, and achieve the best results.”

The founders are not committing to bootstrapping forever, but they don’t need funding right now, and they’re not going to take it for the sake of it.

“The rewards will be much greater when we’ve achieved greater financial milestones and proven our market to a much greater extent,” Zelman explains.

“We’re not in need of funding at this point. We would like to just do what we can do as best we can.”

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