By Thomas A. Parmalee
If you’re trying to get your children thinking like entrepreneurs, so they can one day take your business to the next level or strike out on their own, you may want to chat with Curtis Funk, the CEO of Tukios, which offers an array of solutions to funeral homes, including memorial DVDs, websites and aftercare services.
Funk got his start as a businessman by cutting classes at Roy High School in Roy, Utah, so he could record services for funeral homes that wanted to offer families CDs instead of cassette tapes. At the time, he was providing a cutting-edge service … although he admits his friends did think it was a bit weird.
In his own family, however, starting your own company was “a normal thing,” Funk said.
His grandparents owned different businesses, including a gas station and an apartment complex, and his dad also owned his own firm, leveraging his talents as a computer programmer to write custom software for businesses.
“I was the youngest of four, and every one of my older siblings owned a company at some point – and two of them still do,” he said. “Getting a job seemed more unusual than trying to build something.”
As to how he found himself sitting in on funerals almost as often as sitting in on class, he noted that after paying his respects to his great-grandmother, Myers Mortuary in Ogden, Utah gave his family a recording of the service.
His first thought was that no one even uses cassettes anymore – everyone had a CD player. “What if there was a digital recording of funerals that were put on CDs?” he said.
That has always been how Funk has thought about things, he told FuneralVision.com. “When you recognize a problem, you say, ‘What if a business did this or a product did that?’” he said.
After that experience, he and his brother, Jim Funk, got to work, reaching out to funeral homes and getting them on board with the idea of them attending and recording services.
“We would bring a clamshell Macbook and microphone and record the service and go back to this little 200-square foot office if it was even that big that my brother was renting,” he said. “We cut all the talks into tracks on CDs, so you could skip to a specific one, and we would charge a couple hundred bucks to do that. Back then we would use a stomper to put the label on the cd … it was one of a handful of side hustles I had going on at the time.”
It continued that way for several years, but in 2006, Funk got downright serious about it.
“At that point, we had started to put the audio online, and I thought livestreaming … maybe that would work. So, in 2007, I bought my brother out and decided to do it full time.”
It was a daring move as during the very same month, he also bought a condominium, got married to his wife, Megan, and quit his job.
“It was a really scary time,” he admitted. “But that is what got me into the space.”
He called the business FuneralRecording.com, which still exists and ultimately merged with Tukios, which he started later.
“I spent three years, from 2007 to 2010, really focusing on the recording business, and I launched a webcasting product in 2008,” he said.
When he started the livestreaming portion of his business, however, he had no money and was taking an entrepreneurship course that was “kind of like Survivor,” he said. “One of the things they taught us was a really valuable model – sell, design, build. It revolved around going out and selling something before you design it and definitely before you build it.”
It was an idea he tested at the National Funeral Directors 2008 convention, where he tried to gauge the interest in livestreaming before having a solution in place.
He made that pivot, he said, because he had concluded that recording funerals was more of a regional business that had gained traction in Idaho, Utah, Arizona and some adjacent states. “It was normal there, and most funeral directors were already doing it,” he said. “We were not retraining people or trying to create new behaviors.”
Elsewhere, however, funeral homes were reluctant to record services, and with the explosion of the internet, Funk saw where the business was going. “We said webcasting is the next version of this business,” he said.
At the NFDA convention, he saw there was lots of interest in the idea, although other companies such as FuneralOne and Event by Wire, which has since gotten out of the funeral space, were offering the same service. “Those guys had a product that was further along for sure,” he said.
Even so, he came home with around 100 business cards and was convinced there was something there. He took out a Small Business Administration loan and hired a programmer to build a product.
There were some bumps along the way, however, including the very first service the company broadcast hitting a big glitch.
“It was a guy named Robert who was nicknamed Bob, and when you put ‘Bob’ in quotes, it broke the system,” he said. “We had never tested it with quotes. The whole community was excited it was going to be broadcast live on the internet, and I was in a college class answering the phone when it went wrong. Our developer at the time was a contractor and wasn’t even full time.”
Eventually, Funk and his team built the livestreaming product into a nice business, but he could only take it so far, he said. “Pre-COVID, the only funeral homes that would really push it were Jewish funeral homes who had to have a funeral within 48 hours of a death, and due to the time restriction, sometimes people could not make it to the service,” he said.
So, Funk found himself with two products – the recording business and the livestreaming solution – but both of them had largely met their potential, he said.
He ultimately sold the livestreaming portion of the business in 2015 to Chris Runnels of Advanced Audio Systems in Cincinnati, who rebranded the business as FuneralVue Webcasting. “They were already supporting our hardware installs, so it was just natural for them to take it over,” Funk said.
In 2009, Funk made the pivot that would change his life.
“I found these other things could only be so big,” he said. “So, I thought I’d take a crack at the tribute video space.”
He launched a new company to serve that space, coming up with the name “Tukios,” which is the plural form of a word from the Swahili language that means “event.” According to the Tukios website, “We pronounce it ‘too-key-ohs.’ We wanted our name to be just as unique as our company.”
FuneralRecording.com is such a conservative and boring brand, Funk admitted. “I would come home after a trade show, and no one remembered what I was or what I was doing. So, I thought the name had to be different and weird – something that people would hear and remember.”
“Over the next five or six years, we became the standard of tribute video software in the space,” Funk said.
The Next Chapter
When Pamplona Capital Management bought a majority stake in Legacy.com in March 2017, Funk didn’t pay too much attention … but the two companies were paying attention to him.
Stopher Bartol, the founder and executive chairman of Legacy.com, told Pamplona that if there was one other company in the funeral space that it should consider acquiring, it was Tukios.
In July 2020, heeding Bartol’s counsel, the investment manager came knocking on Funk’s door – and he answered, partially to buy out a silent partner with which he had no good buy-sell agreement in place, he said.
Since acquiring a majority of Tukios, Pamplona has been hands off, Funk said. “They have just let us be and do our thing – they have been really great,” he said. “We tell them how the landscape is changing and here are the opportunities and threats. If we hadn’t told our employees about the sale, no one would probably even know … we have so much autonomy. I feel very little has changed. Prior to this, we also had some investors after raising money back in 2010, so it doesn’t feel any different. They are not asking us to do anything we wouldn’t want to do or that is not good for our customers.”
A year later, Tukios started building websites for funeral homes, which was a somewhat risky move since a lot of its growth had come as a result of partnering with companies in that space.
Today, its website unit is the main driver of growth at the company “even though we are stepping on some toes we were previously not stepping on,” Funk said.
Funk relishes the competition and thinks it is good for the profession and for funeral directors. “The whole idea of open software in the funeral space is really important to me,” he said. “Even if we are competitors, we should still be able to work together,” he said, noting that a good example is that even though FuneralOne and Tukios compete on some levels, they also work well together when their interests align.
“We cooperate on two or three products … it’s not turned into a fistfight,” he said. “That is refreshing – they are a great competitor.”
If vendors are not willing to work together, funeral homes end up being collateral damage, he said. “Switching providers … we need to make it easy for them,” he said. “Hand over the domain names. Export the data and do that when you lose a customer – as fast as you can. Don’t burn bridges on the way out – that reflects badly on the vendor and also who you are going with if the parties can’t be civil.”
That type of thinking is one of the reasons why Tukios has never asked customers to commit to a contract. “We want to force accountability on ourselves,” Funk said. “If they want to leave, we want it to be easy to quit. But we want to make it hard to quit us by making our solutions so compelling.”
While Funk is excited by how fast Tukios’ website business is growing, the tribute video business remains its most popular solution. “The product is just ubiquitous,” he said. “Most funeral homes use it – in terms of our customer base, it is still absolutely no. 1 – by a significant number.”
He added, “But websites are clearly in second place, and that is quickly growing. We are still acquiring video software customers but not at the clip of websites where we are adding about 100 a month.”
While the tribute video solution may always have the largest number of customers, Funk predicts that fairly soon, the company’s website unit will contribute a larger portion of revenue to the business.
“There is better upside there … it is definitely where the growth is,” he said.
As to why the website unit is growing so explosively, Funk noted that Tukios offers the service to funeral homes for free, and there are no hosting fees or invoices for any website product.
There are a few different ways for funeral homes – as well as Tukios – to generate revenue from each website, including sympathy gifts, flowers, payments and crowdfunding.
“We offer a meaningful value proposition, and that is why so many are moving to us,” he said. “One of our mantras is ‘Better designs, bigger checks.’ We build very nice websites, but we also provide a better commission structure.”
That means when someone buys flowers or sympathy gifts on the site, funeral homes will receive a higher commission if the purchase comes from a Tukios-built website, according to Funk.
Just how much bigger are those checks?
“Ours is 18% of the retail price of the product of whatever the gross amount is,” Funk said. “Our competitors at the higher end offer about 14%” He added, “If you are hearing a number above 18%, it is probably being marketed as 20% or 25% of the net of what is collected after the florist has been paid, which sounds like a bigger number, but it is actually smaller. You have to ask what percentage of what. We are 18% of the top line … the florist will make 72%, 18% goes to the funeral home and we only keep 10%.”
But just as important, he said, is the fact that Tukios is always seeking to improve its websites, making them more user friendly while offering the necessary support to funeral homes.
“When we ask, ‘What do you like about us?’ – no one is saying, ‘Because you pay me more’ – although they do tell us the checks are bigger. But they say that they love that we are continuing to innovate. We are introducing new stuff all the time.” He added, “Our software is easy to use, and you can manage it from home or your phone.”
The company announced one of those innovations just recently: an artificial intelligence guestbook monitor, which Funk is incredibly excited about.
The solution doesn’t ask funeral directors to change behavior – it just makes their lives easier and saves them time, he said.
“Normally, a funeral home may get 250 guestbook entries per month – and on average, only one or two of them would be considered to be inappropriate or unsafe,” he said.
Even though the percentage of inappropriate comments may be small, a funeral director may still spend hours reading all those messages, he said.
What the artificial intelligence tool does is it takes on that task for the funeral director, automatically flagging and excluding problematic comments, including ones that the funeral director may miss.
“Sometimes, someone may write a guestbook entry and say they were best friends, had all the same hobbies and participated in the same sports … and maybe at the end, they say they had a falling out in later years, and they are glad the person is dead,” Funk explained. “Someone reading that as a human just might not read that last sentence. You read 80% of it and say it is OK. But it is great to see how accurate this tool is. It marks comments either green or red – and if it is red, it will tell you why it is red – whether it is inappropriate, hate speech, romantic language or if something just seems off. It does all this without asking customers to change behavior, and it provides an immediate benefit.”
Tukios is also looking forward to releasing a tool that will save funeral directors time writing obituaries, similar to what some companies already offer. “We want people to be doing the same thing, because it validates the idea,” Funk said. “We ask what is the right way to do this? The tool will pull in information you already have – we won’t charge for it –it will just be part of the website product.”
In some ways, Tukios has a built-in edge over some of its competitors that have been building websites for a long time, Funk said.
“Honestly, whoever’s software is the youngest a lot of the time has an edge because you don’t have all this legacy code dragging you down,” he said. “We have been able to move and pivot quickly and build features that others do not have. But we always look at it having asked, ‘Is this in the best interest of the funeral home? If it is, we prioritize it – and we try to build it and make sure it benefits the funeral home more than it does now. Really, with everything that is the focus.”
Tukios is also still heavily invested in aftercare on the heels of its December 2020 acquisition of Aftercare.com.
At the time of the acquisition, Funk noted that more than 5,000 funeral homes were already using its simple video creation software and that Aftercare.com would be a great fit. “We are very excited to work with Ellery and the team at Aftercare,” Funk said, referring to Ellery Bowker, the founder and CEO of Aftercare.com. “We have a very similar vision of creating software that does the work for the funeral director and we are looking forward to making the lives of our clients easier in more ways.”
The Aftercare.com business “continues to grow,” Funk said.
Integration with Legacy and More
Legacy.com, which bought Tributes.com in 2015, has been a great sister company to work with, Funk said. When it makes sense, the two work together.
Tukios also gets to enjoy the valuable counsel of John Heald, Legacy.com’s general manager of the funeral home channel, who is also a former funeral home owner and a trustee with the Funeral Service Foundation.
Integrating tribute videos into Legacy.com’s obituaries has not been a road Tukios has traveled down, but Tukios does allow funeral homes to put their flower store onto Legacy obituaries for the families they are serving.
“This really puts the funeral director in control of their obituaries, which may exist on Legacy.com,” Funk said. “It makes it so if a floral order takes place on one of those obituaries, they will still get their 18% — and their designated florists will still get the orders.”
He explained that otherwise, if an order takes place on a Legacy.com obituary, it will most likely go to a big floral house and not a local florist – and the funeral home would receive a smaller commission. “Legacy is not selling a ton of orders per obit, but it does result in an extra little trickle of revenue for the funeral home,” Funk said.
Tukios is also exploring other integrations, including the guestbook, which would allow funeral homes to have more control over exchanges that take place on Legacy.com obituaries. Tukios can also quickly pass on requests to Legacy.com, such as asking for a service time to be updated if it changes at the last minute.
As for how the company navigated the pandemic, Funk notes that it took “a big hit” when services were not being held, but it quickly recovered.
Tukios also developed and launched a new product called “Send Hugs” during the pandemic, which allowed survivors to send a recorded message of condolence that was integrated into a tribute video. While it gained some traction, it was ultimately discontinued, but Funk said the team had a lot of fun trying something new.
In fact, Tukios even considered spinning the new product off as it discovered by happenstance that the service was more popular outside of funeral service. Ultimately, however, Funk made the executive decision that Tukios needed to remain squarely focused on the profession.
As for now, the team members at Tukios are keeping their heads down, focusing the majority of their efforts on growing its website business. “But we also have some pretty interesting ideas and plans on the tribute video side, because things are always changing,” Funk said. “And right now, things are changing very quickly – we cannot assume that what we offer now will still be the right product a few years from now.”
To this day, however, the company’s tribute video remains its bestselling physical keepsake product. Of course, families can share a link to watch the video online, he said.
Tukios’ video and photo books are also very popular, he said. “The great thing about those is they don’t require some other piece of technology … you put them on a coffee table, and they work,” he said. “Both products are growing. We sell more photo books than video books.”
He added, “We see a transition not so much of the medium as much as where the video ends up … now cars don’t have DVD players. Everything lives on our devices. It may make sense for a video at an event to run for 10 minutes if there is a line of people … but how do we make it more web friendly?”
Funk has some definite ideas on that front … so stay tuned.
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