By Thomas A. Parmalee

Before entering the realm of funeral service, you could find David Lutterman competing as a gymnast at the pinnacle of competition.

“That was my first career,” said the CEO of OneRoom, which captures and archives a funeral or memorial via a secure private broadcast that can be accessed from anywhere. “I started gymnastics in New Zealand, then went to Southern Illinois University, where I met my coach. My teammates taught me what it was to be a part of a team – a high-performing team.”

From 1983 to 1986, his team competed as an NCAA finalist, with Lutterman placing nineteenth All Around at the 1985 USA Gymnastics Championships, qualifying for the USA Team (which included the top 24 finishers). “I was picked to compete in Algeria in April 1996, but prior to departure the USA launched a missile strike on Libya, and we were withdrawn from attending. I was sent to a competition in Bulgaria and was a finalist on horizontal bar,” he said.

He also represented New Zealand from 1980 to 1990, qualifying for the 1984 Olympics and attending the World Championships in Moscow in 1981, in Budapest in 1983 and in Stuttgart, Germany in 1987. He retired in 1990 and coached the New Zealand High Performance Squad team for seven years.

As an athlete, Lutterman learned numerous lessons he’s applied to his business career, including the realization that the best athletes tend to “self-select.” He explained, “You can find someone with all sorts of talent and try to get them to do a sport really well, but the people who succeed are the ones who are driven by the perpetual pursuit of perfection – constantly improving everything.”

Gymnastics is interesting in that way, he observed, with six events all demanding perfection. Moreover, it’s very clear how close you get to perfection as each performance receives a score.

“That drive for continuous improvement is absolutely transferable to the business world,” said Lutterman, 60, who splits his time between New Zealand, the company’s North America headquarters in Houston – as well as on a plane between the two places. “You are constantly looking for ways to get that perfect 10.”

He also learned the ins and outs of excelling as part of a team. “You can only do so much yourself and having a team around, you learn from them, and you get support from them,” he said. “You need a support group and that translates to business. There is only so much a guy with a good idea can do. Sooner or later, you need to surround yourself with good people – and then you can achieve a lot more together.”

David Lutterman, CEO of OneRoom.

From Gymnastics to Funeral Service

As to how Lutterman ended up spending large portions of his life in both the United States and New Zealand – and how he made his way into funeral service – it’s an interesting story.

He was born in the USA in Maine on a U.S. Air Force Base right around the time of the Bay of Pigs, he said. Sometimes, he imagines what it must have been like for his mother, who had three children under the age of 5, having to go into a bomb shelter as her husband went into the air, preparing for nuclear war.

After his father, Gerald Lutterman, finished a tour in Vietnam, he retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1972, finishing his term of service with the Strategic Air Command based at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska. Shortly thereafter, Lutterman’s parents took their life in a new direction.

New Zealand, they thought, would be a great place to settle down. So, when Lutterman was 10 years old, they started over in a new place.

Lutterman’s father went to work at an electronics service shop, which he eventually took over as owner. His first paycheck was $42 for the entire week. It was the definition of starting over.

Today, his dad is 92 years old and lives in Fort Worth, Texas, but still has no problem getting on a plane to visit his son. Lutterman’s mother, Marjorie, died in New Zealand in 2010.

“Dad still hits the fitness center every day,” Lutterman said. “At sunset, he lowers the flag outside the apartment and plays ‘Retreat’ in remembrance of all who gave their lives in the service of the U.S. Armed Forces.”

Lutterman ended up returning to the United States at age 20, where his gymnastics career took off. Later, he moved back to New Zealand and worked in a variety of positions, including as a national sales manager with Ericsson and Vector Communications, as a manager at Cisco Systems, and as a manager with RSA, the security division of EMC.

In 2008, he became one of the founding investors of a company that focused on livestreaming and recording events. At that time, it was known as Futuretech. “Our initial focus was running virtual annual general meetings, and we tested this application in the business, worship and education sectors,” he said.

“I was one of the founding investors, but at that point, it had nothing to do with funerals,” he said. “You get these guys who are visionary and articulate ideas and everything out of their mouth sounds pretty … but those guys often aren’t the ones who know how to run a business. They are serial idea generators.”

Over time, it became clear to Lutterman that the people running the company – then called “a technology incubator” – didn’t really know in what direction they were headed. “It always had to do with video and cloud hosted video,” he said. “The funeral sector actually found us. They saw what we were doing in the finance space, and they articulated a problem: We have mourners who can’t go to funeral services – and would you consider adapting our platform?

With the team in place asking for more funding, Lutterman had seen enough. In 2013, he took over as CEO.

“I sat there watching my investment disappear and was being told to just write another check,” he said. “After I heard that last one about three times, I thought, ‘I don’t think you guys know where you are going.’ I had always wanted to operate my own business … so I deconstructed a team that shouldn’t have been there because we didn’t have enough revenue and built a team back up based around being able to deliver value and growth.”

The investor group, which consists of about eight people that own 80% of the company and about eight additional investors that own the remaining 20%, has been patient during the journey, he said.

“At that time, I just saw that this was a perfect nexus of absolute need,” he said. “There was a clearly articulated problem you could solve – technology had kind of leapfrogged over the funeral sector.”

So, when Lutterman became CEO everything was “cleared off” and the company began to focus on funeral service and rebranded itself as OneRoom.

That focus has paid off, as the company has captured about 75% of the market in New Zealand and 30% of the market in Australia, Lutterman said. It also serves Canada and the United States of America, with half the company being based in Houston. Today, its focus on growth is squarely on North America, he said.

“It is difficult to measure our market share in North America, but we stream over 3,000 services per month,” he said, adding that many funeral homes use Facebook Live to stream services, which is concerning given that carries with it security, commercial and quality issues. (OneRoom wrote a blog post on why funeral homes are moving away from using Facebook Live.)

Although Lutterman never foresaw himself entering the funeral service space, he feels as though he’s found his home. “What I have enjoyed is learning more about the funeral sector, and I have learned to appreciate it more,” he said. “It is a very noble profession, and every single person can identify with death. I’ve lost count of the number of family and close friends who have passed away.”

Death touches all of us and “eventually you get to participate it as a viewer, an organizer and then as the guest of honor,” he said. “We all get to touch death a few different ways along the journey. That, to me, has driven a lot of why I have stayed in this. Its about keeping the thoughts and memories of our loved ones alive and active in our conversations and thoughts.”

He also has an immense amount of respect for what funeral directors do.

“They put on what I would equate to a one-night play on Broadway … and every family they treat as the top priority,” he said. “They hit it out of the park just about every time and pull off an amazing ceremony – and my purpose in life is to get that in front of as many eyes and ears as I possibly can.”

Livestreaming and recording the video doesn’t just help those who can’t make it to the service – viewing the service after the fact also helps on-site attendees take everything in later. Often, they are emotionally overwhelmed as the funeral is going on, he observed.

“Hundreds of people have told us how important it is to sit and watch the service again after their emotions have cleared,” Lutterman said. “It is a huge emotional asset for the family.”

Funeral recordings are also a huge asset to the funeral home, he said.

“That service encapsulates everything they do,” he explained. “It is all on show at that service – so having a recording of it so it can echo through time across the family is a business asset.”

The notion of it being an asset is important since so many funeral directors seem to feel guilty about earning a profit on anything, Lutterman said.

“If we keep squeezing funeral directors, we are going to end up burying loved ones in the backyard again,” he said. “We need them, and they need to find ways to make money.”

Offering livestreaming and recording provides value, he emphasized. “Compare it with the flowers you sell,” he said. “They look pretty on the day of the service and then you throw them away – there is no enduring value, although you may have some pictures of them.”

As long as you are providing value to the family, they will pay for the service, he said. “A lot of our thinking now is how can we help you turn it into a profitable revenue stream and facilitate other revenue streams – memorialization and preneed,” he said. “Our job isn’t done until we can tick off that box. That sort of thinking is what helps us get market share. I don’t call funeral directors customers anymore – we call them partners. The only thing we are doing is getting what they are doing in front of more eyes and ears – that is what OneRoom does. Every time I seek to justify the why for OneRoom, I keep coming back to the importance of funeral service.”

Meghan Pogue, partner advocacy manager (left), and James Montgomery, national sales director (right), at the Selected Independent Annual Meeting in Washington, DC (2022). OneRoom is a Preferred Selected Partner.

Jumping Over Hurdles

Not every funeral home, however, is willing to offer the service.

Sometimes, funeral directors fear the technology. Other times, they think it might interfere with the intimacy of the event. And sometimes, they say they don’t offer it because families aren’t asking for it.

That last assertion, however, doesn’t ring true to Lutterman, who noted that a variety of research suggests one of the primary things that families want from funeral homes is guidance.

“If I am in that situation where I am grief stricken, I need someone to show me the way,” he said. “That really is one of the roles of the funeral director – to take them through that process. Sometimes, I think funeral directors swap that around and they make price the important thing. But if you are delivering value and guidance and doing the right thing, people will find the money.”

The key is to provide families with options – and livestreaming and recording is not something most families know how much they will appreciate until after a service has occurred, he said.

“If you are trying to front load decisions, it is easy for the family to say, ‘I don’t think we need that.’ And the funeral director may not push back. But this is where guidance is important. Say, ‘Look, we are going to record this for you – we think you will find value in it later. We think it is important to get recorded.’”

Asked about the differences between funeral service in New Zealand and the USA, Lutterman said some of them are obvious and others are subtle.

“You may think death is death and funeral service is the same … well, kind of,” he said. “One big difference to me, and I can’t figure out how the sector in the U.S. backed its way down into this corner, but the difference between cremation and burial should not dictate whether you hold a service,” he said. “Yet cremation is equated with a quick boom disposal and ‘See you later.’”

That does not happen in New Zealand, he said.

“The method of body disposal is completely detached from running a service – we almost always run a service down here,” he said.

The nature of the services also tends to be different, he said, observing that in the United States, religion plays a larger role.

“And there is nothing wrong with that – people find a lot of strength in God,” he said. “But if you tune into a service down here, you are going to hear about the person who passed away. They will be talking about and sharing stories about him or her – it’s a little bit different.”

He noted that while there seems to be more of a movement toward a celebration of life and a personalization of services in the United States, you can also often find someone in front speaking who did not know the deceased. “I like the trend I am seeing more toward the story and celebration and laughing and crying,” he said. “That is really important and brings the community together.”

Insights on Offering the Service to Families

It’s one thing for a funeral home to offer livestreaming and recording to families. But how should a funeral home owner go about it?

That’s a question without a single right answer, but Lutterman has some ideas.

“If it is important to record this service because it will add value to the family and potentially set you up to make money directly or indirectly from it, then you need to find a way … I’m not sure how to put this delicately, but you have to remove the friction and reluctance from funeral directors,” he said.

That means not forcing families to make the decision – or forcing funeral directors to sell it, he said.

“If you are allowing them to make the decision, you are going to miss it,” he said. “They will not do it most of the time.  You need to find a way as an owner to make this happen because there is value in it – so bundle it or package it. Your mentality should be for this to be turned on almost all of the time – it should be an opt-out service instead of an opt-in service. The default should be that it is there because there is business value in it, and it holds emotional value for the family.”

Funeral homes can also list it as an option on their general price list, but it can be challenging to convince families of the value of something they have never received before, he said.

Navigating the Pandemic

The behavior OneRoom observed on its platform during the pandemic reflected the response individual countries took, Lutterman said.

In New Zealand, for instance, only one household could attend a funeral service. “So funeral homes down here essentially stopped running funeral services,” he said. “We adjusted our cameras to focus on the open casket, so families could see the decedent. Either that, or they saw a chapel with three people in it and someone speaking up in front with a mask on – these were horrific scenes. So, usage on our platform dropped.”

In Australia, the lockdowns were not as strict, so OneRoom did not see much change one way or the other in terms of how funeral homes used its platform. “But what we did see was an explosion in the number of online viewers,” he said. “Pre-pandemic, there may have been an average of five to seven online viewers, but during the pandemic, we got up to 50 or 60 and have settled back down around 30 – and that has been maintained.”

Companywide, OneRoom livestreams and records about 60,000 services per year, or 5,000 to 6,000 services per month, with an average of 30 people watching each service, he said.

“Our platform has to be able to cope with that,” he said. “So, the one thing the pandemic has done for us is it has enabled us to scale and learn how to scale very quickly.”

To that end, he noted that in North America, the company completed more installations in April 2020 than ever before.

Setup and Pricing

OneRoom will work with funeral homes of all sizes.

While it offers enterprise pricing for large firms, Lutterman noted that the business is such that costs to his company go up as volume goes up, as more storage and support is needed. “So, it’s not a traditional model where if you buy heaps and heaps, you can drive at a very sharp price,” he said.

“I would say our pricing stretches across a bunch of tiers – we can serve the top end of the market and push down to the lower end of the market and be quite competitive,” he said. “We try to be as inclusive as possible.”

On average, customers pay $45 to $65 per service, he said.

“Some pay $85 per service, but that would be the top end where someone uses the service only every so often with a pay-per use and no upfront commitment,” he said.

The company offers two go-to market approaches, with its fixed-camera implementation being what Lutterman recommends. Although it entails average start-up costs of a few thousand dollars, it offers many benefits, he said.

Installing cameras in a chapel or other funeral home facility where services are held builds value into the asset, he said. “Now, you can turn it into a streaming facility not just for funeral services but for training or preneed seminars,” he said. “Also, the in-chapel system is completely automated.”

What that means is that OneRoom staff remotely inspect the equipment two hours before a scheduled service, so it can alert funeral home staff of any problems. There is also a backup SD card in all cameras, so if there happens to be a glitch, you still get a recording. “It completely removes the funeral director from even having to push any buttons – you schedule it and are done,” he said. “Reliability is king, and the in-chapel system is the easiest and most reliable platform available.”

The best thing about the in-chapel experience, he said, is that the viewers control the multiple cameras to see a picture to their liking. (Usually, a funeral home has two cameras installed, but some install as many as four, he said.)

“We put it in the hands of the viewer to select what camera they want to look through,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the funeral director’s job to be a film director.”

The dome cameras that go along with the system are hardwired into a router that goes to the Internet he explained. “It’s all completely web and cloud based,” he said. “The cameras self-operate, and it’s all streamed simultaneously, so the viewer can switch between cameras.

With the livestream, those watching can see people saying goodbye to the decedent, see who is speaking and also reconnect with who is there – many times, those attending a service have not gathered in one place for 20 years or so, he said. “The multiple cameras help them feel immersed in the experience,” he said.

The second option for livestreaming is using the company’s app, which is available for download in the Apple store. OneRoom developed the app itself, it’s not a repurposed third-party app, he emphasized.

“Everything is custom built,” he said. “We spent a lot of time getting it so it can easily be used in a chapel, but someone has to push a button, and someone has to focus it.” Depending on where it is used, there may be birds chirping and wind blowing, he said.

“The elements of having a remote, offsite service introduces an element of risk to the quality you can produce,” he said.

But with that said, it can be a great option for funeral homes, and the app is available to download for free.

“But you have to have a good device,” he said.

As to what Lutterman enjoys the most about being the CEO of OneRoom, it’s the team he’s built around him. “You are only as good as the people you surround yourself with, and I am immensely proud of those people,” he said.

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