Welcome to the 5th part of the Real Women, Real Business series!
Before I left my corporate job, I was so in awe (and still am) of women who had taken the leap and set up their own business. I wanted to know how they came up with their idea and what gave them the courage to finally go for it.
When I set up IWMLBproject I decided to interview women who had launched their own successful businesses. It is so interesting to read about the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ from real-life down-to-earth women just like you and me.
If you love what you read, here are the other interviews in the series for you to peruse at your leisure!
An interview with Louise Winter, the founder of Poetic Endings, a modern Funeral Director in London.
Photo by Emma Overland Dudlyke
What is your business?
I’m a funeral director and the founder of London’s modern funeral service, Poetic Endings. I’m also the co-director of Life. Death. Whatever. – an award festival and community that exists to change the dialogue around death and dying.
What was your previous job?
I worked as a creative strategist for a brilliant young entrepreneur, Callum Negus Fancey, who was changing the way big brands engage with their customers. I worked on so many exciting projects – designing company retreats, launching a healthy eating brand at a festival, coming up with innovative ways of selling expensive handbags – it was a great adventure and I’m grateful for every moment of it. But ultimately I wanted to do something; I didn’t want something to do.
What made you decide you wanted to leave your corporate job?
Callum decided to trial a new way of working, ROWE (results only working environment) and I was the very first test case. I was allowed to work whenever, wherever and however I wanted provided I delivered results. It meant I could work the hours that worked for me, and work on the projects that excited me.
It meant I was free to be who I wanted to be, rather than what someone else’s business needed me to be. This led to me living and working from New York, where I began to host events helping the public to better engage with death and dying.
My Grandad had died when I was 26. His was the first death I’d ever experienced and the first funeral I’d ever attended. It had a profound effect on me in that I really felt like what we were doing at his funeral was important, but the conventional way we were expected to arrange his funeral was not serving our grief.
I wanted to create an approach that was relevant and meaningful to the way we live our lives, and how we acknowledge our deaths, now and in the future.
How did you decide what business to set up?
I just knew. It was as though it had always been there in my subconscious but it took ages for me to be able to see it. I had one word when I decided to do this – death. It’s all grown from there.
Yes! The main response I had from my family and friends was ‘oh, of course that’s what you’re doing to do’.
Did you have an ‘emergency fund’ to tide you over while you set up your business or did you start it on the side while still at work?
Absolutely not! I’ve never taken the safe route through life. And starting my business was no exception. I had an urge to write a resignation email on the train home from work one night. Then I had the urge to press send.
I had no idea how I was going to pay the rent that month, but I did know that I was doing the right thing and it would somehow be ok. It’s somehow been ok ever since that day.
Did you have to get any outside investment to get going?
No, it was important to me to keep the business my own. The amount of money required to start a traditional funeral service is huge and means that the business can’t be flexible. Once you have a huge loan to pay back for a mortuary, a fleet of cars and full-time staff, it’s difficult to put the bereaved person’s needs first.
So I used my creativity and resourcefulness to create a situation which didn’t require huge investment, and better serves the people I work with. I work alongside some outstanding people who all share the poetic approach to arranging funerals.
Did you take any courses or qualifications?
Yes. When I left my previous career, I trained as a funeral celebrant. This was a good introduction to the funeral profession but I found my training to be outdated and stuffy so disregarded most of it. Most of what I’ve learnt has been from taking the initiative to go out there, learn from others and develop my own approach .
I spent a summer observing funerals from the back of a crematorium in South West London; I spent a lot of time with funeral professions both traditional and modern; and I worked for a traditional funeral director for a year, where I learnt what to do, but mostly, what not to do.
Did you have any particular fears about starting a business and if so how did you get over them?
There’s always the fear that the phone will never ring again. Funerals are so unpredictable. One moment it’s so busy and then there’s nothing for a while.
I’ve called the office number many times just to make sure it’s still working! But the phone eventually rings, and I’m learning to embrace and enjoy the quieter periods.
What was the hardest thing about setting up the business?
It’s lonely. I have to motivate myself. If I don’t get out of bed and make things happen, then nothing will happen. It’s a lot of pressure to be that energetic all the time.
Did you make any mistakes when you were setting up?
I’ve made so many mistakes, but nothing so far that hasn’t been a valuable learning curve and ultimately benefited the business. Although it may have felt disastrous at the time.
How long did it take before you made enough for an full-time income?
I’ve been able to make my work with funerals pay enough for me to live, right from the beginning. I don’t live extravagantly and it was really tight in the first few years, but I chose the reward of creating something that genuinely needs to exist, over financial stability.
How do you manage your time?
I could work 24/7 if I wanted to so I’ve had to become quite strict about taking time off.
My work is flexible and depends on the funerals I’m working on so each week looks very different.
I love working this way because it means my time is mostly my own.
I’m not stuck in an office working to someone else’s schedule on something I don’t believe in.
Working on funerals can be intense and heavy work, so it’s really important that I have a balance of life and death. Having fun and taking care of myself is really important.
I go climbing at the Castle in North London, I work alongside supportive people, I go to therapy, I eat well and I take quite a few afternoon naps!
Do you ever procrastinate and how do you deal with it?
Because I’m the one who is always having to make things happen, I’ve learnt to be kind to myself. If I’m procrastinating, I look at the reasons why. It’s usually that I need to take a break and go to do something else. I just need to give myself permission.
How do you market your business? Word of mouth/types of social media?
I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve had lots of press attention for the work I’m doing, so that helps. I have an unusual social media presence for a funeral director and also have a really good website. People find me because they’re looking for something and can’t find it on their local high street.
What is your favourite thing about having your own business?
It’s mine. I’m responsible for all the decisions to do with the business. It’s so rewarding to have created something that’s genuinely ground breaking and gives bereaved people a viable alternative. I also love that I get to choose my own team, which is a breath of fresh air.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to women who want to start a business?
You’re always one decision away from a totally different life.
Thank you so much, Louise!
If you want to find out more about Poetic Endings or get in contact with Louise you can find everything you need below.