The Future of DeathTech: Interview with Adelle Archer, CEO and Founder of Eterneva
Adelle Archer is the Co-Founder and CEO of Eterneva. Founded in 2017, Eterneva is a consumer technology company that creates diamonds from cremated ashes. Eterneva has pioneered a grief wellness brand that aims to transform the way we celebrate lives after death. Based in Austin, the team recently closed an over-subscribed $3M seed round in July. This year, Adelle was selected as one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Consumer Technology.
I enjoyed hearing Adelle’s perspective on disrupting the death-care industry, how she found the right investors, and what inspires her about her work.
How did you start Eterneva?
Adelle Archer: My co-founder Garrett Ozar and I both worked in tech and a friend’s father was involved in a diamond foundry that grew diamonds for industrial use but wanted to break into consumer. Garett and I decided to help him build a brand. We took it on as a side project, and I soon became fascinated with the industry. I didn’t know you could grow a diamond in a lab!
Around that time, my close friend and business mentor was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She passed away shortly after that. Tracey was one of the most special people in my life. She didn’t have any family or kids, so when she passed, she divided her ashes between her aunt, myself, and another friend. We wanted to honor her and keep her story alive.
We started to look into our options, and I was exposed to the death-care space for the first time. It opened my eyes. I realized that it is such an old school industry, and it had not innovated for hundreds of years. I learned that we lack meaningful ways to honor remarkable people.
I started the process with another company that grew diamonds from carbon and cremated remains, but I was disappointed. It was very transactional. They didn’t ask who it was for or what their relationship was to me. I didn’t feel comfortable continuing with them.
Garrett and I started to look deeper into memorial diamonds. We felt that it would be meaningful to other people, but the existing options did not execute on them well. We wanted a diamond for Tracey, and that focused us. She was our first diamond. We wanted to enable that for others.
When did you know to quit your previous job and work full-time on Eterneva?
Adelle: I remember the day we put the website together, and the traction was immediate. We hit product-market-fit early on. Our first sale was $20,000. There was a gentleman in Canada who had lost his 19-year-old daughter. He bought two of the largest diamonds that we’ve made for him and his wife. It was such a powerful memorial to be a part of–especially as our first customer. From there, it took off. We got calls from celebrities and others interested. Garett and I knew we were onto something. We looked at each other and went two feet in.
Culturally, we struggle to deal with grief. When we told people about the diamonds at first, we got mixed reactions. Some people thought it was weird. Others that had been affected by or had a friend affected by grief or loss deeply understood it.
Why do you think the death-care industry is often overlooked?
Adelle: It’s hard to talk about. Culturally, we struggle to deal with grief. When we told people about the diamonds at first, we got mixed reactions. Some people thought it was weird. Others that had been affected by or had a friend affected by grief or loss deeply understood it.
You also have to realize that there are two sides to death: the before and after. Most startups in DeathTech want to make pre-planning easier for death. They focus on pre-death arrangements so that the family does not have to. That mindset is different. It’s more of an uphill battle.
We instead focus on those that are left behind in the wake of loss. It is an entirely different customer and mindset. It is a different level of value that you add, and nobody else is doing it. The people left behind may think they have nothing else to look forward to. We can give them a bright spark of joy to lean into during the hardest period of their life.
People don’t often know how to support someone in a grieving process. We clam up and get awkward. We don’t know what to say. I hope that Eterenva can make the conversation more open and change the conversation and culture around death, grief, and remembrance.
How did you find the right investors, and what did you look for in them?
Adelle: We bootstrapped Eterneva to the first $1 million in sales. In June 2019, we assembled a remarkable group of strategic angels, most prior entrepreneurs with $100–200M+ exits. Every single one of our angels is not just a check. Each is someone I’d ask for advice on one subject.
We closed our most recent seed round this July. When we raised, it helped to show the new investors our revenue traction, an already great cap table of angels and team.
We had a few common objections. Investors often questioned if death could be marketed. Some thought it was too hard of a topic. In fact, we have better engagement rates on social media than Kim Kardashian and Taylor Swift. More and more people are intrigued by this idea.
When we spoke with investors, it was important that they met our terms, but also that the vision resonated with them. We needed to hear their personal articulation of our mission and their connection to it. We believe Eterneva is successful because of how authentic we are. If we lose that authenticity, we’ve lost our edge. All our investors see our vision and believe it can’t be lost.
Every single one of our angels is not just a check. Each is someone I’d ask for advice on one subject.
What was it like to go on Shark Tank?
Adelle: I wouldn’t recommend it for every startup. It was worthwhile for Eterneva because we are category-creators. We re-shape an entire industry that people don’t know about. There’s not many large-scale awareness opportunities, but Shark Tank is one of them. You’re not getting the best deal terms on Shark Tank, but the deal should be made up in brand-building and exposure.
Eterneva is also very driven by “word of mouth.” We know that when someone hears about Eterneva, they on average, tell 20 other people about us. We are a good dinner topic at Thanksgiving! Shark Tank was a platform that enabled us to reach a greater audience of customers.
We believe Eterneva is successful because of how authentic we are. If we lose that authenticity, we’ve lost our edge. All our investors see our vision and believe it can’t be lost.
What is one part of the business that has changed since you started it?
Adelle: When we first started Eterneva, we thought it was about the diamonds. We were in the business of providing people a remarkable way to memorialize an important connection in their life. It has become as much about the customer journey as the diamond itself. We’ve evolved from a diamond company into a grief wellness brand.
It takes eight months to create the diamond. When we started to work with customers, we wanted to give them the experience that I didn’t have with Tracey. We wanted to be transparent, so we sent frequent updates and pictures to customers about their loved ones in the process.
The reaction to the updates was unbelievable. We received tearful messages back and deep expressions of gratitude. We began to outfit our labs with video equipment and record every single stage in the ashes to diamond journey. We hired editors to create personal, multi-media updates and experiences about the transformation of a loved one into a diamond.
We started to enable customers to post the updates to dedication pages and share with friends and family who could subscribe to the posts. We discovered that Eterneva created an ongoing eight-month dialogue and celebration of someone’s life that did not happen before.
When the team thinks about what kind of impact we want to have on the world, we believe that we are developing a whole new model of grief theory called grief wellness. We see that our customers are in a different place with their grief than when we started to work with them. They can participate in an ongoing legacy project that helps them heal. They come out on the other side with more calm, peace and closure in addition to a new point of connection, the diamond.
How do you stay motivated and keep the team motivated?
Adelle: I am a mission-driven person. I’ve always wanted to be a part of solving important problems in the world. I studied Political Science and lived in D.C. I discovered that, for me personally, entrepreneurship is a better vehicle than politics. However, when I worked in tech, I often missed the mission and questioned whether I made the world better off.
Now, I work on something that feels aligned with my passion and my values. Whenever I encounter hardships, they seem more surmountable because the motivation is deeper.
Every week, the team talks about and shares our customer stories. We learn about the loved ones who will join the Eterneva family. Some days, you might hear the best love story you’ve ever heard. As a result, you go home and treat your family and loved ones differently.
If the delivery is local, each team member is on rotation to hand deliver the diamond. They get to experience what it’s like to see a loved one as a diamond for the first time in eight months. These practices keep you super-charged. It is wonderful and hard not to cry each day.
It has become as much about the customer journey as the diamond itself. We’ve evolved from a diamond company into a grief wellness brand.
Fill in the blank, I wouldn’t get through quarantine without….
Adelle: My boyfriend. It can be lonely to be the CEO. You don’t have an outlet to talk about what you are going through. You have to be the face of the company and stay put together. You lead the team. My boyfriend sees what everybody else doesn’t. He is one of the most supportive people. We never get on each other’s nerves, and I am super lucky to have him.
What is unique about the tech and startup ecosystem in Austin?
Adelle: There is collaboration. You can walk into a coffee shop and sit down next to the CEO of the biggest companies in town. They’ll probably strike up a conversation with you before you know it. They’ll give you their card and offer to help you talk through your business problems.
I grew up in California, did my undergrad in Montreal and lived in D.C. Each is different, but the founders tend to be more insular. Austin is the opposite. No one is above helping each other out. We’re all in service of helping everyone be successful to put Austin on the map.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dana Iverson is a student at Princeton University in the School of Public and International Affairs with Minors in Entrepreneurship and Urban Studies. She is currently on a gap-year and works on the Public Policy and Business Development Team at Tesla. She is a writer at All Raise. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.