Who is Charlie Cole? We Got Candid With Tribute Technology’s New CEO
On March 1, 2023, Tribute Technology, a well-respected and ever-growing provider of cutting-edge deathcare tech, welcomed Chief Executive Officer Charlie Cole to their leadership team. He hit the ground running (probably literally, as you’ll soon learn) and within his first five months has embraced the deathcare community, committed to a cohesive company culture, invested in technology development, and brought two new brands under the Tribute umbrella. Needless to say, these days Charlie Cole is a busy guy; nevertheless, he graciously took the time to answer a few questions for Connecting Directors — and offer a one-of-a-kind challenge to our readers.
CD: So, Charlie, how in the world did you end up at Tribute Technology? Weren’t you recently with FTD, the floral delivery service?
CC: I was at FTD for about three years. We hired bankers to sell the business in September, 2022, and a sale became imminent. I told my private equity sponsor that I wasn’t going to be part of the new transaction, and if anything super interesting came my way, I’d let them know. So I wasn’t really out there looking for gigs, but this one kind of found me.
CD: So this must have been one of those “super interesting” opportunities? How so?
CC: I come from a world where the best way to differentiate a business in the digital ecosystem is to really focus on customer centricity. And I think this might be the most customer-centric profession on earth, right? So that was really what drew me to it. But then I realized it’d be a really interesting combination of my experience in technology and in e-commerce, while also bringing in that customer-centric approach. Plus, Tribute’s founder, and now our chairman, Matt Frazer, was moving on, so I think there were several things that made me a good fit.
CD: Are you finding other similarities in what you’ve done before at FTD and in your previous positions?
CC: Well, the first thing might not be obvious to the naked eye, but FTD is a large network of small business owners, and Tribute is a large network of small business owners. I think when you work with a small business owner, the gravity of everything you do cannot be underestimated. I’m literally involved in these people’s livelihood, you know? So, if you don’t approach every day with the same intention and urgency your small business partner is, then you’re doomed to fail.
CD: Were you worried about not having experience in deathcare?
CC: Let’s just call it the way it is: I knew nothing about the funeral profession besides my experience as a customer. So I spent my first three months of my job on the road meeting funeral directors, attending ICCFA, attending the NFDA Future’s Forum. I wanted to at least understand where the technology would fit in as opposed to just start spoon-feeding it to everybody with no context.
CD: Are you finding any similarities in deathcare and what you’ve done before?
CC: Really, two things. The first thing I acknowledge is that certainly flowers and funerals are not on the same level. One of the things I always told people at FTD is, if you screw up an order, you ruin a birthday or a Mother’s Day or a Valentine’s Day. If our tech screws up here, we ruin a grieving process. I want to match that same sort of emotional intensity that our funeral directors deal with on a daily basis.
CD: What’s the second thing?
CC: I know what I know and I know what I don’t know, right? I am never going to look you in the eye and tell you I’m an expert on the funeral space because I’ve been in it for five months. But I can look you in the eye and tell you I’m probably one of the best digital marketers you’ve ever met, that I probably know more about e-commerce than anyone else you’ll ever meet, but I’m not going to tell you I’m an expert on things I’m not. I think when you enter a new sort of business community like I have with the funeral profession, that sort of humility and self-awareness is essential. I’m going to apply where I have expertise and then I’m going to listen and learn as much as possible where I’m not.
CD: It seems like you’ve really been able to leverage your e-commerce and leadership expertise in your first five months at Tribute.
CC: I feel like our velocity is finally starting to meet our desires. Tribute has grown through acquisition and investment — it’s a natural stage. We had partnerships with several companies, but no one has really ever put all the puzzle pieces together, so we were still sort of acting like different companies instead of one company. We also inherited a sort of disjointed technical stack, so two months ago, we hired a CTO [Chief Technology Officer], Matt Powell; he and I have been there, done that, at FTD. Now we are getting the organization set up where they can really realize those synergies of having all these things, because we can offer something no one else can. We can actually offer a complete solution, and we’re going to continue to make a ton of investment in technology. That sort of organizational design stuff and getting the right people in the right place can take some time, but we’re moving fast.
CD: Speaking of moving fast, weren’t Tribute’s most recent partnerships accomplished during your short tenure?
CC: Yes, Artifact and Spoonful of Comfort — I get to take credit for those. Spoonful of Comfort is something my wife and I actually experienced ourselves; it’s just a great product and it’s deeply meaningful, as well. I’m deeply honored to partner with them; they do a remarkable job. I think you’re going to find that we’re going to maintain that velocity. We have a couple more announcements coming before and during NFDA (Convention & Expo in September).
CD: Oh, really? Can you give us a sneak peek?
CC: We’re looking at new services; partnerships, not acquisitions. To me, our job is really to improve the experience of our three principal constituents: the funeral home/funeral director, the family, and the friends and family of the family. I don’t think from a merchandising perspective we were doing that. So we’re going out there and trying to get partnerships that are exclusive to us — that give us a differentiation of space, but are deeply meaningful to the family. And obviously, all those things drive revenue back to our funeral directors.
CD: That’s exciting stuff! What are you most excited about right now?
CC: We had a great second quarter. But the thing I’m most excited about is that we’re seeing less people leave the platform and more people join the platform. And that’s all I can really ask for.
CD: To what do you attribute that success?
CC: I think it’s the way Tribute thinks about technology. Everything we do — everything we do — has to allow the funeral directors to serve the family better. And the thing we’ve heard from funeral directors over and over again is the best way we can do that is to give them time back in their days. So [we think about that] when we approach management software, or the implementation of AI. Everything we do with technology is about enhancing what the funeral director is doing as opposed to replacing it.
CD: Speaking of AI, your Tribute Obituary Writer is the bomb!
CC: We were the first company to have a ChatpGPT obituary writer. It’s now been copied by a lot of people. But we were the fast mover, and I think that was cool because that was in my first month and we were like, “Hey, let’s do this.” And I’ll tell you, it feels good to be chased. To be sort of brand new and to start being the group that’s innovating the fastest. A reputation is very hard to earn. But I think in the last five months, we’ve started to see our innovation input increase at a rate that really people haven’t seen from tribute before. And that was kind of the first step in that.
CD: We’re curious … How can you possibly follow up such a stellar beginning? What’s next for Tribute Technology?
CC: You’re going to see us keep innovating, you’re going to see more partnerships. But my number one goal is to be able to show you statistics and data and facts that our technology is the best on earth. And I mean things like site uptime; I mean things like site load time; I mean things like Google page speed scores. I mean all these things that really matter. And that’s where I feel like with Matt joining and with our team coalescing on that side, you’re going to start seeing that same velocity that we’re doing on the partnership side start to happen on the technology side. And that’s the area that I really, really, really want to optimize.
CD: Sounds like an incredible plan … and one you’re perfectly suited for. So what else should we know about Charlie Cole?
CC: I’m a proud father and a proud husband to an amazing woman named Elissa. At my core, I’m an analyst, I’m a statistician. I approach things in this very numerical, accountable way. Also, at my core, I’m an athlete. Both my wife and I played volleyball in college and that kind of level of intensity and hard work that’s needed to accomplish things at a high athletic level. But those things need to be bracketed by what I’m not. And that’s why I surround myself with folks like Courtney [Gould Miller, Chief Customer Officer] and Matt and Andy [Bourke, Ecommerce General Manager] and Alex Cross [Head of Transformation] and our entire leadership team. And so like my background being numerical, being an athlete and kind of embracing diversity on our leadership team, I think that’s what makes us great.
CD: Many of our readers might have met you for the first time at the NFDA Convention. If not, what’s one thing they should know about you?
CC: I will make a bold statement. So, I’m a hyper-competitive person, but I’m more competitive with myself than anybody else. But I’ll throw down this challenge: I will beat anyone in the funeral profession at Peloton. Anyone. I’ll beat them all.