From Shark Tank to TerraCon: The Return Homies Are Working Hard to Raise NOR Awareness
They didn’t invent it, and they weren’t the first to offer it, but by gosh, there’s probably no one in deathcare who has done more to normalize and promote natural organic reduction than Micah Truman and his team at Return Home. From an October appearance on Shark Tank to the upcoming inaugural TerraCon conference, Truman and his Return Homies are truly breaking new ground (pun intended) in NOR, or, as they’ve dubbed it, Terramation.
A tough decision
Since founding Return Home four years ago in Auburn, Washington, Truman has made educating the public on the process and benefits of Terramation his number one goal.
“Our biggest challenge is what I call ‘boiling the ocean,’” Truman recently told Connecting Directors. “It’s not that people don’t like what we do. It’s that they don’t know we exist. It’s a lack of knowledge about us. That’s our greatest challenge.”
When Shark Tank producers approached him about coming on the show (yes, they asked him, not the other way around), Truman and his team carefully considered the request. It was important to balance the opportunity to share Terramation with an audience of millions with any potential distress their appearance would cause to the families they serve.
“We had to turn around and ask, is this the exposure that we want for this industry?” shared Katey Houston, Return Home’s Service Manager and licensed funeral director and embalmer. “Do we potentially want to put our families we’ve served out there on TV? For me, it was all about the protection of my families. I don’t want anything bad to be said about a decision that they’ve made for their loved one.”
Ultimately, the potential exposure of the new and largely unknown method of disposition to five million viewers across the United States was the tipping point for Truman and his team — that and the chance to share some good news from the often negatively-reflected world of deathcare.
“That was another pro for us,” Truman said. “The news from the funeral industry is never good, right? It’s always awful. Also, we tend to lump together all deathcare companies, but Return Home is so profoundly different from anything else out there.”
Swimming with the Sharks
Return Home was not the first company within the deathcare realm to appear on Shark Tank. In 2019, Adelle Archer secured a $600,000 investment from Shark Mark Cuban for Eterneva, her memorial diamond startup, in return for 9% equity in the company. Earlier this year, Justin Crowe shared with the Sharks Parting Stone’s process of transforming cremains into clean, smooth stones. He walked away with a partnership with Kevin O’Leary and Lori Greiner, consisting of a $400,000 investment for a split 10% equity.
“Those are beautiful companies,” Truman said of Eterneva and Parting Stone. “They are phenomenal people and have amazing businesses. Our business, however, is a complete departure from anything that’s ever been done before. We’re saying that this changes completely how we care for our dead. That is a huge jump that I think Shark Tank made and we really applaud them for that.”
Like Archer and Crowe before them, Truman and Houston did deathcare proud, eloquently explaining the Terramation process and representing the industry with class and poise, despite the inherent disquiet of being grilled on stage by a panel of savvy multimillionaire business leaders. But the pair took a different approach to a potentially intimidating situation — treating the Sharks just like they treat everyone else they encounter.
“The Sharks are the Sharks,” shared Truman, “but they’re also human beings and they have the same concerns and fears. There are all kinds of ways that fear is expressed: Sarcasm, jokes, making light of certain things, avoidance of certain difficult topics. It’s the classic conundrum we all have as we talk about the hardest things in our lives. And that’s a really interesting discussion when you’re on stage very quickly, 30 feet from a group of people under the spotlight.”
Although no deal was made during the episode, Truman and Houston are proud of what they accomplished during their time on the Shark Tank stage — which is actually a hilarious point of contention for the pair.
“Katey claims it was an hour and 15 minutes,” joked Truman. “I think it was maybe six. The time-space continuum shifted big time. But what I wanted more than anything else was exposure. That mattered enormously to us. And that matters to the average family; they want to know about our service. They want to know that it matters to them. They’re not making that decision on whether a Shark Tank deal was struck or not.”
Exposure times 664k
Return Home’s invitation to appear on Shark Tank was quite unusual. Most companies have to apply for a coveted spot on the Shark Tank stage, so naturally, Truman thought he was answering a prank call when the show’s producers reached out to him.
“They said they had seen us on TikTok,” he said. “They had watched through those videos and had seen what we do and who we are and then decided, ‘You know what this is? These are our people!’”
Shark Tank producers aren’t the only ones who’ve learned about the company and Terramation via Return Home’s TikTok channel. In fact, since Houston and Return Home’s Chief Operating Officer Brie Smith started posting on the platform in 2021, their videos have garnered millions of views.
“You know, I’m a 52-year-old guy, and when Brie and Katey began these TikToks, it absolutely terrified me,” Truman shared. “There’s a sacred rule in our industry: Don’t laugh, don’t make jokes. You’re going to offend somebody. And our industry doesn’t ever want to do that.”
However, anyone who has watched any of the channel’s hundreds of videos will see that although the tone is often light-hearted, it’s never, ever disrespectful. The feedback from the channel’s 664,000+ followers attests to the educational value of the content, as well.
“It’s wild how many families come to us with their loved ones who have found us on TikTok, and they walk in the front door and say, ‘Oh, hi Katey,’ because they know me from there,” Houston explained. “They already know the kind of things they can do in our facility that you can’t do anywhere else because they’ve seen it all. So it’s both an educational tool for us and a way to comfort our families.”
Truman is admittedly in awe of Houston’s accomplishments and contributions to Return Home — especially how she represented the company on Shark Tank.
“For a 33-year-old young female funeral director to go out and stand in front of the Sharks and talk about a completely new way of caring for our people when they die is, I think, one of the more remarkable things that happened,” Truman said. “That’s really scary, and we didn’t know how it was going to go. For Katey to go there and do that and to carry herself with that, and to listen to her and realize all she’s thinking about is how she can protect and advocate for her families just speaks volumes for our young directors that are coming in.”
Coming soon: TerraCon!
Houston will get another chance to exercise her speaking skills in February during TerraCon 2024: The First Annual Terramation (Body Composting) Conference. The two-day event is packed full of fascinating presentations and panels about the “science, legislative triumphs, cultural contexts, industry perspectives, and personal narratives surrounding body composting.”
TerraCon will kick off with a keynote address from BJ Miller, a hospice innovator, TED Talk visionary, and an “idol” of Micah Truman, who was adamant that Miller should participate in the conference.
“I pursued him like Moby Dick for about a year,” Truman said. “He’s a legend, and I knew he’d be such an eloquent keynote for us. He’s such a remarkable guy, a brilliant dude. And he looks like Superman.”
Another exciting addition to the TerraCon lineup is Oregon State Representative Pam Marsh, a key sponsor in Oregon’s groundbreaking human composting bill with a personal connection to Return Home.
“She made sure the bill passed, and six months after it passed, her husband died,” Truman recalled. “And she brought him to us. She shared that during a recent television interview.”
Other planned presenters on the expansive agenda include mortality composter and soil scientist Dr. John Paul, Terramation operations director Chris Stone, green burial expert and former president of the Green Burial Council Brian Flowers, legendary cemetery landscape architects Lees + Associates, and many, many more. Families who have experienced Return Home’s services will also be on hand, and tours of the Return Home facility in Auburn, Washington are an option, as well.
Tickets for TerraCon 2024, which will take place on February 21 and 22, 2024 at the Greater Tacoma Convention Center in Tacoma, Washington, are still available here.