At first glance, Vidal Herrera seems just like any other person trying to make his way in the world. He lives in Los Angeles, drives a white SUV, and his firm sponsors a local baseball team. Average enough, except that the team he sponsors is named “The Stiffs”ù because Herrera is the founder of an entrepreneurial business named 1-800-Autopsy. Of course with the advent of the Internet, he has added a “.com”ù to the name, but Herrera still offers thanatology services to private clients as he did when he started the firm 20 years ago.

Career in a Casket
Autopsy on demand is not the first idea that comes to most people when they start on their entrepreneurial careers. And it did not occur to Herrera either until he became disabled and unemployed as a result of lifting a 284-pound corpse in 1984. After he lost his job as Field Deputy Coroner Investigator in Los Angeles County, try as he might, he found no one wanted to employ him. Necessity being the mother of invention, he started doing contract work to make ends meet, retrieving tissue for Veterans Administration researchers.

Alive, well and growing
As part of the job, Herrera visited local funeral homes and met grieving families anxious to understand the fate of their loved one. People wanted to answer questions ranging from the cause of their relative’s death to solving paternity mysteries, and had no viable ways of obtaining this crucial knowledge. Based on his interactions with “next of kin”ù, Herrera began to form the basis of a service offering. He launched 1-800-Autopsy in 1988, and has since opened franchises in Orlando, Florida, Northern California and Las Vegas, Nevada. The business continues to grow even in the current financial crisis, and seems likely to expand further as the baby boomer generation ages. As Herrara puts it. “Death is a recession proof business.”ù

The Conception of a New Market
It is the sheer unlikeliness of this story that offers its greatest insight ? who would have thought that there is in fact a market for private autopsy services? If Herrera had not started 1-800-Autopsy, maybe the independent thanatology market would not exist at all? In fact, 1-800-Autopsy gives us a rare glimpse at how markets and firms are conceived. We tend to assume that the entrepreneur’s job is to track down economically inevitable opportunities that are hidden in the sand ? through careful research and prophet-like prescience. Reality often points the other way. Herrera’s story shows us the reality that new firms and new markets are created when entrepreneurs, driven by all kinds of motivations and the peculiarity of their individual circumstances begin interaction with potential customers and other stakeholders, and end up creating something novel and valuable. And almost always the ventures they begin spring from things they already have or already know.

Post Mortem
Of course, Herrera’s story is far from finished. Ever the entrepreneur, Herrera is both negotiating with new potential franchisees of 1-800-Autopsy, and has also kicked off two new ventures. The first, named, was created when someone asked him to construct a piece of furniture from a casket. Herrera now acquires defective or rejected coffins and transforms them into unique sofas, adding legs and custom upholstery. As a collector of antique morgue and mortuary equipment, Herrera also was approached by stage hands in entertainment (another ‘Only in LA’ story, of course) to rent his gear to studios filming morgue scenes. With the unmistakable moniker, this business provides equipment ranging from embalming tables to body crypts for television shows and movies that include “CSI,” and “Law and Order.” Clearly, that’s an opportunity to die for.


Written by Stuart Read, professor of marketing at IMD and Nick Dew, associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School.  Art is credited to Jascha400d, through stock.exchng.

Publication: British Airways Business Life
Stuart Read