Alison Johnston

Surround yourself with as many smart people as you can. You’re never going to have all the answers, so the ability to learn from and debate with others is essential.


Alison Johnston is the CEO and cofounder of Ever Loved, a company focused on improving people’s experiences surrounding death and the funeral process. She previously cofounded and served as CEO of InstaEDU, the largest marketplace for online tutoring, which was acquired by Chegg. Before that, she cofounded Cardinal Scholars, an in-person tutoring company, which was acquired by CourseHero. She was named on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Education in 2014 and has a BA from Stanford.

Where did the idea for your company come from?

After selling my previous company, InstaEDU, I spent a lot of time reading and trying to learn about potentially overlooked industries in an effort to find my next project. While doing that, I experienced a death in my family and had several conversations with friends who had also recently lost people. I noticed that many people seemed to feel that the funeral experience added to their stress, so I started doing research and looking at the ways that we could make the death of a loved one–a truly universal experience–slightly less painful.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I try to start each day by going through our numbers and key events from the day before. This helps me do a quick gut check on the business and catch any potential issues before they grow. From there, I try to focus on a few key priorities each day, so I can really invest in the things that I think will make the largest difference. That said, interruptions are okay, too. I think it’s super important to jump in and respond to a customer support question or unblock a team member on something. As the CEO of a startup, you have to be able to trust your team to run with stuff, but you also need to have your finger on the pulse.

How do you bring ideas to life?

At Ever Loved, everything starts with a problem that we’re trying to solve. We try to focus all our product conversations around 1-3 priorities at any given time, and we regularly have meetings where we brainstorm and solicit ideas from the team (or from customers). Even when we think we have a great idea, we usually try to run it by potential users, then build the simplest version of it first, so we can see how people use it in the wild before spending more time on it.

What’s one trend that excites you?

The increasing number of companies working to improve elder care with technology. There are currently over 50 million senior citizens in the U.S., and that number is expected to increase to over 70 million by 2030, as baby boomers continue to age. The associated increase in the need for medical resources, caretakers, etc. has the potential to create major strains on our systems, so tech solutions are going to be critical.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I’m obsessed with audiobooks. I use them to continue learning about my industry (and business, in general), while commuting, running errands, making dinner, etc. It’s great to be able to keep getting better at running my company, while also taking care of things in my personal life.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Surround yourself with as many smart people as you can. You’re never going to have all the answers, so the ability to learn from and debate with others is essential.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Working in the death industry is uplifting, not depressing. Everyone assumes that my job must be a big downer, but it’s not. It’s very gratifying to talk to our users and hear that we’re helping them through a tough time. It has also made me much more appreciative of my own life and the health of the people I care about.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I look at our data dashboards obsessively. Understanding the metrics that drive your business is crucial to building a solid company that can scale.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

The rate at which people search online for funeral information has grown rapidly in the past five years, so we’ve been very focused on search engine optimization (SEO), and that has paid off tremendously.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

We’ve had lots of small failures as a team (from features we built that people didn’t use very much to sales strategies that didn’t work very well), and I think that’s the secret: fail often, but fail small. We’re very conscious about investing the minimum amount of work into a strategy in order to test it. If something doesn’t work out, the time isn’t necessarily wasted, because we’ve learned a valuable lesson.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I see tons of potential in businesses that help identify talented individuals in underserved communities (in the U.S. and abroad) and train them. There’s a huge shortage of tech talent, and yet most of that talent is coming from the upper middle class in just a few cities.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

An order of drinks and snacks for our company happy hours. At the end of every week, we get together to look at our numbers from that week, talk about our accomplishments, give props to each other and then just hang out. It’s super valuable in terms of getting everyone on the same page and helping the team work better with one another. Plus, it’s fun.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?

Google Analytics — it makes our whole team more productive by helping us better understand our business and know where to spend our time.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. The book was written by a professor at Carnegie Mellon after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Instead of focusing on death, it focuses on getting the most out of the life you have. He weaves great lessons into many entertaining stories, making it a quick read with a lasting impact.

What is your favorite quote?

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.” – Steve Jobs

Key learnings:

  • Start with the simplest versions of your ideas first and test them in the wild as quickly as possible.
  • Keep learning continuously by listening to relevant audiobooks while commuting, doing chores, and running errands.
  • Develop a deep knowledge of your company’s metrics, so you can use data to effectively guide company decisions and catch problems before they escalate.
  • You’ll be a lot more effective personally and as a team if you enjoy what you do and enjoy the people you work with.