This week, I caught up with Mark Strefford, CEO of TheWeddingVine.com he runs with his wife, Vicki. I remember the days when Mark was thinking of how to take the first step of developing the site. I pushed him towards Drupal. TheWeddingVine.com has come a long way since then.
Manoj: What made you launch your company? Tell us about the company history and the management team. Given that your wife, Vicky is also involved in the day-to-day operations, do you consider your business as a family business, life-style business or high growth business?
Mark: This may sound like a story you’ve heard on many other wedding websites, but we came up with the idea for TheWeddingVine.com after planning our own wedding back in 2006. Victoria is a professional Wedding Co-ordinator and has run a successful wedding planning business since 2002, but even for professionals there are limited available online resources. Although this is a family business, we see huge potential to revolutionise the way weddings are planned using the internet and see a potential for significant growth in our business.
Manoj: What problem(s) do your company solve? Why do you think your company solve the problem better than others? What have you learn from similar businesses set-up during the dot.com era?
Mark: Our company aims to give couples the resources that professional wedding planners have at their finger tips through an easy to use, feature-rich website. The site will provide inspiration, ideas, and the ability to find wedding suppliers based on the couple’s own exacting criteria. Victoria’s network includes a number of the inspirational wedding industry experts, and this gives our users inside access to information on upcoming trends and fashions. In our research, we see that many of the leading UK wedding websites tend to follow a very simple and static approach for finding ideas, suppliers, etc., and although some of the US sites are starting to move in the right direction, we still see that there is a significant gap between these leading US sites and the capabilities available in other industries. However, we’re conscious of the fact that lots of great functionality doesn’t necessarily pay the bills, so we’re constantly challenging our ideas for their commercial viability.
Manoj: Describe your products and services. What benefits do they bring? Given that weddings are rarely repeated more than once in one’s life time, how do you retain customer loyalty, or is this not important?
Mark: The latest release of the beta site provides the ability for couples to find suppliers through a number of ways. We’re the first internet wedding website to offer a free-form tag based search for suppliers and also the ability to search for specific products or services. For example, if you were looking for a venue, you may want to find specific features such as a specific venue type, the ability to host a certain number of guests with on-site accommodation that you will have exclusive use of. As the paint dries on the new site, the big drive is on now to populate this detailed information. What’s great with our site is that we can use our community to maintain information on wedding suppliers, and provide useful feedback and reviews to help future couples find their ideal suppliers.
We see customer retention in two ways. We aim to keep suppliers engaged with us for many years to come, and as these are currently our main source of revenue, we’re looking to build long and mutually profitable partnerships across the industry. Although we see that most people only marry once, they are likely to recommend services that worked for them to their family and friends, and sometimes they do marry twice! We’ll also know when their anniversaries are, and have the opportunity to partner with appropriate companies around this.
Manoj: Who are your key competitors? How do you differentiate from them? How are you currently marketing your products and services other than through your website? Is social media helping you achieve traction?
Mark: In the UK, we see our largest competitors as hitched.co.uk, confetti.co.uk brides.co.uk and yourandyourwedding.co.uk. As you can see from these domain names, they are firmly focused on the UK market. We see that hitched.co.uk and confetti.co.uk are mainly focused on product sales (ie. table decorations and wedding favours). Brides.co.uk and youandyourwedding.co.uk are front end website for their respective magazines. We’re the first company to approach the market solely with the user experience in mind, rather than as a route to sell more offline products. Based on the fact that we’re entirely an online company, all of our marketing is through low cost and no-cost channels and we’re currently making use of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
Manoj: What stage are you in, in terms of execution of your plans? What are your plans for the next 12 to 18 months? What are the key challenges you are facing right now? What help do you need if any, especially from Northern StartUp 2.0? By the way, congratulations in closing first debt finance round. Please share your experience.
Mark: We’ve just secured financing through our bank, with some great help from the NWDA, and this has coincided well with the launching of the new beta site. Our experience has shown that raising money through the banks is significantly slower than the banks initially suggest, and in the end we managed to get the buy-in from a senior regional director who had faith in our vision and backed us all the way! This was significantly helped by having a thorough and exhaustive business plan (with expert assistance from Roy Shelton), a compelling message and persistent and expert help from the NWDA. We’ve got a lot of things to do over the next 12 months in terms of adding functionality to the site, making sure that we stay ahead of the curve, and keeping our competitors firmly playing catch-up! We foresee a need to raise extra capital as we go into 2010, so would be looking to develop our contacts and partners through the NWDA and Northern StartUp 2.0. The key challenges we are facing right now is juggling our family (complete with new baby and a 10 year old), Mark’s day job and the many demands of running a start-up. We’re also facing the challenge common to many new businesses in getting people to have faith in you when you are not an established name YET!