by Sharon Kahn.
Quick: What's the best-known wedding website? Chances are, you'll say The Knot, which Carley Roney founded with her husband David Liu in 1996. The now multi-media empire trades publicly as the XO Group Inc., and has expanded to additional ventures covering the home and parenting. Recently, Roney spoke to business writer Sharon Kahn about her story.
SK: How did your own wedding lead to The Knot and its offshoots?
CR: When I got engaged in 1993, my now-husband David Liu and I quickly realized the resources available at the time couldn’t help us plan a wedding in four weeks. I was working 70 hours a week as a photo editor for the Smithsonian and no vendors were open when I finally could sit down and plan after 7 p.m. I couldn’t find any etiquette tips on how to plan a wedding for a little blonde girl from New England marrying a 6 ft. tall Chinese guy. To top it off, my future mother-in-law informed me that white was the Chinese color of mourning and I had to find a red wedding dress!
A couple of years later, David and I were knocking around ideas with some friends from film school (where we had met) on how this new thing called the Internet might change things. With the realization that the world of weddings was outdated, cluttered, and chaotic, the four of us formed The Knot Inc., now known as XO Group Inc., to help today’s brides and grooms plan the wedding that they want.
SK: How did your vision differ from the multitude of wedding planning services and magazines already available?
The wedding world was in dire need of a new voice, and the web was the perfect place to break ground. The Knot is a hipper alternative to some of the more traditional magazines. We cover everything from intermarriage to unconventional reception ideas, from gay marriages to meddlesome mothers-in-law. We provide not only resources but also a community for brides to get in touch with vendors. We have checklists, helpful tools, iPad, and iPhone apps to help brides whenever and wherever they are.
SK: Did venture capitalists react differently because your main delivery mechanism was this new thing, the worldwide web?
CR: We actually got our first round of financing from AOL, which was interested in websites that created content for women. The Internet was a low barrier medium for launching a brand. We did not need to put hundreds of thousands of dollars into creating a print magazine, nor did we need to find the ad dollars to support it. It was an instant launching pad.
But we realized early on we weren't creating a website, we were creating a brand. By focusing on the customer and remaining true to our vision, we created something that was hard to replicate. So we also leveraged the brand in more traditional media platforms, like books, to gain recognition and then began to transform everything to the ever-changing media.
SK: How does your role in the company mesh with your role as wife and mother?
CR: It is all about finding a balance. While the company means so much, you must make time for your marriage. It took us seven years to finally start vacationing. David and I definitely co-parent the company, but oftentimes he does more of the traveling so that I can be home with our three kids.
When we were securing capital, it was great to have David by my side to prove we were in it for the long run. Venture capitalists will assert that a female entrepreneur’s pregnancy and motherhood aren’t factors in deciding whether to invest—that it’s all about good ideas and the management team. But I can pretty much guarantee you, behind closed doors it is a factor. In those first months of having a business and having a baby, the baby was a complete and total secret, as a way of letting me to prove my dedication to the company.
As chief content officer, I have a very hands-on role in the company and like to see all of the projects we create from start to finish. Similarly, the advice I give to working moms is to never feel guilty. There are times where your company has to come first, and times where your kids do, and that’s just the way it is.
SK: Was there a "magic moment" when you realized that online wedding planning was only the first stage in the evolution of the company?
CR: We always knew that we wanted to branch out. We just believed we would have five new categories in five years--when it took us more than 10 years. Of course we eventually launched TheNest.com in 2005 and The Bump.com a few years later.
My ultimate vision for XO Group is to be the world’s best resource for weddings, home, pregnancy, and everything in between. We also want to be the blueprint for the media company of the 21st century. A brand that can live in any medium, that’s multi-platform and multi-revenue.
SK: What prompted the decision to create a Chinese equivalent?
CR: We noticed that affluent brides in China who were planning western-inspired weddings were visiting our U.S. site. China's wedding market is valued at $62 billion, with 10-million couples getting married every year. Because of the culture differences, though, we couldn’t just translate our existing products.
We never expected an overnight payoff with the expansion into China—it’s a long-term bet. We’re looking for partnerships and different ways to monetize our depth of editorial expertise on Western weddings.
SK: What was behind XO Group's decision to go public?
CR: It was important for us to provide our brides (and our expanded audience) something they so desperately wanted on a larger platform—and going public provided the backing to make it happen. Since going public, shareholder communication and investor relations play into much of our daily corporate decisions. That said, going public was a huge marketing event for us—catapulting our brand and business model into the public eye in the wedding world and beyond.
SK: What's next? Might you consider moving to another startup?
CR: Digital communication is such a fast-changing media, it feels like we're involved in creating new startups all the time! The Knot was best of class in 1996, but what we offered 17 years ago certainly wouldn't satisfy customers of 2012 who check in with us using mobile phone technology and the iPad.
We’ll continue what we’ve been doing—listening to what our community needs. One of our initiatives is to provide hyper-personalized and hyper-localized information. For example, if a bride identifies that her wedding color will be blue, we can lead her to content for blue flowers, blue favors, etc., as well as a message board where she can connect with other brides using the color blue.
SK: What advice can you give other entrepreneurs?
CR: Research, research, research. Know your market inside and out, but at the end of the day go with your gut. Trust your instincts, and you actually can make anything possible.
Be willing to make sacrifices in the early days. It will come in the form of free time, money, and your social life. But once you have your feet on solid ground, it all evens out.
Know when to divide and conquer. You have to be willing to let go and trust your business partners. Unfortunately you can’t do everything, and it certainly won’t be efficient or effective if you do.
Be passionate about what you do. If you’re investing this much of your life into the business, make sure it’s something you’re proud of.
However, always stay grounded. You will inevitably have some humbling moments (like mine: speaking to a group of four people on a rainy Saturday in a basement of the hotel!), but never be “too good for” anything as you’re building your business.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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