Splendid Ideas: NewlyWishFriday, August 20, 2010
The first feature in the new Splendid Ideas series is NewlyWish, a registry service that focuses on both local mom and pop type stores and some larger ones and also offers the ability to register for experiential services (dance classes) as well as artwork or ballet tickets. Amanda and I had dinner a few weeks ago after about a half dozen friends recommend we meet. I was familiar with her company, but as we talked I became more and more impressed with her focused approach and the fact that her business is as much about empowering her merchant clients as it is the couples who register.
Name: Amanda Allen
Company Name: NewlyWish
What was your motivation behind starting NewlyWish?
The inspiration for NewlyWish came from my own wedding registry experience. Having a destination wedding, my husband and I were a little ambivalent about registering since we really just wanted as many of our friends and family to come to the wedding as possible. Our parents, though, helped us realize that a registry is as much about convenience for people who did want to give a gift as it is about ‘getting what we want’. I discovered, however, that the stores we really wanted to register with lacked online registries if they had any registry capabilities at all. I thought, ‘what a shame!’ The more I spoke with other engaged couples and recent brides, the more I realized that my experience was not uncommon and that there was a tremendous demand for these merchants’ goods but one which, due to time, money, or technological constraints, they just couldn’t meet.
As I thought through the idea, the motivation for NewlyWish really became two-fold: develop a service that gives couples increased choice by allowing them to register at smaller, independent brick-and-mortar stores, and to help the stores participate in the wedding registry market, something that may have been beyond their reach from a technological and/or marketing perspective.
You have an interesting story behind how you raised funding for your business. Can you share a little bit about that?
Once I decided that I wanted to jump into entrepreneurship and start my own business, I left my job in banking at the Federal Reserve Bank of NY and enrolled in the MBA program at Fordham University.
I had a pretty strong sense that I wanted to fund the business myself, at least at the outset, to the greatest extent possible. Being in an MBA program, I had access to a wonderful array of support through professors and school-sponsored programs, a key component of which were business plan competitions. I put together a team and entered a competition sponsored by Merrill Lynch and Baruch College and supported by mentors at the SCORE agency. The competition included 13 participating schools, over 100 submitted concepts, and three elimination rounds. After eight fairly grueling months, our team made it to the final round which included a two minute elevator pitch and an hour of questioning by a panel of business professionals and angel investors. We were ultimately lucky enough to win first place, which came with a nice bit of seed capital.
Bolstered by this success, we participated in the Pace University Pitch Competition. This one included more than 150 concepts submitted from 40 schools nationwide. After pitching in front of an audience of 200+ and a panel of investment professionals, we won the grand prize, which included seed capital as well as six months of office space.
While the seed capital we received through these competitions was tremendously helpful, I would say the most valuable part of these competitions was the validation we received on our business model.
They helped us identify weaknesses in our approach as well as potential pitfalls in execution, and ultimately gave us the confidence to charge forward knowing we were really on to something and had a pretty solid roadmap for making it a reality.
Aside from a focus on local businesses, what differentiates you from other registries?
One of the most interesting parts of NewlyWish is the range of merchants and gifts that we offer. In addition to providing a platform that aggregates all of the gifts a couple chooses into a single list (regardless of which merchant they come from), we offer a variety of really fun non-traditional and experience gifts. So, in addition to finding everything they need for their kitchen, tabletop, and bed and bath linens, couples can include cooking or dancing lessons (two of our most popular items), fitness sessions, artwork, tickets to the ballet, or a museum membership to their registry.
Another area where we go beyond other registries is that we offer a bunch of unique and interesting gifts for the wedding party, such as custom-designed perfumes for each of the bridesmaids and tickets to a ballgame for the groomsmen.
Our goal is to take advantage of all the wonderful things that are available around New York, and present them in a single convenient place for couples and guests to use their imaginations and really personalize their gifts.
Many of the businesses represented on your site are locally owned, smaller companies who may not be as up to date with technology. How does what you offer help them?
One of the most interesting (and challenging) aspects of running NewlyWish is that we have two sets of clients – engaged couples, and our network of shops. With regard to the latter, our goal is to provide a marketing, sales and technological platform to access the wedding registry market. This is a large market, but it’s dominated by about a dozen or so national department and specialty stores. While it’s difficult enough for smaller stores to compete with these large, national brands, as more and more parts of wedding planning move online, offering customers a state-of-the-art online platform is essential to engaging them and being included in their consideration set. With NewlyWish, shops that are members of our network can offer their customers a complete online registry, regardless of the extent or sophistication of their own ecommerce capabilities, and they also gain a business partner who is dedicated to marketing them to engaged couples.
What’s more, by offering couples the ability to add items from a multitude of shops to their registry, they are more likely to include one or two items from a given shop where they may have not wanted to create a complete registry. This allows us to introduce a whole set of shops and services providers that have never considered joining the wedding registry market. Take, for example, Great Seats Ltd who offers tickets to concerts, sporting and cultural events, or Robinson's Prime Reserve, a purveyor of fine steaks (and a very popular groomsmen gift), neither of whom could have justified the investment in entering the registry and wedding gift market without NewlyWish.
As you know, 85% of couples who actively participate with a brand during their engagement will remain loyal to it for the next 50 years. What advice do you have for companies who are seeking to capture the attention of engaged couples in order to turn them into lifelong customers?
It’s difficult to talk about business-related advice without sounding like you’re spouting truisms, but one of the most important things we’ve learned is that you have to communicate with your customers, which means not only giving them the opportunity to tell you what they think, but to also listen to what they are saying even if you can’t always give them exactly what they want, and really think about customer service. This is particularly true for people in the wedding industry. Setting aside the stereotyped ‘bridezilla’, engaged couples are often like those circus performers who spin a bunch of plates on the end of long sticks – they have a lot of details to deal with, all of which have exactly the same deadline – if any one piece (or plate) drops, it can affect every other part. Being sensitive to this is paramount to folks in our industry. Being responsive and attentive to your customers’ needs in such an important time in their lives will go a long way to helping to keep them as customers long after the ceremony, reception, and honeymoon have passed.
And remember, communication with your customers isn’t always direct: make sure that you tend to and nourish your social networks and stay in touch with, and participate in, the discussions that are going on across the market through all of the blogs and sites dedicated to wedding planning.
What were some unexpected challenges you faced in launching NewlyWish? Is there anything you would do differently?
The discipline provided by participating in the business plan competitions gave us the opportunity to get a bunch of really helpful feedback and insight into unexpected challenges. That said, one of the first challenges we faced was the tried and true fact that ‘things always take twice as long and cost twice as much’ as you plan. No matter how much you prepare, there are always going to be time and cost overruns. Plain and simple. So, when budgeting for a new business, in addition to using a range of scenarios that take into account best and worst cases for revenues and costs, include a ‘miscellaneous’ line item or something like that, which provides you with an additional cushion as you plan what it’s really going to take, from a financing perspective, to get your business to the point where it can generate positive cash flow.
A second key challenge, more specific to our business, has been that since our model includes both B2B (business to business) and B2C (business to consumer) components, we’ve needed to balance which to focus on and when. For example, we needed to first build our merchant network and make our marketplace attractive to merchants. But in the classic ‘chicken or egg’ paradigm, one of their primary questions was, ‘how are you bringing customers to your site?’ So we also needed to come up with ways to get customers as we were building out the offerings on the site. If we were to do it all again, we probably would go beyond the market research and customer surveys we did, and build a set of ‘beta’ couples who were ready to use the site during development.
Can non-engaged people take advantage of what NewlyWish offers and support the local merchants through online shopping?
Yes. One aspect of our site that people don’t immediately recognize is that you don’t need to have a wedding registry to make purchases on NewlyWish. While the registry platform is a key part of our business, our site also serves as a cool little marketplace of chic and stylish NYC-based shops – you can add items from any shop, with the convenience of a single checkout process and have them ship to you no matter where you are in the country. We’ve also developed a network of local wedding resources – planners, photographers, florists, bakers, and hair and makeup services – that our customers can check out and consider for inclusion in their vendor list.
You can check out NewlyWish here and you can follow them on Twitter here.
If you're in New York, NewlyWish is hosting an exclusive bridal event as part of Fashion’s Night Out on Friday, September 10th at the Michael Aram flagship store in Chelsea. You can come and see all of Michael Aram’s beautiful home decorative items and meet experts from the NewlyWish network, including Loulie Walker, Belle Fleur, Gabriella New York Bridal Salon, Desserts by Tawny Ong, New York Wedding Dance, and Bottle Rocket Wine and Spirits.