Step off the elevators on the third floor of Two Wisconsin Circle in Chevy Chase, Md., and you might think you've been teleported to the heart of Silicon Valley.
The walls are painted bright orange. Fantasy football rankings hang on windows close to a lime green couch. Crowds of stylishly dressed 20-somethings chat over lunch at long tables while a ping-pong ball is swatted back and forth. Nearby is a Zen room for meditation and quiet thinking, and a single executive office where all six of the company's top managers work side-by-side. You aren't in California. But you have arrived at the virtual epicenter of the wedding industry.
WeddingWire Inc. is a seven-year-old company that has quickly become an essential resource for engaged couples and wedding vendors, offering consumer reviews, planning features and technological tools for small businesses. The site's traffic will spike this month as newly engaged couples start planning their weddings; last January the network logged 40 million total visits.
Now with close to 300 employees, it was recently named one of Deloitte's Technology Fast 500 companies as a result of its dramatic growth.
Just don't expect swaths of tulle and lace to run through the halls. This is a cutting-edge technology company; the $70 billion wedding market just happens to be the lucrative target of its services.
Necessity isn't the only mother of invention. Frustration usually works just as well. And in 2005, Timothy Chi spent plenty of time banging his head against a wall as he and his fiancée attempted to plan a wedding in her home town of Toronto. Strapped for time, they would fly up on weekends, interview dozens of vendors who all seemed to run together and then fly home in a daze. Chi's sister and several of his friends were also planning weddings — and each couple seemed as exasperated as the next.
"I was like, 'As a technologist, I don't understand why it needs to be so difficult,' " remembers Chi, a smiley presence who has carried his Southern California casualness with him to the East Coast. Chi, 37, was one of the original co-founders of Blackboard, the educational software firm that's become one of the Washington region's biggest tech success stories.
Blackboard had grown into a large company by the time Chi was getting married, and he found himself itching to return to the startup life. The wedding planning process seemed ripe for innovation.
"It came down to a realization: There are a lot of really great companies that helped brides and grooms create a vision and educate folks about what is going to be a very beautiful, important day. But everyone said, essentially, 'Now, go do it — good luck!' " Chi recalls. "There wasn't anyone there to help you execute. And that's the tough part."
In classic start-up fashion, Chi recruited three friends and former colleagues to work on the idea over nights and weekends in the empty living room of his home. The technological architecture was sketched out on the back of a napkin. And in 2007 the site was launched.
At first it focused only on the Washington area, asking brides and grooms to review wedding vendors the same way diners rate restaurants on Yelp. The reviews proved to be hugely popular and a big driver of business for florists, DJs, caterers and wedding planners.
"Given that Millennials very much rely on peer feedback and don't take things at face value, they know that content on blogs and in magazines can often be advertorial," says Liene Stevens, founder of the Splendid Collective, a firm that does market research for the wedding industry. WeddingWire, she says, has "done a great job in a really short amount of time in getting wedding professionals to understand that reviews are part of the buying process these days."
As the site grew, it expanded its geographic reach and added content and planning tools. Now engaged couples can turn to WeddingWire for information on the latest trends in bridal fashion and etiquette, and they can use it to host their own wedding website or manage their budget.
Brides and grooms don't pay to use WeddingWire. The company makes money by charging vendors for premium placement on the site.
And in recent years the firm has been adding more tools to help merchants reach and serve clients, whether by managing their social media presence or digitizing vendor contracts so they can be signed and stored online. And to branch beyond weddings, the company launched EventWire.com, which focuses on corporate events, anniversary celebrations, birthday parties, and bar and bat mitzvahs.
"The people we touch in our space, they're all creative people — event designers, florists, artists. So that's what they're good at and that's what they want to do," Chi says. "We're really passionate about helping these guys be more successful through technology. How can we play a role to support them, so they have more time to be better artists?"
In 2008, the company got a $5.5 million investment from Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, which gave it capital to grow and a crucial association with an already established brand in the wedding industry. In September 2012, it landed a $25 million investment from Spectrum Equity that will allow it to continue to expand.
Still, even Chi is sometimes surprised by the rate of WeddingWire's growth. Last January, when the company moved into the Chevy Chase office, he thought it would be a couple of years before they filled out the floor. But already every workspace is occupied.
One of Chi's priorities has been to maintain a culture of innovation and tenacity. He continually stresses the company's five "core values" — work smart, be curious, fail fast, be bold and delight customers. Employees work in open spaces, have unlimited leave time and are given $250 each year to spend investing in themselves, whether that's through French lessons or a gym membership.
The plan going forward is to focus on more of the same — helping people planning events find the right merchants to serve them. Chris Jaeger, a Boston marketing consultant who works with wedding vendors, says that by doing that, the company's significant impact on the industry will continue to deepen.
"They understand how brides are using the Internet," he says. "WeddingWire is all about connecting brides and vendors. That's it. They all do it, and they do it well."