Kellee Khalil was 30 pages deep into Google, flipping between 15 tabs of fashion retail sites, when she realized there ought to be an easier way to help plan her sister’s wedding. She was working at her sister’s wedding PR firm, so she knew the industry, but found it difficult to complete the loop from pinpointing, say, a bouquet that her sister liked in a photo, to tracking it down and figuring out how to actually buy it. “If this is hard for me, how do women outside of the wedding world do it?” she thought.
So, in late 2010, Kellee moved to New York City, started networking in the tech community and invested $75,000 from personal savings to hire a team of developers — then turned her idea into reality. She raised $2 million in seed funding and on February 14, 2012, launched Lover.ly, a place to find wedding ideas — and actually buy the products and book vendors. Think of a search engine with the visual elements of Pinterest, where all the suggestions come from top wedding bloggers and are well-organized and tagged so they can be bought immediately. A search for bridesmaid dresses, for example, can be filtered by color, price, style and numerous other elements.
Now, the company has grown from two to 16 employees, sells 250,000 products from 2,000 brands and has 2.6 million visitors a month across their bridal blog network, responsible for a total of 40 million image views. We talked to Kellee about building her business and how, as someone who sells inspiration, she finds inspiration in her own life.
You’ve said you heard “no” a lot during fundraising. How did you inspire more yeses?
Fundraising is never easy. I think I pitched more than 250 people over the course of three years, and I think maybe 20 of those have said yes. Every time I’m pitching someone, the most important thing is really to understand their objection: What about the business did they not like or understand? Oftentimes that requires you to change your story. Maybe it’s not that they don’t like the business; maybe they don’t understand what problem we’re trying to solve or the approach, so it’s all about storytelling and being able to articulate your value proposition. I’m constantly trying to modify our pitch and the message of the story based on the feedback we’re getting from people.
How does Lover.ly make money?
Our business model is comprised of four different types of partnerships: shop, advertiser, vendor and editorial. On the content side, we work with our exclusive Lover.ly bloggers and curated vendors to create the extensive collection of inspiration images on the site. In exchange, we sell advertising on our partner blog sites. The gorgeous 250,000+ products that appear in the Lover.ly ecommerce vertical and throughout the site come from the more than 2,000 brands we work with. Partners can also reach Lover.ly users via sponsored email campaigns or as part of the various events we execute.
Tell us about the role of inspiration in your business.
All wedding planning starts with inspiration, whether it’s a theme, color or place that inspires a couple. Our goal with Lover.ly is to make that inspiration transactionable. So if they’re looking at inspiration, whether it’s a color palette, or looking at a destination, like vineyard weddings, we’re connecting them with vendors and products that actually make that wedding a reality.
When you look at a lot of platforms people are currently using, whether it’s for shopping or discovery or Pinterest or flipping through magazines, the big frustration comes when you can’t take action. And I think that’s what’s cool about technology — you can easily take action. Our goal is fusing those two things together. As couples discover what’s important to them and what they want their wedding to be like, they’re easily able to make that inspiration or dream a reality.
What inspired the entrepreneurial seed in you and your sister?
My parents are serial entrepreneurs too. My mom was a florist; she had her own flower shop and would create store flowers. In the ’80s, if you ever walked into a Bullock’s or a Saks, they had little boutique floral shops in those stores; those were my mom’s. She had her own standalone then she started supplying flowers to all the big retailers in the LA area. So she was super creative and also had a business side to her.
Then my dad came from the Middle East, didn’t speak the language and got involved in the only industry that was accepting to him, which was the convenience industry, predominantly run by foreigners. So, he started out as a teller at a gas station, then a manager, then became the owner, and as he built his roots within that industry, he ended up building a marketing company that at one point represented 5,000 local convenience stores, helping them negotiate advertising deals with large brands like Pepsi-Cola and Frito-Lay.
Being a young kid growing up in a house with two entrepreneurs, those conversations were at the dinner table when us five kids were around. Our dad would share his stories about what happened that day, and on the weekends, I’d go to the gas station with him and count the money or work the register.