How to Build an $8 Million Startup? Give Couples the Wedding of Their Dreams, Says This Scrappy Founder

It’s no secret that weddings cost a small fortune. Few things compare, especially for a one-day event. Once you’ve tallied up the price of the venue, catering, flowers, stylists, dresses, suits, and photographers, you’ll spend an average of $28,000. Janessa White of Simply Eloped, however, believes you needn’t drain your savings to celebrate your big day in style.

When you hear “elope”, you probably think “shotgun wedding”. Those fly-by-night ceremonies where a pregnant girl and her shame-faced boyfriend would marry to appease disapproving parents. While that might’ve been true decades ago, today, it’s come to mean a sort of low-key rebellion against the eye-watering-ly expensive glitz of the traditional service.

Elopement today, Janessa, argues, means an intimate, personal ceremony, usually outdoors, where couples marry in the presence of their closest friends and family. Fewer chandeliers and champagne fountains, but a deeper connection between those present. Best of all: Janessa offers elopement packages at a fraction of the price of those extravagant ballroom parties.

“We do everything for you,” Janessa said. “Whether you want something simple and cozy or an all-inclusive package with some luxuries thrown in, we’ve built the technology, streamlined the process, and as we’ve taken a lot of work out of the vendor side, negotiated much better rates with them. So even though it’s a package with lots of baked into it, it’s still cost-conscious.”

The Walk in the Park That Started It All

The best ideas often spring from observations. You could be ambling through Central Park in New York, for example, enjoying the sunshine and birdsong, when a sharp-dressed man catches your eye. “What’s a guy like that doing sitting on a park bench in Central Park?” you might wonder, and in the spirit of friendliness, strike up a conversation that changes your life. 

“Simply Eloped started because Matt, my co-founder, met an officiant in Central Park,” Janessa said. “He said, ‘Hey, you look pretty dressed up for being in Central Park.’ Turns out he was a celebrity wedding officiant, and they got to talking about how hard it was being an officiant in the digital age and how difficult it was to find clients. Matt looked into it and thought he could help.” 

Janessa grew up helping her mom coordinate events in their hometown of Boise, Idaho. Cutting her teeth on weddings, Janessa quickly learned the surest way to delight couples was to shoulder the stress of the big day so they could simply enjoy it. When Matt struggled to get his fledgling startup off the ground, Janessa offered to lend a hand. 

“Matt tried to do it on his own,” Janessa said. “Just him and a friend trying to organize weddings. After a bumpy few months, Matt finally said, ‘Do you think I should keep going with this?’ and I said, ‘Well, I know event coordination and customer service. Do you want me to help you? And he was like, ‘Sure!’ And two weeks later we had our first customer.” 

The Accidental Marketplace

Janessa left her job managing a local farm-to-table restaurant, and with Matt, founded Simply Eloped. At the time, she had no idea it would become the $8 million dream-building machine it is today. As well as crafting beautiful yet affordable elopements, Janessa credits much of their success to solving problems on the vendor side, those of Matt’s park-bench officiant. 

“If you’re an officiant or photographer, you have to market yourself,” said Janessa. “You need to pay to get yourself out there. Then you have to deal with leads and people asking you questions about scheduling, style, and all of that. Only a percentage of those leads are going to book you, and when they do, you have to manage the booking, the client, and so on.” 

The power of Simply Eloped, Janessa argues, is that it makes it easy for vendors to connect with clients. This has made Simply Eloped more of a marketplace than Janessa and Matt expected it to be. They solved a need on both sides: for customers, an affordable yet memorable wedding, and for vendors, an easy route to clients. 

“We vet vendors to ensure they’re a good cultural fit and then on-board them,” Janessa said. “We do all the marketing, advertising, and sales, and then we send them a booking request which they can accept or decline. It saves them so much effort and money. But it was all accidental. We kind of stumbled into becoming a marketplace.”

With the frustration taken out of the booking process, Janessa was able to negotiate lower rates from vendors, which helps keep elopement packages affordable. The “New York Urban Wildflower” package, for example, includes officiant, helper, flowers, photography, venue, and hair and makeup for just $4,500, which is a fraction of the average spent on traditional services. 

“Being able to negotiate a lower rate with our vendors helps us keep our prices low for customers while also maintaining a healthy margin so we can continue to grow the business,” Janess said. “And since vendors spend less time on lead generation and admin, they get more time to personalize and focus on ensuring the couples’ days are as special as possible.” 

The Tech and Teamwork Making Elopements Cool Again

Let’s be clear: wedding planning is a nightmare for most couples. It’s not just coordinating vendors, licenses, and guests that’s stressful, but finding the money to pay for it all. Over 60% have considered eloping due to financial constraints. But thanks to Simply Eloped’s people and technology, it can offer a day to remember with money to spare. 

“Our technology makes booking quick and easy,” said Janessa. “But you also get a committed customer experience rep to plan your wedding. They introduce you to vendors, ensure you’ve got your marriage license, coordinate your permit, and ensure your invoice is accurate. It’s their job to make your day go as planned. And it’s all baked into the final price.”

Couples need that personal touch because it’s such an important milestone, Janessa argues. It’s not enough to plan but to support and reassure. Janessa has built an amazing team that’s there for couples from the moment they inquire to the ceremony and beyond. With teamwork complementing the technology, Simply Eloped can organize a wedding in as little as 24 hours. 

“I always like to say we’re not selling a pair of shoes,” Janessa said. “People want human interaction for their wedding. I have a huge sales team that helps walk you through all the preliminary questions to instill confidence and build that initial relationship. Then I have a CX team that ensures the elopement goes off without a hitch.”

One of Janessa’s priorities in the early days was establishing a strong connection with every customer. For some, it was easy, but others had only a vague idea of what they’re looking for and it was Janessa’s job to tease that out using her experience of wedding planning and customer service. This helped establish Simply Eloped’s credibility. 

“I would sit down with couples and ask what they envisioned, what they wanted, and how we could tailor the wedding for them,” Janessa said. “I did a lot of listening at the beginning and a lot of personalizing, which instilled a lot of confidence in people in those early days. I now train my employees to do the same thing so we’re providing the same personal service as we scale.”

How Janessa Finds Couples to Marry

With a few elopements under her belt, Janessa tasked Matt with unleashing his digital marketing expertise to generate leads. They experimented with various campaigns, quickly realizing that performance depended on timing. Prospects must have already been thinking of marriage before they’d click. Facebook, for example, never worked, but Google Ads did. 

“Matt was a digital marketer, so he knew how to do SEO and Google Ads,” Janessa said. “To this day, Google ads are by far where most of our success comes from. The great thing is we can target regions where we’re popular and set a budget. So if someone types ‘elopement’ into Google from Colorado, for example, Simply Eloped is the first or second recommendation.”

Where Janessa has excelled in operations, Matt has contributed an enormous volume of leads through SEO and PR as well as paid advertising. “Enter any search term related to elopement and we usually usually rank first to third on the page,” Janessa said. “Matt has worked really hard at that over the last five years. Even without ads, we still get a ton of organic leads.”

Janessa’s team has married over 9,000 couples in under five years, many of whom refer friends and family: “We see a lot of people come to us saying ‘my cousin got married or my coworker got married through you.’” Each referral validates Janessa’s choice to stick to a niche in which she can deliver results – of not expanding their services to bigger and bigger weddings.  

Janessa defines elopement as a ceremony with fewer than 20 people. Focusing on a niche segment (elopements) has made it feasible to deliver on Simply Eloped’s promises. Had that number crept up, they’d have lost some of the flexibility and intimacy that has made Simply Eloped such a unique way to get married. 

“We chose 20 because we think your clan is an important part of the day,” Janessa said. “If we said just the two of you, it would cut some of that importance. But on the other hand, when you start having more than 20 guests, you start needing infrastructure like parking, bathrooms, and covered areas. And that takes away from the beauty of being able to do it anywhere.”

The Challenges of a Shifting Needle

Janessa treads a fine line between coordinating weddings and marketing them. “We have no margin for error,” Janessa said. “This is someone’s special day and they can’t get that day back. We have one chance to make it right. If anything goes wrong, we do our best to ensure the couple knows we care and we always go above and beyond to make things right.” 

It’s not easy balancing that kind of commitment with the seasonality of the business. While Janessa and Matt proudly invest everything into making couples happy, it leaves less in the bank to fund growth at quieter times of the year. It was this continous shift in priorities that pushed Janessa and Matt to consider raising money, which Janessa was reluctant to do at first. 

“Before Simply Eloped, I worked for a startup in Boise where I watched the terse relationship between the founder and his investors,” Janessa said. “After investing, they came in and tried to strong-arm him into changing the business model. Instead of supporting him, they tried to change everything, which ultimately led to its demise. It left a really bad taste in my mouth.”

But without a financial buffer, Janessa couldn’t see a way out: “We were on this weird treadmill where we got an influx of customers after the holidays and then I’d need a huge team to manage them. And then we’d need to pay them. And then we’d need more marketing dollars to get more customers. This self-limiting growth cycle kept us non-profitable for a long while.”

Everything changed when Simply Eloped accepted a pre-seed investment of $500,000. Although it was pocket change to what most startups raise nowadays, it was the solution to the seasonality problem Janessa had struggled with for so long. It also proved to be a lifeline during the pandemic when bookings dropped 90 percent and there were thousands of cancellations. 

“That little bit of capital helped us relax a bit and made sure we were doing the right things for the right reasons,” Janessa said. “Once COVID hit, people stopped getting married and canceled their bookings. If we hadn’t taken that capital, the business might not have survived without taking dramatic action. But having that padding in our bank account helped us out.” 

How Janessa Fostered the Right Company Culture

Like many founders, Janessa and Matt didn’t put much thought into the hiring process during the early stages of the business. If the person seemed able and friendly, they would get the job. But it didn’t take long for them to realize they were assembling a team without first ensuring they shared Simply Eloped’s values. This unfortunate oversight quickly became toxic. 

“We started seeing symptoms about three years in,” Janessa said. “A lot of gossip and dissension – neither of which are in line with who Matt and I are. I think we just had this attitude of, okay, we’re good people who are honest, transparent, and hardworking so that’s the model. We learned quickly that it wasn’t enough to expect the same from others.” 

They hired a leadership coach who helped them devise new interview processes, inductions, and training programs. Janessa now spends a lot of time talking about the company values and expectations during interviews to establish whether or not the candidate would flourish at Simply Eloped. This focus on culture has created a much happier team.

“It took us about three years to get intentional about culture,” Janessa said. “I think a lot of founders are so focused on product-market fit, customer service, retention, reviews, marketing, and all those things. It’s easy to overlook culture, especially if you’ve never run a business before. We have 30 employees and now we’ve got culture right, it’s transformed our business.” 

Whether it’s neglecting company culture, hiring the wrong people, or not developing leadership skills sooner, Janessa readily admits to her faults as a founder. “Bootstrapping forces you to play many roles, and you need to be comfortable with that,” Janessa said. “Lean into your weaknesses and supplement your strengths.” That’s great advice for any founder. 

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