U.S. Markets close in 2 hrs 21 mins

Lover.ly: Online Wedding Planning Is in Season

Lover.ly, a New York City based business started by Kellee Khalil, at first glance looks like a Pinterest for weddings. But on this site, you don’t just discover ideas -- you also find items to buy and people to hire.

Even the simplest weddings are spun out of a massive, often chaotic business. Massive: More than $50 billion is spent on weddings in the U.S. annually, according to The Wedding Report. Chaotic: See New York City sidewalks littered with exhausted brides standing in line ahead of a sample sale, or the classic “Running of the Brides” event at Filene's Basement. Khalil's goal with Lover.ly is to stop the insanity and make wedding planning a prettier business.

The site aims to be “the intersection of inspiration and transaction,” says Khalil, who comes from a family of entrepreneurs. You don’t "pin" or "like" a dress – but you do love it, bundle it, rent it or buy it.

As you do on Pinterest, you search for highly specific combinations, such as “blue lace bridesmaid dress” or “1920s style veil." Then you can purchase those things if you so choose. Lover.ly carries more than 1,300 brands and also features the who’s who of wedding bloggers in the “love notes” section. And on April 2, it's launching an iPhone app.

Problem and solution

How did Khalil find herself in the wedding-business space? It all began as a family affair. Her sister started a public relations firm, Be Inspired PR, to help hotels, dress designers and others in the wedding industry market themselves online. Khalil, who was at the time working at a brokerage financing commercial equipment, came on board to help during the launch. A few weeks in, her sister got engaged and named Khalil as Maid of Honor. Suddenly Khalil was helping her sister’s wedding business during the day and planning her nuptials at night. It was all weddings, all the time.

With her sister's business, "it was difficult to do a basic search, and we were on a number of sites,” Khalil says. “There was no place to look for an evergreen bridesmaid dress, for instance.” So she had an idea. “Wouldn’t it be great if I could search for ideas and things to buy all in one place?”

In July 2010, she moved to New York City with the aim of helping expand her sister’s business out East. But within a few months, after getting the valuable advice of a few key entrepreneurs in the area, she realized she had the personal network and the knowhow -- not to mention the crucial idea -- to venture out on her own.

Her sister understood Khalil's need to branch out. “I think it was a shock at first," Khalil says, "but she is a huge supporter of us and works closely with Lover.ly. They work with clients, we are an emerging platform – complementary businesses. We still work very closely.”

Made of love … and hard work and investment

Shortly after her 26th birthday in August, 2010, Khalil invested $75,000 of her own money in her idea and herself – putting $50,000 toward a prototype and legal fees and living on the remaining $25,000 while she hatched Lover.ly. In January 2011, she incorporated and found an agency to help build a prototype, which would be done by June of that year. “It was a year of business development, design iterations, recruiting and hiring,” she says. She was ultimately able to raise another $500,000 in funding and launched lover.ly on Valentines Day of 2012.

Now Lover.ly has 11 full time employees, six interns and a number of freelance designers, and things are bustling. During a typical day, Khalil has as many as five meetings by noon, works until 4 p.m., has meetings again until 6 p.m., and attends at least three business dinners or networking events a week.

M is for marriage and monetization

Lover.ly began monetization in January and, about a month ago, it rolled out its current iteration, introducing a search and shopping engine. Lover.ly makes money the same way Google does -- cost per click every time they drive traffic to a retailer. Khalil says she’s seen “tremendous growth” in the first 90 days and projects the company will be profitable by the end of the year.

Lover.ly also represents 35 of the biggest wedding bloggers, selling ads for them as one form of revenue. Bloggers might otherwise never be able to do a deal with Kwiat or Nordstrom, so if one of those brands wants to run an ad campaign, Lover.ly handles it, Khalil says.

“Unlike most tech startups, we have a real monetization strategy,” she says. “Now that it’s turned on, revenue is growing month over month.” On aggregate, she says, lover.ly and its network of sites generates 2.5 million uniques per month, and traffic to Lover.ly alone is up about 75% for the year.

Timing has been good. The recession led to a movement for more homespun weddings, and brides turned to online resources to help them plan the weddings they wanted, no matter the budget, Khalil says.

Lover.ly recently partnered with women's magazine Real Simple. “They wanted to expand their presence online and open up a wedding channel, and they opened up with us to channel that content,” says Khalil. “It’s a brand I love and respect, and it was very cool to see them partner with a 1.5-year-old company and a site that’s only been live for 12 months.”

The team is creating experiences beyond the online world as well. Every October and April, Lover.ly holds an event around bridal fashion week, where bloggers, brides, vendors and photographers can get a sneak peek at new products.

Lover.ly also has an inside look at what's trending in bridal. “We realized pretty early on as we were tracking user performance that we can tell in real time – color schemes designers, dress styles,” Khalil says. Some of those trends they are using for editorial content – for instance, when a twisted bow on the neckline emerges as a trend, lover.ly will have editorial content to match. Partners and brands, not surprisingly, have shown an interest in this data as well.

Beyond weddings

The platform, search engine and monetization strategy that Khalil has developed could be adapted for other spaces, like home decorating or parenting, for instance. And it might not be too long before she ventures into the next vertical. Khalil has already acquired another domain name and plans to put it to use before the end of the year.

Of course, even with a few iterations behind Lover.ly, it's still early and profits are just projections. Monetization was just one of many key milestones in the months ahead for Khalil.

“We’re constantly keeping our ear to the street and asking for feedback on an ongoing basis, and we modify our roadmap based on what we’re hearing and the data we’re seeing,” she says. “It really is users, customers, partners directing the product and experience we’re creating.”