How CEO Tim Chi helped create a Chevy Chase tech company couples can't seem to live without
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Photos by Justin Tsucalas
Car culture is emblematic of life in California, and the Beach Boys’ “Little Deuce Coupe” vibe resonated in the sunny and affluent Newport Beach neighborhood of Corona del Mar, where Tim Chi grew up. The 16-year-old Chi believed all those cars would require regular washings. So he and a high school buddy pooled their allowances and borrowed money from their families in order to purchase equipment and supplies for a car wash business. They designed a logo, printed business cards, canvassed the city and waited for customers to roll in. And waited. Until the boys’ parents couldn’t stand it anymore and told them they could work off their debts by washing their cars—say, several hundred times.
What Chi recalls, however, was his fervor for the idea, how cool it was to have a logo, and how it might have worked if they’d had a marketing plan. “What I remember is that it was a passion project, there was something fun about it,” Chi says. That enthusiasm, the sense of business bravado, was rekindled as an undergraduate at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, when he helped found course management software provider CourseInfo, and again with its more evolved national successor, the D.C.-based Blackboard.
This entrepreneurial ardor reached an apotheosis of sorts for Chi when, in 2006, he and some of his Cornell/Blackboard colleagues conceived a startup called WeddingWire Inc. The concept was simple: The business would take the frustration out of wedding planning and provide a one-stop site where couples could browse everything from dresses to venues, and choose vendors based on reviews. Think of it as an assembly kit for nuptial novices, enhanced by the business reviews popularized by Trip Advisor, Yelp and similar sites.
A decade later, WeddingWire is highly profitable and having the best honeymoon ever. It is the dominant technology company serving the $100 billion wedding industry, an online wedding planning resource designed to serve both engaged couples and wedding professionals. Couples have the ability to search, compare and book more than 100,000 reviewed wedding vendors, such as photographers, DJs and florists. WeddingWire also offers a comprehensive suite of planning aids, including budget tools, checklists and seating charts. For vendors, WeddingWire positions itself as an all-in-one marketing platform.
Headquartered above the Friendship Heights Metro station, WeddingWire has grown exponentially since the days when fellow Blackboard founder Lee Wang, Jeff Yeh and Sonny Ganguly began operations in the pink dining room of Chi’s former home in Chevy Chase off Grubb Road. Now, some 550 employees occupy three floors at 2 Wisconsin Circle, part of a worldwide presence in 15 markets with a workforce approaching 1,000. The headquarters features an open office concept, with long tables named after Maui, St. Lucia and other vacation spots, colorful wall décor and amenities such as pingpong tables and massage chairs. Chi and the other C-suite executives share a glass-enclosed office. The company’s annual revenue is ticking toward $100 million after reaching $73 million in 2015. In February of that year, WeddingWire acquired Wedding Planner S.L., the owner of international brands such as Bodas.net and a global database of 150,000 wedding professionals in Europe and South America. GayWeddings.com came into the fold in June 2015, adding a burgeoning new market.Currently, WeddingWire is building a network in India, a country famed for three- and four-day ceremonies and countless outfit changes.
Kara DelVecchio (left), Elizabeth Baird and Emily Markmann meet with Tim Chi, who estimates he spends 50 to 75 percent of his time on matters relating to employees.
When you’re helping to create an emotional milestone in people’s lives, a service such as WeddingWire can evoke strong opinions. Last year, Katherine Warchut of Burlington, Vermont, plunged down the rabbit hole of wedding planning with her fiancé from Chevy Chase and realized she needed a better understanding of costs and the specific services that venues and vendors provide. WeddingWire, she says, gave her a cost breakdown by venue, including site fees by season and catering per person, among other things. “It saved me hours, if not days, trying to figure out what was in my budget and what wasn’t,” she says. Vendors are both reviewed and reviewers. Iman Huschmand, a Rockville-based DJ, said in a Yelp posting, “If you are a wedding industry pro, or aspiring to be one, you’re not existent unless you are on WW and have solid reviews.”
The site also gets its share of negative reviews from advertisers, mainly citing WeddingWire’s rate structure or accusing the company of removing unfavorable reviews of top advertisers. To the latter point, Chi says, “There’s no amount of money that’s worth compromising the integrity of the business.” As to whether the company’s rates are too high, Chi says: “Our goal is to price fairly. We don’t get paid by the consumers. The only way we can grow is to get more vendors, so our success is directly tied to our ability to drive business to them.”
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