Carley Roney has enough energy to power a speeding freight train. It is this energy that feeds her constant stream of business ideas, fierce tenacity for success and tireless dedication to her three children. It is also this energy that has catapulted The Knot, an online and print hub for all things wedding, to the forefront of the bridal industry for more than 15 years.
Roney’s story started back in 1996 when she was a 24-year-old, frustrated bride. “Imagine planning a wedding with no Internet and email; it was a nightmare,” she says. Convinced there had to be a better way, she teamed up with her husband, David Liu, and two former New York University classmates to start what is now XO Group (formerly The Knot). In addition to serving the wedding community with message boards, a print magazine, robust e-commerce offerings, gift registries and resources for everything from dresses to venues, New York City-based XO Group boasts reported revenues of $130 million and now also controls The Bump, a site for pregnant women, and The Nest, a resource for parents.
“We went from a few people in the early days to now about 700 employees,” Roney says. “We have five offices in the U.S. and recently started a leg in China with offices in Beijing and Shanghai. We have 80 people over there.”
Key to her company’s success: “Failing fast,” she says. “I recommend all entrepreneurs try new things on a regular basis. Here at XO Group, we promote colossal failures so people can see that we are open to taking risks. It is a great way to learn.”
Take me back to 1996. Was The Knot your first attempt at a business?
Nope. David and I finished NYU and started a digital agency back in 1995, making CD-ROMs for companies. Remember CD-ROMS? [Laughs] That seems like so long ago now. We built the agency, but soon wanted to create something bigger. We knew the Internet was going to explode so we started talking about verticals we could explore. We didn’t want to go into music because we thought someone else would do that. Same with sports. Then it hit us: weddings!
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How did you get The Knot started?
We pitched the idea of a bridal social network/online magazine to AOL. Our idea was to offer advice to brides and catalog-style information on the Web. We would sell ads to generate revenue.
Was AOL into it?
Not at first. Back then there was no such thing as online ads. We pitched them with the idea that more than 2 million families in the U.S. spend upwards of $20,000 on weddings every year. There were tons of fat wedding magazines with lots of ads so why couldn’t AOL get a piece of that pie? They finally agreed to the idea, but wanted to call it Weddings Online. We pushed for The Knot. We wanted something edgy and ended up landing $1.7 million in funding, which was a ton of money at the time.
What challenges did you face in the early days?
Oh, there were so many challenges. First off, no one knew how to do what we were doing. Everyone told us to find mentors or companies to model ourselves after, but there were no such companies. We really had to trust our gut instincts every step of the way.
Another problem was finding talent. There wasn’t any. Some people sort of knew HTML, but we really had to teach most of our employees from scratch. We had to believe in people’s passion over their experience.
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A third problem, I guess a good one in hindsight, was being ahead of our time on several initiatives, like online bridal registries. Our brides loved the idea of registering for things online and allowing guests to buy online; the problem was convincing their friends and family to shop online. No one trusted the Internet.
We also made an online video streaming platform two years before the birth of YouTube. Again, the audience wasn’t ready for it. Both of these things worked later on, though. Today we have an incredible registry system and put out a ton of video content.
What is it like to work with your husband every day? Do you ever get a chance to relax?
Our relaxation comes in the two minutes between brushing our teeth and putting our head down on the pillow. But, really, I love working with David. It is an opposites-attract kind of situation and our strengths have helped us make sound business decisions over the years, especially in terms of growth. David is more able to look three years down the road whereas I am better at looking three months ahead. We balance each other out.
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Katie Morell is an independent journalist based in San Francisco. She regularly contributes to Hemispheres, USA Today, Consumers Digest, Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, Crain’s Chicago Business and others.
Photos from top: iStockphoto, Courtesy of XO Group