How Carley Roney turned her disastrous wedding experience into a narrative that became the foundation for a $130M global brand
WHEN DISASTERS GO RIGHT
In 1996, Carley Roney, her husband David Liu, and two friends from film school, were sitting in a café trying to think of ways they could capitalize on this new thing called the Internet. They knew that it had all kinds of potential, it was just a matter of figuring out how to capitalize on it.
As they were brainstorming on industries and business ideas, one of Carley’s friends suggested that they go after the wedding market since Carley and Liu had recently gotten married.
That was the last thing on Carley’s mind. Planning for their wedding and the actual wedding day itself was such a disastrous experience. It was a memory they wanted to forget about, much less build a business on.
“We had such a horrible time planning our wedding and we’re like, oh god no! Please. We do not want to touch that with a 10 foot pole.”
Carley and Liu met in film school at New York University in the early 90’s. Carley was a freshman, David was a senior, and they only knew each other in passing during their overlapping time at NYU. Years later, they met again at a reunion event and immediately hit it off. They started dating and in a relatively short period of time, decided to get married.
The down side to their fast moving courtship was that they made a wedding date that only gave them seven weeks to plan the wedding. This was not much time to plan a wedding in a city they barely knew, and it was further complicated by the fact that they were planning and paying for the wedding themselves. On top of that, there weren’t a lot of resources for an interracial couple and there were no etiquette tips for modern couples available.
“I couldn’t find any ideas on how to plan a wedding for a little blonde girl marrying a 6 ft. tall Chinese guy – never mind finding a red wedding dress since my future mother-in-law informed me that white was the Chinese color of mourning!”
Every resource they found was tailored for a very narrow demographic that didn’t include them or their budget. At the time, Carley was working 70 hours-a-week and no vendors were open after she got done with working which was the only time she had to do any planning. To her, the industry was a nightmare because things were either impossible to find or outdated, and the things that she did find and liked were way out of her budget. It was cluttered and chaotic and bridal magazines hadn’t changed in decades.
To top it off, her wedding was on a rooftop in July without air conditioning on the hottest day in 10 years. It was a nightmare. Needless to say, Carley had come away from her wedding battered, frustrated and exhausted.
CHANGE OF HEART
Yet the more Carley thought about it, the more she wanted to make sure that no other bride went through the same nightmare scenario that she did. She believed that maybe this is exactly why she should go into the wedding business – because it was such mess.
“I knew there were so many women who felt the same frustrations I did when planning their wedding, so we launched TheKnot.com with one goal in mind – helping brides. They were our focus then, and they’re our focus to this day.”
For her and David, this was a way they could completely change the course of other brides and grooms lives as they’re planning their wedding.
That disastrous tale of her wedding day became the basis for communicating the vision of their new company, The Knot, and went on to be the centerpiece for every pitch that Carley told when describing the company to investors, customers, partners and the media. Carley and David capitalized on the very messiness that their competitors would avoid.
“In the early days, our tagline was, ‘Weddings for the Real World,’ ” Liu says. “We basically said ‘real world’ meant all the messy things we knew the traditional media publishers cannot and will not cover.” (excerpt from Success Magazine interview)
Carley and her team went on to pitch and secure an investment from AOL. The Knot quickly caught on and eventually became the top online wedding destination without ever spending “a dime” on marketing. By focusing on the lack of information, the difficulties in planning and executing, and the overall terrible experiences of pre-planning a wedding, Carley and her husband were able to take their company public only four years after they sat in that café.
Today, that concept of helping people plan for weddings and other life events generates over $130 million in revenue and is an international brand that spans across important life moments such as weddings (The Knot), pregnancies (The Bump) and new-born parents (The Nest) as part of their parent company, The XO Group. Carley has gone on to write 11 books and appears regularly as an advice consultant on television and on The Knot’s live TV channel.
WHAT YOU CAN LEARN FROM CARLEY RONEY
With Carley’s story and pitch, she secured huge funding from AOL. She turned her site into the number one wedding site in its segment. She took her company public. She expanded vertically up the family value chain from the wedding industry and launched two other businesses for pregnant women and parents of newborns. Now her parent company is a market leader in all three categories.
A key part of her success stems from her ability to tell great stories. And what makes Carley unique as a storyteller is that she can take any experience, especially a bad one, and turn it upon itself to demonstrate what a tremendous opportunity it is.
She uses her story to get attention, connect with audiences by showing vulnerability and create a lasting impression for any person that knows how important a wedding is to a bride to be.
It got her press. It got her customers. It got her partners. It got her investment. And it laid the foundation for her next two companies.
Here are some lessons you can learn from Carley Roney on storytelling when it comes to turning a personal disaster into a powerful asset in your entrepreneurial storytelling tool kit:
SHE INCORPORATED THE EXPERIENCE AS PART OF HER STORY & PITCH
Once Carley realized the opportunity they were sitting on, in serving a small, but growing niche in the wedding industry, she decided to convert what happened to her into an advantage instead of just a bad memory. She turned the story of a bad experience into a business calling card.
“The Knot was the result of my husband and I having a disastrous wedding planning experience. And so we parlayed our disaster into a story to help other women go through the life stage of planning a wedding and all that goes into it.” ~ Carley Roney
The story became the cornerstone for how she communicated the target market they were going after, the reason it was so desperately needed, and the growth potential of what this could become with the coming explosion of the Internet.
The way she passionately showed the void in the market – the tremendous need that had to be fulfilled and how she was going to fulfill it and change things for the better – was all communicated in her storytelling.
This positioning helped catapult the Knot into becoming one of the largest wedding networks online and changed the whole wedding industry landscape in the process.
Carley literally turned one of the worst days of her life, her wedding day, into the foundation for her business – the Knot.
SHE SHARED THE EMOTIONS AS WELL AS THE FACTS
A wedding day is one of the most important moments in a woman’s life (and for some men, too). The planning process is supposed to be full of joy and anticipation while the actual wedding day is one to be cherished and remembered for the rest of her life. It’s a day that every bride hopes will be perfect. Carley’s experience was anything, but that.
In the case of Carley, when you hear her share her story, you just don’t hear about the sequence of events that went wrong, you feel what she went through when it happened. It’s almost as if she is reliving the terrible feelings and going through the experience as if it happened yesterday. She speaks honestly about which make her relatable to any audience and helps build trust and rapport with them. She shares the emotions that she felt on top of the facts and events. This enables Carley to connect with people – especially brides to be in the case of The Knot, on a much deeper level than if she was just talking about they physical things that went wrong.
SHE TURNED HER ORDEAL INTO A MISSION TO HELP OTHERS
Carley wanted to make sure her bad experience would never happen to anyone else.
If you are a potential bride, you can relate to what happened to her – a wedding day that would end up as catastrophe would be devastating.
So Carley and her husband parlayed these potential disasters with a dream to help other women go through the life stage of planning a wedding and all that goes into it.
By using this as her focal point for storytelling, she connected into the enormous wedding market and the struggle that women have in trying to plan their weddings.
This story triggers the emotions in any bride to be – a guaranteed connection because of how important a wedding day is. At the same time, the story lets you know emphatically that Carley doesn’t want that to ever happen to anyone else. That is why the Knot is what it is and why she will always be dedicated to creating the best online source for brides.
Her emotional delivery complemented by extremely good descriptive skills makes for a powerful combination in sharing her story, her vision for the Knot, and why what The Knot offers is something that people want to have
HOW TO TURN DISASTERS IN YOUR FAVOR
Remember these 3 things when it comes telling a story about less than perfect experiences:
- BAD = GOOD
- EMOTIONS + FACTS > FACTS
- PROBLEMS NEED RESOLUTION
1. BAD = GOOD: EMBRACE THE IDEA THAT BAD EXPERIENCES MAKE GREAT STORIES
Bad experiences make great stories. Remember that.
Bad stories grab attention. People are drawn to hearing about how bad things happen to people. It’s not that we are inherently bad or that we like to see people suffer. Part of it stems from our DNA make-up and survival storytelling. Such as in pre-historic times, avoiding a bad situation meant the difference between life and death (avoid the sabertooth tiger near the tribes watering hole). And part of it is that people rarely tell you the bad stuff that happens to them, so it is intriguing.
Storytelling is captivating when something goes wrong. Especially when it goes terribly wrong.
The good thing is you can turn that human trait in your favor by transforming a bad personal experience, embarrassing moment, or catastrophic business mistake into a powerful story. And more often than not, the worse the experience, the better. Of course, that story needs to be relevant in some way to what you are doing &/or the business that you are pursuing.
2. EMOTIONS + FACTS ARE BETTER THAN FACTS ALONE. BE VULNERABLE
It’s not enough to share the actual sequence of events that happened during your experience, you need to share the human side of what happened. Incorporate the emotions that you felt as well. Let them know how it impacted you or those that the experienced happened to.
The best stories do more than simply present a believable picture, they captivate the audience and tie their emotions to what is possible.
What happens in storytelling is that you are able to leverage those terrible things that happened to you or to others or that exist in society into a more captivating and compelling story that really draws the people in
You want to let them in and be vulnerable to them. Let your life be messy for a change. This will enable you to touch the heart of your audience because it will make you more relatable to them. Let the audience experience the struggle with you
NOTE: Though you want to tell a good story, don’t get stuck in the mud of your bad experience. Focus on what makes it interesting and make sure it sets your listener up for what the result was from that experience. It needs to be relevant to what you are doing now – or don’t share it.
3. PROBLEMS REQUIRE RESOLUTION: HI-LIGHT HOW ‘YOU’ CAN SOLVE IT
The real opportunity in your bad experience is the fact that problems beg for resolution once they are presented. Simply by sharing a problem you are creating a sense of anticipation in your audience that there is more to the story and they are inclined to find out what exactly that is.
You can turn your disaster into a problem that you are perfectly situated to solve. Who better knows how to solve the problem than someone that actually experienced what it means to suffer from it first hand? So rather than being just a story about a bad experience that you had and how it had an distinct emotional impact on you (or others), you are laying the foundation for the idea you want to present or the solution you want to provide as an entrepreneur.
A bonus part of this approach to storytelling is that people want to help others. We all want, in our own way, to be part of the solution or support those that offer solutions to big problems. It makes us feel needed and it gives us a sense of fulfillment to know that we helped others in some way. People love being part of something that provides a solutions to others. A chance to make a meaningful difference in the world, an opportunity to be part of something special, or simply a to make significant financial returns.
Hence, don’t be don’t be afraid to share bad stuff. Chronicle your failures and the big mistakes you have made. Make sure they are experiences that are relevant and/or help bring home your message relative to what you are doing. Weave in the emotions you felt while going through that experience and then introduce the solution you are providing that will solve all the worlds problems – or at least this one.
I love being around Carley and the aura she exudes. She is fun, full of energy, and her passion is infectious. It’s no wonder she has been able to turn her desire to help others into a global brand that supports women and families in some of the most precious moments in their lives.
Here are some videos to give you a variety of perspectives in her storytelling style:
SXSW Dell Center for Entrepreneurs Event – The Beginnings Story
CITI-LINKEDIN – Carley Roney on the Power of Enthusiasm – Connect Professional’s Womens Network
I was fortunate to meet and film Carley Roney at a Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network (DWEN) at Heidi Messer’s (founder of Linkshare) home in New York City for a women entrepreneur video series. DWEN connects top female business leaders from around the world to foster better access to human networks, sources of capital, knowledge and technology and this series features women entrepreneurs that had leveraged technology to grow their business. She told a funny story about having to carefully drive their server in the back seat of their car at 3am on a weekend night so their users would experience very little downtime (this is pre-cloud) and then reconnected it themselves.
This clip accentuates her skill as a storyteller as well – she can make almost any topic, even something as mundane as a server, seem compelling and fascinating because she makes it feel real, infusing it with emotional delivery and taking you with her on that 3am ride. You don’t feel as if she is shilling for a corporation – she is telling a story about an event and relating it to technology and her business which makes you feel that maybe technology can help you too.
Carley Roney, The Knot: The Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network Series – DWEN