Step off the elevators on the third floor of Two Wisconsin Circle in Chevy Chase, Md., and you might think you've been teleported to Silicon Valley.
The walls are painted bright orange. Crowds of stylishly dressed 20-somethings chat over lunch while a ping-pong ball is swatted back and forth. Nearby is a Zen room for meditation and quiet thinking, and a single executive office where all six of the company's top managers work side by side.
You aren't in California. But you have arrived at the virtual epicenter of the wedding industry.
WeddingWire Inc. is a 7-year-old company that has quickly become an essential resource for engaged couples and wedding vendors, offering consumer reviews, planning features and technological tools for small businesses. The site's traffic is spiking as newly engaged couples start planning their weddings; in January 2013, the network logged 40 million total visits. Now with close to 300 employees, it was recently named one of Deloitte's Technology Fast 500 companies as a result of its dramatic growth.
Just don't expect swaths of tulle and lace to run through the halls. This is a cutting-edge technology company; the $70 billion wedding market just happens to be the lucrative target of its services.
Necessity isn't the only mother of invention. Frustration usually works just as well. And in 2005, Timothy Chi spent plenty of time banging his head against a wall as he and his fiancee attempted to plan a wedding in her hometown of Toronto. Strapped for time, they would fly up on weekends, interview dozens of vendors who all seemed to run together and then fly home in a daze. Chi's sister and several of his friends were also planning weddings — and each couple seemed as exasperated as the next.
"I was like, 'As a technologist, I don't understand why it needs to be so difficult,' " remembers Chi, a smiley presence who has carried his Southern California casualness with him to the East Coast. Chi, 37, was one of the original co-founders of Blackboard, the educational software firm that's become one of the Washington region's biggest tech success stories.
Blackboard had grown into a large company by the time Chi was getting married, and he found himself itching to return to the startup life. The wedding planning process seemed ripe for innovation.
In classic startup fashion, Chi recruited three friends and former colleagues to work on the idea; in 2007, the site was launched.
At first, it focused only on the Washington area, asking brides and grooms to review wedding vendors the same way diners rate restaurants on Yelp. The reviews proved to be hugely popular and a big driver of business for florists, DJs, caterers and wedding planners.
As the site grew, it expanded its geographic reach and added content and planning tools. Now engaged couples can turn to WeddingWire for information on the latest trends in bridal fashion and etiquette, and they can use it to host their own wedding website or manage their budget.
Brides and grooms don't pay to use WeddingWire. The company makes money by charging vendors for premium placement on the site. And in recent years the firm has been adding more tools to help merchants reach and serve clients, whether by managing their social media presence or digitizing vendor contracts so they can be signed and stored online.
The plan going forward is to focus on more of the same: helping people planning events find the right merchants to serve them. Chris Jaeger, a Boston marketing consultant who works with wedding vendors, says that by doing that, the company's significant impact on the industry will continue to deepen.
"They understand how brides are using the Internet," he says. "WeddingWire is all about connecting brides and vendors. That's it. They all do it, and they do it well."