Sisters launch multi-state wedding business

Brackett’s comments were edited for length and clarity.


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Each Sunday, the AJC brings you insights from metro Atlanta’s leaders and entrepreneurs. Matt Kempner’s “Secrets of Success” shares the vision and realities of entrepreneurs who started their dreams from scratch. The column alternates with Henry Unger’s “5 Questions for the Boss,” which reveals the lessons learned by CEOs of the area’s major companies and organizations.

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Brackett’s tips for going into the wedding industry:

— Remember it’s the service industry. Be humble.

— Be prepared to wear lots of hats. You’ll do it all.

— Have fun. Regularly remind yourself about positive things you’ve accomplished.

— The wedding industry has high and low seasons. Save up to get through the low ones.

We Tie The Knots

Based in Johns Creek and Denver.

She and her older sister, Christyn Wilkins, launched wedding planning business We Tie The Knots in 2011 in Georgia and in Colorado, where Christyn lives. Last year they started a franchise side to the business, becoming what they believe is the nation’s first franchised wedding planning business in the nation.

Callie Brackett, 27-year-old co-founder and partner.

Annual revenue: About $200,000 from the wedding planning operations last year, plus $75,000 from selling franchises last year.

Number of weddings planned: 70 last year. Projecting more than 300 this year.

Ownership: Each sister owns 42.5 percent of We Tie The Knots. Another 15 percent is owned by investors, one of them an investment firm where their dad is a partner.

Business: We Tie The Knots has its own planners stationed inside the Atlanta perimeter and in Denver, Charlotte and Orlando. Their average fee for wedding planning is $3,500 to $4,000. They also have sold franchises for territories in Denver, Athens, Gwinnett, North Fulton, Cobb and West Georgia. The franchisees buy their territory, pay monthly royalties and help fund advertising. They are supposed to abide by We Tie The Knots standards and can operate under the name. They have flexibility to scale the size of their business.

Staff: 5 full-time employees not including the two sisters, several part timers and several franchisees.

Brackett’s pay: She and her sister each made about $30,000 their first year, which later grew to about $75,000 annually before they cut their salaries this year to help fund the business’ growth.

Her hours: About 40 hours a week when she started. Now, at least 60 hours a week.

“Christyn and I were just talking and realized we felt very stuck where we were.”

“You deal with the unexpected every single day. Weddings can bring out the worst in brides. They are all very stressed.”

“It is really easy to stay stressed out. You need to remember that going into business yourself is ultimately for it to be more rewarding.”

“… we didn’t necessarily want to be at weddings every single weekend of our life.”

Callie Brackett was 22, just a year out of college and frustrated that other people were determining her career success. Turns out her older sister, living across the country, was feeling the same way.

Together they launched a wedding planning business, Callie in metro Atlanta and her then 26-year-old sister Christyn Wilkins in Denver. One crucial skill: making the wedding day stress-free (well, except for the til-death-do-us -part part) and fixing problems before the bride finds out.

A year ago they took a major leap, hiring wedding planners to work for them as well as franchising the business to others. They believe We Tie The Knots is the first franchise wedding planning business in the nation. They expect it to do more than 300 weddings this year at an average of $3,500 to $4,000 a pop. But they face a new twist. Callie just gave birth to her first baby. Christyn is due for hers in early May.

Out of college, both my sister and I dove straight into the corporate world of work. She did broadcasting with ESPN. She was contract part time. She did X Games, live broadcasting. I was a journalism major and I worked just as freelance. I started doing wedding photography on the side. That’s when I realized this is chaotic without a wedding planner.

Christyn and I were just talking and realized we felt very stuck where we were. Wedding planning is something we always had a desire to do, but just never took the initiative. We did some research and realized how many weddings are happening. It’s like 35,000 just here in Atlanta (each year).

The most appealing thing to this job, with the two of us just planning weddings ourselves, there wasn’t a whole lot of upfront cost. Maybe $1,000 (for) some advertising, a web site, an online wedding planning certification course.

It took time to really get established. We certainly lost business because of our lack of experience. We felt like we could relate to brides because we were a little bit younger.

We did a couple of friends’ weddings. We started making connections with vendors. Photographers, bakeries, venues. We asked them: “What is most helpful for you when working with a wedding planner? Now, probably 65 percent of our business is referred by vendors, mostly venues, because that’s who brides book first.

The industry is so unregulated, so we wanted to start setting that standard. We were just figuring things out along the way. Setting prices. Creating legal contracts.

The most time consuming part was we wanted to systematize everything so it’s the same for every wedding. Basically a to-do list for each package we offer. We set how many days out from their wedding should you book a photographer, a florist, a caterer. Now we have a like a 75-page training manual just documenting how to do everything.

We would document things that came up on the wedding day. The photographer not showing up: what do you do? The florist delivering flowers to the wrong place: what do you do? How to adjust your timeline.

You deal with the unexpected every single day. Weddings can bring out the worst in brides. They are all very stressed. Everyone wants their opinions to be heard. Our goal is to ultimately hear the bride and what she wants, but at the same time still make the mom happy, because she is probably the one paying.

Unexpected complications, from family squabbles to wardrobe malfunctions, are part of the job.

We had a divorced family. I think the biological dad wanted to walk her down the aisle. Her stepdad was the one who was paying for the wedding that she was closer to. We had both dads fighting over who was going to walk her down the aisle the day of the rehearsal.

(Another time) we had a bagpiper show up to walk the bride down the aisle. He forgot his kilt and was in like his farm clothes about 10 minutes before the ceremony started. We ended up putting him in the balcony where nobody could see him but he could still play.

My sister had a wedding in Colorado where the bridal party was sneaking in narcotics. Luckily the bride never found out about it. The venue was ready to shut the place down and call the police. My sister was like, “Let me handle this.” (She and the photographer) said they wanted to do a group photo outside. Got everyone outside and then handled the situation.

Building a brand takes a lot longer than anyone thinks. We could meet with brides all day long but if you don’t have the portfolios of past weddings, they probably don’t care.

We paid ourselves when we booked the brides. There were three or four months where we didn’t get to pay ourselves. It was helpful having consistent income from the husbands.

It is really easy to stay stressed out. You need to remember that going into business yourself is ultimately for it to be more rewarding. My sister and I have to tell ourselves this all the time. We make it a point to call each other and point out the positives that have happened that week.

The sisters’ own family dynamics are good, Callie says.

Working with her was one of the most rewarding parts of this. We see each other at least once a month and we talk (by video conference) every single day. One of the most challenging things was when we decided to expand the company, we had to talk about our strengths and weaknesses, and determine who is going to manage what part of the business.

I do more of the management support side. She does more of the sales, marketing, creative. We’ve never come up against something we couldn’t talk about or get solved.

There were other advantages to broadening their business.

I don’t want to just make the average income salary for the rest of my life. And we didn’t necessarily want to be at weddings every single weekend of our life.

They raised money from investors by selling minority interests. Then they hired others to take over day-to-day wedding planning duties. They also started selling franchises to spread We Tie The Knots further.

It probably cost close $50,000 in legal work (for the franchise setup). We spent another 10 gran re-branding and creating a web site. One of our biggest challenges is finding the right people to work for us. People that can maintain our brand, are somewhat business savvy while also having the quality to be a wedding planner.

Callie says she and her sister can handle leading a company and having newborns at the same time. They are taking a few weeks off and temporarily going slow on recruiting and training more franchisees.

Neither of us can sit still too long. We are not going to let this stop us.

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