The first time I visited HQ Raleigh in early 2014, I knew it was providing something special for Raleigh’s entrepreneurs and start-ups. Immediately upon walking in, I could feel the energy. People were racing through the halls, some congregating and sharing ideas near the bar, and scores of teams working together diligently behind glass offices. Everyone seemed inspired and with purpose. I knew this wasn’t an ordinary workspace. While there, I would continuously hear about WedPics and their CEO / Co-Founder, Justin Miller. As the head of the fastest growing crowd sourced wedding app on the market, Justin and his team are helping to define Raleigh’s startup boom. We sat down with local hustler and successful entrepreneur, Justin Miller, for our latest installment of Raleigh Hustle’s Hard.
From a networking perspective, HQ Raleigh was a huge boost to WedPics. “We didn’t know anybody at the time because we spent 18 hours a day in my basement building the app.” However, the road there wasn’t always clear. Justin graduated from the NCSU School of Design with a major in graphic design. And like many graduates in Raleigh before this current culture of entrepreneurship took hold, Justin accepted a corporate design job at IBM. At the time, Justin was intrigued with what was happening in social media and curated content online. His experience with large-scale marketing events at IBM presented a chance to capitalize on what he saw as a wasted opportunity. “There was a major fault on the marketing side where IBM would spend millions of dollars on these large scale events, and after the fact there was no way for them to easily gather the photos from all the participants.”
Founded in 2011 in Justin’s basement, Deja Mi was conceived around concerts and other live events, to provide a location-based platform for event-goers to share experiences and form a connection socially. This was pre-hashtag days so aggregating that experience in a concise way without social connections was difficult. “Early on we had some friends and family that believed in the idea and were willing to cut us checks. We got really lucky. We were basically working for peanuts so I extended equity where possible, which provided much needed incentive and drive.” Most of the people who started at Deja Mi in the beginning are still working together today. After merging with a Durham startup at the end of 2011, the company doubled to twelve people.
Upon merging, the first build of Deja Mi was scrapped and rebuilt from scratch. “We rolled out the new version, Apple featured it in 90 countries as a new and noteworthy app and Deja Mi started getting 6k+ downloads a day with no marketing.” Unfortunately, when Apple stopped pushing the app, momentum quickly fizzled. In early 2012, with funding waning and no clear vision ahead, they began exploring other use cases for the idea. After a great response to the app at a local bridal event, they began looking hard at the $50bn wedding market. “It just made sense. In this space, we could provide a real solution to a problem that actually existed.” With WedPics, they could replace the need for disposable cameras at weddings and provide a tool to aggregate all of the content from guests, who may or may not know each other, but can still share collectively in the experience.
By the time WedPics launched in 2012, they had received some great press locally, and nationally from most of the major tech companies. Unfortunately, not all press was good press - at least not at first. After an N&O article featured Justin and the team, they were quickly served with an eviction notice from Justin’s basement or they would face fines in excess of $500 per day. Again, Justin used social media as a solution. He shared his ordeal and was immediately flooded with not only offers for working space, but also $25k in funding from a local angel investor. The team ultimately landed at HQ Raleigh. This was the perfect springboard for partnerships with other companies and outside funding. “It was just a really good connector”, said Justin.
WedPics didn’t start as the robust platform it is today. Ultimately, Justin sees simplicity as a reason for WedPics early and continued success. “When you come up with an idea, there is a tendency to want to put every piece of functionality in it, so it’s as big and powerful as possible. That is where you think the bar is set, but that’s absolutely wrong.” Justin and his team stripped WedPics down to the bare minimum. “We had giant whiteboards on the wall of my basement where we’d list every feature we wanted in the app, then each day would come in and erase multiple features.” They were left with only the functionality necessary to make the app work. After the launch, Justin and his team carefully monitored the backend analytics to understand how people were using the app and what kind of feedback they provided. Coupled with constant competitor analysis, they took that insight to evolve the product and scale the capabilities of the platform. “Luckily, in our market we had a huge advantage, because brides love to provide feedback, whether good or bad. Listening to our audience was key.”
Fast-forward to 2016, WedPics has received over $12M in outside funding and has grown into the #1 wedding app on the market. Operating in every country and with over 5 million dedicated users, the thirty-person team has made an undeniable impact in the wedding industry. Over 1 million photos are shared from the 10k+ weddings hosted on the app each week. While the app has triumphed significantly from an acquisition perspective, WedPics began moving from an acquisition-based model to a revenue-based model in January. Along with its app invite cards and hi-res printed photos, which account for most of the current revenue, they’ve diversified their revenue models by bringing in non-traditional advertising. “We sell dedicated email lists, as well as offering impressions for hand selected retailers inside of the app.” WedPics now also provides an opt-in opportunity where retailers can offer exclusive deals and connect with its customers directly. “We’ve taken a different approach to advertising and are currently testing this model to understand it’s scalability and how it resonates with our audience.” He says that so far it’s been well adopted.
Justin has become an unofficial ambassador for Raleigh, even accompanying Mayor Nancy McFarlane to speak at SXSW. He credits both the city and the continuously deep talent pool for much of its recent success. “Now that we’re getting a larger footprint of small business and tech, options for graduates have expanded to much more than just corporate opportunities. This makes Raleigh much more attractive for an early stage entrepreneur. The cost of living and creating a business is so low in Raleigh, it really provides the opportunity to operate with much lower risk.”
While Justin agrees that Raleigh can be a nourishing environment for entrepreneurs, he recognizes the challenges of evolving from the old way of doing things. Bureaucracy and lack of innovative, solution-focused thinking sometimes presents a real challenge to helping new ideas materialize. “Things aren’t as complicated as they are sometimes made to be. Instead of always going by the book or saying no when an idea reaches uncharted territory, I’d like to see the city think bigger picture and be a partner in developing innovative solutions.” Justin has been trying to launch his side project, El Taco Cartel since early 2015, but has run into challenges bringing it to market because Raleigh hasn’t decided how to classify his food cart. He’s working with city and county officials to build out a mobile food and beverage guide to provide a framework for not only him, but to pave the way for future entrepreneurs in the same space.
When asked whether he would rather be blessed with luck, talent, or hustle, Justin answered emphatically, “Hustle, 100%. Luck runs out. Talent is not necessary. With hustle, you’ll always figure out a way to get it done.
What more needs to be said?
Learn more about WedPics as well as a few of Justin’s favorite small businesses in the area below: