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    The Porch — photography

    RALEIGH HUSTLES HARD - WEDPICS

    RALEIGH HUSTLES HARD - WEDPICS

    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:

    RALEIGH HUSTLES HARD - PORTICO PICTURES / HEART STONE FILMS


    Chris and Toni Wheaton tell stories for a living. As owners of Heart Stone Films and Portico Pictures, these local filmmakers are on a mission to connect people through the art of storytelling. If you’ve seen their work, you know how passionate and talented they are. While we’ve known Chris for years, we recently met his wife, business partner, and the veteran filmmaker in the family, Toni. We sat down with Chris (Toni was unable to make it, as they are expecting a son in the near future!) to get a behind the scenes look at their story for our latest installment of Raleigh Hustles Hard.


    Toni and Chris met in high school through their parents. At the time, Toni had already begun filmmaking. Growing up, she would accompany her parents on mission trips around the world, documenting the trip and creating short films to send back home. With her passion and talent growing, Toni had to decide whether to attend film school and develop her skills or jump right into the business and learn on the go. Like most entrepreneurs, she chose the latter. Instead of film school, Toni stayed in Raleigh where she and Chris reconnected during college. At the time, Toni was shooting and editing full time for Barton Creek Weddings and Chris was selling mortgages. After a couple of years, opportunity knocked. The owner was looking to transition out of wedding videography, and offered Toni a chance to buy the company. With Toni’s talent and passion, Chris’s business experience, and a shared entrepreneurial spirit, they were in.


    They married in January 2008, and in October, closed the deal on Barton Creek Weddings, which would eventually become Heart Stone Films. Even with acquiring the equipment and some key existing relationships, developing their own identity within the company was a huge hurdle. “The previous owner had a very successful business at the time, and a lot of people knew the name Barton Creek. As 22 and 23 year olds, establishing credibility with veterans in the industry was a priority.” Business was slow at first but the timing was serendipitous. Around this time, social media was becoming a key platform for businesses, but was being grossly underutilized in their industry. Chris and Toni saw this as an opportunity to create awareness for Heart Stone Films. “Before, you would just send people a DVD of the wedding, but now we had a platform to start posting videos and getting a lot more attention.”


    Early on, Toni was responsible for the filmmaking and Chris managed the business side of the company. “What I knew how to do was look at the business and jump right into sales, marketing, and development.” But for Chris, the love for filmmaking came quickly. “I kind of learned the filmmaking side of it on the job and after a couple of months I fell in love with the creative and artistic side of it.” After three or four years, Heart Stone Films grew past the threshold of what two people could handle. With over fifty weddings a year, Toni and Chris began training and deploying teams to shoot, edit, and deliver a final product. “We didn’t necessarily increase the number of weddings, but it lessened the burden on everyone in a big way.”

    Chris says that the run and gun atmosphere of wedding videography sharpened their skills a lot and really helped them to transition to the commercial world. It was actually a direct catalyst for what would come next. “We always had this mentality when shooting weddings, that you never know who is watching, and you never know who will see the final product, so if we give everything we have, this will lead to something more. In 2013, we had a client who owned a sports travel company. We did this ridiculous same day edit, where we shot and edited a 4-minute short film the day of and played it at their wedding reception.” He loved it and hired Chris and Toni soon after. He sent them to cover the Kentucky Derby, Daytona 500, Superbowl, and The Masters, which Chris credits as his favorite experience as a filmmaker. “That spawned Portico Pictures, our commercial brand. We wanted to pursue the commercial world in the same way we did with weddings, but with a unique brand and identity outside of Heart Stone Films.”


    Portico Pictures, which was founded in early 2013, gets its name from portico or “covered porch”. Chris tells me, “It’s a place where people gather together to tell and hear stories. It’s a sense of community between creative people. That’s the relationship we want with both our clients and team.” Chris and Toni hired their first full time employee in late 2014. After handling the load as a duo for so many years, they have a deep appreciation and respect for their team, which is a five-person mix of full and part time employees, contractors, and interns. “We’re close with our employees and we care about them as individuals. Work isn’t everything to us, so we want them to know that we support and care about them beyond the work that they do.” Nobody at Portico Pictures / Heart Stone Films is formally trained, but you would never know. They are all multi talented, with skill-sets ranging from shooting to sound mixing to editing, making interchangeability between projects, seamless.


    Portico Pictures has worked with some serious clients including Ledbury, The Umstead Hotel & Spa, Blue Cross Blue Shield of NC, and Cotton University. Check out one of their newest videos below, for Sturdy Brothers, a clothing and leather goods company from Georgia.


    Chris shared some exciting news about their vision for the future. “We want to expand our team and office space, and convert it into essentially an extension of our brand. We have this big dream of creating a hub for creative(s) to come together. We hope to have a soundstage for video production and photography as well as co-working spaces for collaboration with other companies. They see Raleigh as the perfect community to bring their dream to life. “Being in Raleigh is huge for our business because there’s so much going on. There’s this new wave of young small businesses with cool brands that people want to get on board with. I love seeing innovative businesses get big but still being able to reach out and sit down with the owner.” We totally agree.

    Learn more about Portico Pictures / Heart Stone Films and some of their favorite small businesses in the area below:
     

     

     

    Thanks for stopping by the porch,

    Porch Fly Clothing