Going to the chapels
Justin Miller and a co-worker recently took a lunchtime stroll along trendy Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, eventually passing a group of suit-jacketed executive types. Miller, 6 feet 4 inches and heavily tattooed, turned to Andy Heyman — a co-founder of Raleigh-based Deja Mi Inc. and also plenty inked — and laughed. “Do you think they’re saying, ‘Those are the guys with the wedding-picture-sharing app?’”
Probably not, but there’s nothing funny about the growth of WedPics, a mobile-device application that allows wedding guests to share photos on a Web-based album — a single-event, invitation-only, micro-Facebook. In April, Deja Mi raised $1.1 million from investors, including Bob Young, co-founder of Raleigh-based Red Hat Inc. and founder of lulu.com, a self-publishing website. Combined with money that WedPics raised a year ago, Miller and his team are racing through the first part of modern tech success: creating an app that shows enough potential to lure investment. “We’re growing at a rate of 100,000 guests a month,” Miller, 32, says. “Over 75,000 couples have created accounts with WedPics, which is 5% of the American wedding market. Upwards of 2,500 weddings every weekend use WedPics.” It has a user list — those with albums or visiting them — of about 400,000.
WedPics started through the “freemium” model — the app is free but users pay for greater function — but is now completely gratis. That pushes into part two of today’s tech success: finding a way to make money. WedPics will be one of the first partners of Picture.com, a new arm of lulu.com that turns online photos into a physical album. The collaboration will allow customers to collect wedding photos into saleable products, which start at $34.95. Deja Mi will get a cut of that, though Miller won’t disclose the share.
An N.C. State University School of Design grad and former art director at Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM Corp.’s internal advertising agency, Miller waited in line to buy the first version of the iPhone. He saw apps as the next big thing but admits weddings were not in their sights when he and three others started Deja Mi in his Raleigh basement in December 2010. Its first app, also called Deja Mi, was a crowd-sourced content generator that enabled concertgoers to share pictures and videos during a show. It never caught on. So they thought about who might be attracted to unlimited sharing within a single, invitation-only event. “Then we laser focused on weddings.” It launched WedPics August 2012 and now employs 12 at its downtown Raleigh office.
The interest was there, and so was the kind of feedback that improves an app. Once guests were invited into a WedPics group, brides sometimes lost control. “People were snapping photos of her in her wedding dress, and then it was out there before the bride even walked down the aisle.” A few tweaks enabled couples to control uploaded photos. “It’s just a great example of building a solid app and following the market,” says Brooks Bell, whose Brooks Bell Inc. in Raleigh performs website-optimization testing.
With most apps being free, it’s not always clear how developers will provide a return to investors. When app-analytics website AppAnnie.com described the global app industry as worth a trillion dollars, The Guardian pointed out that was market cap, not revenue. That makes CEO Miller especially excited about WedPics’ collaboration with Picture.com.
WedPics already had co-branding, customer-sharing programs with places such as Houston-based Al’s Formal Wear, a brick-and-mortar chain that rents clothes for formal events. That was solely promotion. “Printing is our first stab at monetization,” Miller says. And the way the two websites mesh, WedPics users generate albums without having to switch to Picture.com. “We generate revenue without negatively affecting the experience of WedPics.” Phase two of monetization will involve lead generation — 40% of WedPics albums are built from Facebook connections, and about 4% of guests are engaged, making them valuable prospects to other companies in the wedding industry.
Shawn Barber, lulu.com’s vice president of product, says the collaboration demonstrates closely related trends in app development. One he calls “B to B to C” — businesses collaborating to provide services and products to consumers. More important, he sees multiapp partnerships on a seamless platform as the future. Instead of apps growing more complex, they’ll become simpler. In that sense, they have learned from Microsoft Word, which grew so convoluted in developing new versions to sell that users had trouble doing simple things.
“I see that moving forward,” he says. “Not an app that does four things, but an app that does a third of a thing and needs to be married to other apps. It’s very finite.” He can’t resist: “The two apps married themselves together quite nicely.”
Scott Huler is a freelance writer based in Raleigh.