#SWAAYthenarrative

Kellee Khalil On Failure And Pioneering Bridal Technology

People

The bridal industry is big business, especially for those who cater to brides without big budgets. Just ask Kellee Khalil, a spirited entrepreneur who is helping no less than 200 DIY-minded women simultaneously plan their weddings with her newest virtual wedding planning venture.


“Only 15 percent of couples in the US hire a wedding planner,” says Khalil. “We are focused on helping the 85 percent that are doing it themselves.”
With hundreds of thousands of users, and over 1.3 million fans and followers, Loverly Virtual Wedding Planner is poised to revolutionize the way women plan their weddings.

Kellee Khalil by Dustin Senovic

“Our vision is to be the biggest wedding planner in the world, basically wedding world domination,” says Khalil. “How we get there is still to be told.”

The Loverly Virtual Wedding Planner is a chat-enabled application that assists brides throughout their wedding planning, as much or as little as they like. Flat fee wedding planning packages range from $49 to $399.

“It’s the first ever virtual wedding planner,” says Khalil. “We help with everything she could need, from setting the budget, to helping find dresses, stationary, decorations, hotel room blocks, to creating your registry and your wedding website to purchasing engagement ring insurance. Who even thinks of that?”

The app, which launched this spring, grew out of the Loverly website, a wedding-focused media engine that allows brides to discover ideas and evaluate vendors.

“We have this database we’ve built for four years of all this inspiration, content, and are using it to power our recommendations,” says Khalil of her new app, which features a chat bot virtual assistant named Eva.

“Eva chats with the customers, and downloads information to help customize experience. Of course there’s always human involvement, but there are things she can do that are faster than a human does. That’s how we are able to offer things so quickly.”

In The Family

For Khalil, becoming self-made was only natural, as entrepreneurship ran in the family.

“We spoke about business around the dinner table,” says Khalil. “It was something I was always around as a child. I definitely had a lemonade stand in the summer. In high school I taught myself how to code, and built my own eBay store. I always had a little bit of a hustle. It’s in my DNA, and in all my siblings too.”

When it came to launching her own business, which in her case was the Loverly website, Khalil says she waited until the right moment.

“I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I hadn’t found a problem I thought was big enough,” says Khalil, a graduate of one of the country’s first entrepreneurship programs at USC.

To satisfy her desire for creation, she quickly jumped onboard her sister’s bridal public relations business, which was focused on promoting the key players in the niche market.

“I started learning the mechanics of the bridal industry,” says Khalil. “When my sister got engaged and started to plan her wedding, I was on Google three pages deep [helping her do research], and I thought ‘this is really hard. Why are there no resources for this?”

According to Khalil, it was at that moment when the lightbulb went off, and she decided to marry her years of experience in the bridal industry with a new idea that would make it easier for overwhelmed brides to get help planning the details of their wedding.

“I couldn’t shake idea of a place where you can find all the ideas and inspiration, products, vendors, and brands that spoke to me as a consumer and showcased real couples, not Barbie and Ken,” says Khalil, who moved to New York in 2010 to pursue her new venture. “We launched in 2102 with mission to make wedding planning easier and more fun.”

Her site, which allows brides-to-be wedding search filters like color, theme, and style, began to evolve into a content-rich destination for information and inspiration.

“We create three to five pieces of content a day,” says Khalil, who utilizes a team of about eight full-time employees as well as a contributor network to keep her site rich. “We have all this data and content, so the question was what can we do to take to next step?” It was then that the Virtual Wedding Planner was born.

In terms of funding, Loverly raised close to $2 million in its seed round in 2011, an additional $3 million in 2014 through Montage Ventures, and another $2 million from Loverly insiders in 2015. Although the numbers sound lofty, Khalil says it’s not as much as one might think.

“It’s been challenging to fundraise,” says Khalil. “It sounds like a lot of money but I have been fundraising since I started the company. It’s a misconception that you get it all at once.”

Learning Lessons

Interestingly it was a failure that spurred Khalil into her newest idea. After closing her Series A Funding, she was thinking of how to monetize her blossoming media business, at the request of investors, and jumped on the bandwagon of offering shoppable content via proprietary e-commerce.

“I was getting feedback from investors saying you need to figure out a business outside of advertising in media, so I went down this rabbit hole [of e-commerce] that wasn’t really in line with my business, but I was chasing the investors,” says Khalil, who in February, 2015 introduced Loverly e-commerce, offering the Loverly Collection, an exclusive e-commerce brand of wedding products and fashions. “We thought we were so good converting for others (via affiliate channels) that we could do it ourselves. I barely survived as a human, the company barely survived. I call it the dark days of Loverly.”

"We thought we were so good at converting for others that we could do it ourselves."

The reason for the failure, Khalil says is that she was out of her wheelhouse.

“Operationally running a content business is completely different than running a commerce business, and because of that you need so much money to offer operational experiences like free shipping, and free returns,” she says. “We asked why are we doing this.”

Ever the forward-thinking entrepreneur, Khalil soon noticed that rather than about purchasing merchandise, customers were asking for wedding planning advice. She connected the dots.

“I’m not a wedding planner but that’s what everyone was asking us to be,” says Khalil. “That’s when I thought, OK that’s what we should be, and the lightbulb went off again four months before the e-commerce failed.”

With the concept of creating a wedding concierge, Khalil said people began signing up like crazy. She plans to continue growing her app by remaining focused on her niche, offering additional services as her customer asks for them.

“We are no longer making big bets without information to back it up,” says Khalil. "I’ve been beat up along the way, and had doors slammed by investors, but I will say the way we will grow is to always listen to our users, looking at data and making small incremental changes as we go.”

5 Min Read
Culture

Black Wall Street: The Story of One Black American Superhero

Like so many millions across the globe, I deeply mourn the loss of one of our greatest real-life superheroes, Chadwick Boseman. To pay tribute and homage to him, my family rewatched his amazing performance in Black Panther. T'Challa was one of Boseman's most important roles both on and off the screen, as his portrayal of the heroic warrior and leader of the people of Wakanda inspired viewers of all ages.

Re-visiting the futuristic city of Wakanda on screen caused me to reflect on how Blacks in America once had our own version of Wakanda: Black Wall Street. Black Wall Street was the name given to the wealthy, thriving, Tulsa, Oklahoma neighborhood of Greenwood in the early 1900s. The nearly 40 square-block neighborhood had more than 300 businesses and over 1,000 homes, including several stately mansions. Like Wakanda, Black people in Greenwood built their own hospitals, schools, theaters, newspapers, churches, and everything needed for their community to flourish.

Tragically, he lost everything he built, as did the entire district of Greenwood, in the largest, government-sanctioned race massacre in U.S. history.

With only 42 years separating the moment Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and Greenwood's founding, the amazing feat of Blacks building Black Wall Street is something that required supernatural acts of real-life superheroes the likes of which we see onscreen in Black Panther.

One of these real-life superheroes and leaders of Black Wall Street was my great-grandfather A.J. Smitherman, owner and editor of the Tulsa Star. The Tulsa Star was the first daily Black newspaper with national distribution and was a source for Black people to stay informed about issues affecting them throughout the US. A member of the first generation of Blacks born free in the late 1800s, Smitherman attended La Salle and Northwestern Universities. After receiving his law degree, A.J. began his career in community activism, politics, and the newspaper business.

A fearless leader in the Black community not just in Tulsa but throughout the nation, he dedicated his life to empowering his race in all categories of life in every way: morally, economically, physically, and politically. A.J. fiercely and courageously used his newspaper and the power of the press to end a myriad of corrupt operations and develop his community. As one of the most influential founding fathers of Black Wall Street, his contribution and investment in Greenwood was and is immeasurable. Tragically, he lost everything he built, as did the entire district of Greenwood, in the largest, government-sanctioned race massacre in U.S. history.

Unlike Wakanda—the fictional land hidden in the mountains of Africa, mostly invisible to the outside world and protected from foreign threats—Greenwood was exposed. Greenwood was not only visible, but the 11,000 residents and their luxurious lifestyle were a constant reminder to their poor white neighbors across the tracks that Black people had surpassed them in economic empowerment and success. Eventually, the jealousy, greed and contempt for the growing Black economic and political power ignited a horrendously evil act of domestic terrorism by white Tulsans.

A.J. fiercely and courageously used his newspaper and the power of the press to end a myriad of corrupt operations and develop his community.

On May 31st, 1921, thousands systematically looted and burned down Greenwood in a 36 hour-long massacre resulting in the murdering of over 300 Blacks. Thousands more were detained in concentration camps where they remained for months through the freezing Oklahoman winter.

In a recent interview, I was asked what goes through my head when I see the racial unrest taking place today and compare it to what was happening 100 years ago leading up to the Tulsa Massacre. The short answer is that I am incredibly sad. I'm sad for so many reasons. One of the things I am saddest about is knowing that my great-grandfather and great-grandmother sacrificed everything for the betterment and empowerment of their race. And after all of these years, the struggle continues.

I believe that now, more than ever, it is so important to maintain not only our hope but our faith.

A.J. Smitherman's writings in both the Tulsa Star, and thereafter in the Empire Star, a paper he founded later in New York, reveal a man full of hope and ambition to make a difference and contribute to his race and his country as part of the first generation of Blacks born free. He worked tirelessly to this end until the day he died in 1961. Tragically, A.J. died still a fugitive of the state of Oklahoma, having been unjustly indicted by a grand jury for inciting the massacre. This is another point of tremendous pain and grief for me and my family. It is a travesty that he never saw justice in his lifetime, and he furthermore never saw his dream of racial equality.

But perhaps what saddens me most is the fact that I truly believe that in his heart, he still had hope that America was on a path to find its way out of its dark past and into the light of a new dawn. He hoped that the nation would one day become a country where his descendants would no longer be subject to racial hatred, discrimination, and economic disenfranchisement. And I'm certain that he believed the days that Black people would fear being lynched would be long gone by now.

One of the things I am saddest about is knowing that my great-grandfather and great-grandmother sacrificed everything for the betterment and empowerment of their race. And after all of these years, the struggle continues.

I can feel A.J.'s blood in my veins, and I feel a responsibility to carry the torch of the light of hope. I believe that now, more than ever, it is so important to maintain not only our hope but our faith. I'm very grateful for the attention being brought to the legacy of Black Wall Street and A.J. Smitherman. Knowing their story of success and triumph and how it tragically turned to massacre and destruction is vital to insuring history doesn't continue to repeat itself 100 years later.

One thing I know for certain is that building a brighter future will require all of us to summon our own inner superhero, like A.J. Smitherman and Chadwick Boseman before us, and work together to continue to fight for our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.