Corner Office: David Liu and Carley Roney Tie the Knot

December 1, 2009

Deciding to get married was the easy part for David Liu and Carley Roney. Planning the 1993 wedding was the challenge. With just seven weeks to wedding day in a city they barely knew, they found information and resources lacking. What they found was tailored for a very narrow demographic that didn’t include them.

“Carley and I are an interracial couple, and there’s not a lot of content addressing that in your standard Brides magazine,” Liu says. “Also, I was very much involved in the process. That’s not something very easily accommodated. Most of the content out there was geared toward women.”

Despite these challenges—or perhaps because of them—Liu, Roney and two partners founded The Knot in 1996. Originally launched on AOL, the site has since become the No. 1 wedding resource and the most trafficked online wedding destination in the country, with more than 100 million page views monthly. The company posted revenue totaling $103.9 million in 2008 and $29.5 million for the second quarter of 2009. The Knot has also spawned four other brands, catering to life stages such as newlyweds (The Nest) and first-time parents (The Bump), and expanded into various media platforms, including magazines, books and television.

In 2008, Ernst & Young named Liu Entrepreneur of the Year in the Media, Entertainment and Communications category. And The Knot has won scads of awards, from Best of the Web by Forbes to being in the top 100 Fastest Growing Companies of 2007 and 2006 in Fortune Small Business. “We’re really building the blueprint for what I would call a media company of the 21st century,” Liu says. “And I think that the potential for us is pretty extraordinary.”

"We're really building the blueprint for what I would call a media company of the 21st century."

Liu and Roney, who met as film and television students at New York University, were working in digital production and management in the early 1990s, having founded their own “edutainment” company called RunTime, when they realized the Internet’s potential. “We saw the opportunity of the Internet being, from a media point of view, an ability for a publisher or a producer of content to directly communicate with an audience,” he says. “And that’s what was powerful to us.”

Weddings seemed like a compelling content area for audiences, as well as a perfect jumping-off point since Liu and team ultimately wanted to expand to other life stages.

Not having a business education probably helped Liu in some ways, he says. “Because I have a film degree and was trained to do something different, I approach the business as, Ask the stupid questions. Not having an MBA and not understanding the nuts and bolts of this from the very beginning, you’re constantly in a state of learning and you never feel like you’re done.”

The team’s background in film and television was useful, too. “When you’re in film production, failure is really not an option,” he says. “You can’t not finish the film. You fix it in the editing room or you rewrite the script—you’re constantly adjusting to the ever-changing landscape around you. Fortunately, that level of tenacity persists, and it’s not something you’re taught in business school.”

That tenacity helped drive the company’s success. “The early days, we were essentially working seven days a week, easily 15- or 16-hour days. Our colleagues became our family; we ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together.”

Liu credits one of his venture capitalists for the team’s early and fervent desire to make The Knot a distinctive brand. “In the digital space or in the computer industry or software industry, very rarely do you have two equally sized competitors competing for the industry for any extended period of time,” he says. “Software and digital space has the tendency to create monopolistic positions. So the venture capitalist’s position with us was, ‘I’m not investing in you to be No. 2 in the market. I want you to declare victory and be No. 1.’ ”

Team members looked at the wedding media industry and realized they couldn’t beat stalwarts like Brides and Modern Bride without doing something drastically different. First, to define themselves as a new and fresh brand, they didn’t use the words “bride” or “wedding” in their title. But, more important, The Knot creators decided to write what other bridal outlets wouldn’t.

“In the early days, our tagline was, ‘Weddings for the real world,’ ” Liu says. “We basically said ‘real world’ meant all the messy things we knew the traditional media publishers cannot and will not cover.”

Topics such as interracial weddings, interdenominational weddings, second weddings, same-sex weddings, weddings in which the couple’s parents are divorced, weddings in which the bride is pregnant or the couple has children already—“all the marginalized things that Brides magazine couldn’t run an article about because they couldn’t [then sell advertising to highbrow brands like] Lenox China or Vera Wang.

“So we approached it as being the alternative solution,” Liu says. “And what really happened, almost by accident, we hit upon this significant moment in American social history where there’s a change happening. People who are getting married are more likely to be in any one of the [aforementioned groups] than the traditional homogenous wedding…. And, as a result, it catapulted our brand into the forefront.”

That positioning, in part, helped them endure the dot-com bust of the late ’90s, when the company lost 90 percent of its ad revenue within six months, Liu says. By that point, the now-public company had built up multiple revenue streams—such as local advertising, e-commerce and publishing—and The Knot held its own during the sink-or-swim years of 2001–2003.

When it came time to expand the brand, team members took cues from their audience, paying close attention to users’ comments in online forums. “The women who had gotten married started discovering each other and responding to each other’s posts. In that time period of a year or two post-wedding, people are confronted with a whole host of other issues and challenges,” Liu says. Discussions about getting pregnant, buying a home and test-driving new cars inspired the brand The Nest; the popularity of The Nest’s “Babies on the Brain” message board prompted the creation of The Bump in 2008.

Meantime, the Liu-Roney family has continued to grow, with a third child born about a year ago. As for their other baby, The Knot, Liu has great expectations.

As economic challenges take a toll on print media, he believes The Knot is well positioned. “Print needs to take its next evolutionary step, which is, How do you become a more valuable resource, a more useful resource and a more effective platform for advertisers?” he says. “After this next cycle, a lot of the weaker players will be gone and the last man standing will reap the rewards and benefits. We plan to be that.”

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