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Q & A with Carley Roney

“A brand that celebrates the imperfect,” Carley Roney declares as she describes the roots of The Knot on “How We Built This with Guy Raz.” In 1996, Roney and her husband David Liu founded The Knot—inspired by their own wedding and the craziness surrounding bringing it to life. Today, The Knot is the number one wedding planning site in the United States. Theirs is a story of a answering an unmet need in the chaotic and emotional world of planning for that special day. Ahead of its time, The Knot changed the way brides and grooms to-be approached their weddings and created a new category of online wedding planning that is the preeminent source for all the inspiration, planning and resources needed to wrap everything up with a beautiful bow. As the Royal Wedding wraps, we're saying, 'I do' to this royal wedding planning Queen!

 

January Olds: Your business began out of a personal experience—your own wedding. How has starting a business given you insight on your personal life?

Carley Roney: My personal life and my business life are completely intertwined – dangerously so! I started The Knot with my husband just two years into marriage, and as if that were not stressful enough, we had our first child one year after that! My friends were my first mentors and my employees became my new friends and extended family. For better or worse (marriage pun intended!), I took everything in business very personally. This has had its positives: you are passionate and emotionally committed very deeply to your work and that benefits your business and feels great. But it also has a negative, when things are rough at work, there is no place to hide! I do not recommend this strategy, by the way.

JO: What did you expect from starting your business that actually happened? What is one thing you thought would never happen that did?

CR: I really wanted to create a brand that was inclusive, and by doing so change the ultra-traditional, cookie-cutter world of weddings. But this was a risky move. We were edgy and modern. We highlighted people of every color, sexuality, and wedding style – interfaith weddings, second weddings, shotgun weddings! Investors warned we were being too alternative, picking a niche inside of a niche. But in the end, this attitude, this edge was what helped us win our massive following. It was zeitgeist. We followed our gut and knew where things were going. So that happened: we dreamed that the world could do weddings differently, and now they do!
One thing that happened that I never dreamed of? Over 30 appearances on NBC’s TODAY Show and my day on OPRAH! To get out the message about The Knot, I had to become a TV personality. I didn’t gun for that, but it happened. I was on TV almost every week for 15 years. I was stopped in airports! Insane.

JO: Did you have any business mentors growing up? Who did you go to for advice that wasn’t your business partner/ husband?

CR: I owe so much to my close college friend, Lisa Ilario. I never would have called her a mentor, per se, as she was only a few years ahead of me in life, but she was always way ahead of me in connections. Not only did she get me my first jobs in media, she literally taught me everything I know about creating content. She also opened her contacts to me fully and introduced me to writers and photographers and designers. My parents also both owned their own businesses, so not only did they have great advice, but I had no fears about starting my own thing because it seemed so normal!

JO: What does success look like to you?

CR: I’m living it. I never had a specific dream or goal for my life, but things have turned out extraordinarily well. I’m still very happily married. (And after working side by side with my husband David for all 25 years, I can assure you this is way beyond a miracle.) I have three very intriguing, entertaining, curious children who I enjoy to no end. And I finally have free time. After working so hard for so many years, having coffee with a friend or not sprinting late (again!) into a dance recital seems like success!

JO: 2008’s recession hit hard. But The Knot kept going. What do you think makes weddings recession proof?

CR: Weddings are one of the last remaining universal cultural rituals in America. Not to get all sociology class on you, but the tradition crosses all religious, socio-economic, ethnic, and regional groups and it is one of the few things that brings families who are now scattered across the country – and the world – together! Many families save up for the day their children will marry. No matter what is going with your family financially, you will have a wedding. It may be intimate, it may be a DIY pot luck with only your closest friends, but you will celebrate. And your community coming together to wish you well on your marriage adventure is a critical part of the transition. Same with honeymoons. During a recession, people don’t travel as much, but couples are going to find some way to take a honeymoon!

JO: What are some of the biggest trends in weddings today?

CR: Personalization – being unique -- is the single most important trend in weddings (thanks, in part, to The Knot pushing this for so long!) Why do anything on your day that doesn’t feel “you”? Throw your wedding in a working vineyard where you went wine tasting or a summer camp or smack dab in the middle of the ball field where you first battled it out in your company’s summer softball league. Include unique important people in your “bridesmaids” like an elderly aunt and your best guy friend from college. In lieu of candy favors, have a cartoonist making guest sketches all evening long. Replace the classic plated dinners with family style platters of your favorite, rustic Northern Italian food. You get the picture!

JO: A huge part of the positive growth The Knot gained was through word of mouth—mainly brides and women telling women. What did you learn about women through this specific lens?

CR: I learned that one of the primary drivers of women’s happiness is connection. I know that is true for me. Also, women love to help each other. So sharing advice and recommendations – “There’s this amazing app you HAVE TO download immediately, The Knot…”,  comes naturally and feels good. The network effect of a million women answering each other’s questions, writing reviews of their vendors, and making referrals is unbelievably powerful for us.  And we take it very seriously. We respect our community and include them in key decision making. This is not only good business, it builds loyalty.

JO: Do you feel pressure being a woman who runs a large platform for other women?

CR: The only pressure I feel being a woman making a service for women, is to do right by them. Women deserve honest, effective tools to make their lives easier. They are smart and savvy and they understand the subtle differences between products that are actually made for them, or made to capitalize on them. I always made sure The Knot, The Nest and The Bump did the former. These are emotional, high-pressure moments in women’s lives. They need brands they can rely on.

JO: What has been the most unique example of beauty you’ve seen within your experience with this platform?

CR: I’ve been so intrigued by all the wedding beauty rituals around the world! I have to say my all time favorite is Mehndi, the Henna party ritual in Indian/Hindu weddings. The bride spends hours getting intricate Henna tattoos all over her hands and feet and even her arms during a bridal shower on steroids, the night before the wedding. There is music and dancing, and the bridesmaids, family and female friends all attend and often get smaller henna designs themselves. My favorite little detail about it is the bride often gets the initials of her husband-to-be written into the designs.

JO: What do you think is the number one desire for a bride on her wedding day?
CR: Brides only want two things: 1) to look really, really pretty, and 2) to have a killer party, preferably with a packed dance floor. The best gift you can give a couple is to really enjoy their wedding.

JO: What do you do to feel beautiful yourself?

CR: I run. Seriously. After I run, of course I look like a mess, but I feel strong and fast. The days when I run there’s a lift in my step, a calm, and a confidence. It’s true what they say about how much of ones beauty comes from happiness.

JO: Do you have any beauty rituals or must have products?

CR: I’m pretty simple when it comes to beauty rituals: water, sleep, moisturizer, sunscreen, and blue-cancelling concealer – I have the world’s thinnest skin! Also, after trying it at the female run factories in Morocco, I’ve become addicted to Argan oil. I need it because I am also addicted to hot showers. I just love showers and they are, of course, terrible for your skin.

JO: You’ve said your business celebrates the imperfect. What is your perception of perfection?

CR: I hate the concept of “perfection” because it is built on homogeneity and conformity – and it leaves almost everyone out! I pushed my staff at The Knot (and the wedding industry at large) and I’d like to push all imagemakers everywhere, to make the imperfect the new perfect. Individuality and uniqueness are perfection. When everyone can feel comfortable in their own bodies, with their own beauty, with their own beliefs, and hopes and dreams, that will be perfect.

JO: In 2014, you and David stepped down from day-to-day operations. What do you miss most?

CR: I miss the people! I loved being a part of a team and creating a culture where so many voices at so many levels in the organization could be heard. I learned so much from them every day. They are a talented, dedicated, fun bunch and I miss everything from our brainstorms to busting it out on the dance floor.

JO: What is next?

CR: When I am not momming — my most important (and hardest) job — I split my energy between three passions: female entrepreneurship, social justice and progressive politics. I really enjoy my job serving on the board of a fast-growing, female-founded, and socially responsible fashion company Rent The Runway (@renttherunway) – it’s all the innovation and excitement without having to worry about payroll! I also serve on the boards of Brooklyn Community Foundation (@bklynfoundation), Power of Two (@powerof2nyc), WIE Network (@wienetwork), and Project Entrepreneur (@pjentrepreneur).  Everyone wants to know when I’ll either found another company or run for office. Both would be fun, but I’m content supporting others doing those things in, what I call, my “pay it forward” period. It feels really good to be in the background cheering others on.

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