— Two years ago, two 20-something Chicagoans, Kara Underwood and Kirstin Martin, didn’t know it, but they both were dreaming of the same thing. They each wanted to run their own company specializing in wedding planning. And they each came to it in their own way.
Underwood had worked as a corporate party planner for some of the top law firms in town, so she knew the vendors, she knew how to handle clients and she knew how to make a party swing. Martin, on the other hand, was trained as a big-league business accountant. She knew spreadsheets inside out, and she knew what it took to keep a business afloat.
Both Underwood and Martin knew that success in the industry has more to do with cash flow and smooth schedules than choosing colors and themes.
“My friends definitely envision me always picking out flowers and beautiful linens,” Underwood says. "That's entirely not the case.”
Like most prudent entrepreneurs, Underwood and Martin each did lots of research before opening. While searching for a location, each noticed that one part of town was teeming with young, single professionals and had no shops catering to brides-to-be. Chicago’s “Western Loop” neighborhood, with its low rents and well-heeled residents, seemed like the perfect spot.
Unfortunately, by an odd and unfortunate coincidence, the two budding businesswomen saw and seized the same opportunity. Underwood’s “Magnificent Milestones” and Martin’s “Smitten Boutique” opened up within a few weeks of each other and just a few blocks apart.
“It’s a part of town full of customers of an age where a lot of their friends are getting married, and we wanted to become their go-to shop for the unique wedding gifts as well as the place to go to plan a wonderful wedding,” Martin says.
Unfortunately, as soon as they opened their shops, both Underwood and Martin encountered a crisis neither could have foreseen: each other.
“We knew nothing of one another,” laughed Underwood, “so we both had the best idea at the same time.”
“We each thought we had this crazy, unique idea,” Martin agreed. “We were gonna come into this area and be the only gift shop and the only place where people could come and buy invitations.”
It was an awkward accident of geography and timing. And neither of the first-timers was quite sure of what to make of it.
“Just what are the odds that two wedding planners would open up in this neighborhood at the same time!” said Underwood.
Martin was equally caught off-guard but tried to give it a good spin: “Her store over on Fulton was super cute and done very well. And so then you say, ‘All right, well, we have some real competition here,’ but I think you just look at it as a benefit. It draws more people to the area.”
Complimenting each other
For nearly a year, they each focused on building their own brands. While they mostly kept their eyes on their own business, they made sure to keep an eye out for each other as well. Early on, they made a date to have coffee.
“We met at Starbucks and just sort of, you know, went through what we were doing,” Underwood recalled. “I was definitely nervous going into it but hopeful that we wouldn't be the exact same idea.”
“I think once we sat down,” added Martin “we talked about what our visions were for our businesses, (which) left me with a feeling of ease. “
“We realized it could actually work out, and we could be complementary to one another,” Underwood added.
And compliment each other they did. As competitors, they both “played nice” and at times even referred customers to each other. Over the course of a year, their businesses grew, and so did their respect for each other.
“It was a crazy busy year for both of us,” said Underwood, “We’d have an event or she’d have an event, and we'd call each other and I’d say something like, ‘Oh, I've got this bride and I’m booked on that date so I'm gonna pass your number along. Is that OK?’ ”
Then came another unforeseen crisis. The economy hit the rocks. As Martin remembers, it was a time of great concern. “It was right around the holidays. And we were just thinking, who knows what's gonna happen over this next year or two?”
As the economy grew darker, so did Martin’s worries about her business. She began to hatch a plan: “Basically you just want to make sure that your business survives and that you're making smart decisions. And we had some extra space in the store that we were kind of underutilizing. And I thought, Kara's probably the perfect fit.”
So Martin made Underwood a proposal over coffee. “I approached Kara and said, ‘This may be way out in left field, but would you have any interest moving into our location and sharing the space?”
It was Underwood’s turn to be caught off-guard, but after a brief pause, she recovered and realized they were “both the same boat.”
Martin remembers that same moment of decision. “I think that after a couple seconds passed, she was like, ‘Yeah, that actually might be a really good thing.’ And we sat there for a couple of hours talking. We both realized that while we were fine independent, it could only get better merging the two.”
Fourteen days later, the two had merged their locations, and they sent out their own “marriage announcement” — an embossed mailing that looks just like the kind of wedding announcements they help their clients choose.
Underwood showed off one of the beautifully printed documents: “When you open it up, there's the picture of the two of us, and the announcement of the ‘union.’ ”
“The union of the two businesses,” said Martin with a giggle.
But perhaps roommates might be a more accurate description.
“It’s more of a physical merger,” said Underwood. “I still have my company and Kirstin still has hers.”
With the sudden decision to move in together, the two felt it would be less stressful if they could still keep a bit of their independence.
Whatever they call it, the merger made sense financially. That’s something that struck Underwood powerfully when she looked at her balance sheet recently.
“When I looked at what I spent last year on advertising, my jaw hit the floor. So I think that's probably the number one savings. And then, obviously, overhead and everything that goes in with that — phones, all that paper, everything.”
As to the future, they’re both keeping their options open. After all, business partnerships don’t have to be made ’til death do us part.