This week we talk to Ayla Toyokawa, founder – alongside her husband Takumi – of WedSites, a bootstrapped tech start-up on a mission to make the notoriously stressful wedding planning process easier for modern couples. Ayla and Takumi have developed the world’s first all-in-one project management platform which includes a suite of tools to help the couple plan their wedding from “yes” to “I do”.
ISB: What was the inspiration behind you founding WedSites?
AT: My lightbulb moment for WedSites was when I was asked to be Maid of Honour for my best friend who was planning a destination wedding in Hawaii. In an attempt to get organised, the bride-to-be hacked together a bunch of spreadsheets, documents, and signed up to a heap of wedding websites which ended up becoming a huge disorganised mess.
Given my background in tech, I knew there had to be a better way to plan a wedding and felt inspired to create a collaborative project management platform to help the couple stay organised with all their to-do’s and also streamline communication with their guests.
ISB: What was the biggest challenge you faced in launching the business, and how did you overcome it?
AT: I’d have to say the biggest challenge was navigating through the unknown to find product market fit. After we had the first version of the product, we were able to validate our concept by working with a group of 100 beta users who were keen to use WedSites to plan their weddings.
We spent a lot of time on user testing and interviewing these newly engaged couples to better understand how we could improve the platform and the language people used when talking about WedSites. The time we spent talking to customers was absolutely key to helping us find product market fit and building a great product.
ISB: To what extent, and in what specific ways, did the pandemic shape WedSites’ offering?
AT: We officially launched WedSites in late 2019, but as soon as COVID-19 became a global pandemic and weddings had to either be cancelled, postponed, or downsized overnight, it was pretty clear the way we planned weddings would change. All of our users were impacted in their respective locations around the world.
To help couples navigate through the uncertainty, we introduced a series of virtual wedding features; including digital stationery and integrations with popular live streaming platforms like Zoom and Facebook live. Guests who wouldn’t otherwise be able to partake in their weddings could still witness the ceremony and leave their well wishes in a virtual wedding guestbook.
ISB: What was the driver behind introducing digital, as opposed to traditional, stationery?
AT: With so many couples having to cancel or postpone, we knew all of their beautiful wedding invitations had completely gone to waste and they’d have to send out another batch with their new wedding date.
Having to postpone and put life plans on hold is already heartbreaking enough, so we wanted to introduce a digital alternative to traditional printed stationery as a low-risk, cost effective and eco-friendly alternative to having to reprint their invitations again. We want couples to feel good about sending out their wedding invitations without worrying about the possibility that they’ll have to reprint and pay for another batch of invitations six to 12 months down the line.
ISB: What is your vision for the development of the business in the next couple of years?
AT: To date, we’ve helped thousands of couples in over 50 countries around the world. Wedding planners and businesses have also started using WedSites to work with their clients. Our mission from the start has been to bring the fun back into wedding planning by making it easier and less stressful. Over the next couple of years we will be working on building stronger brand awareness so couples will know about WedSites as soon as they get engaged. We would also love to support wedding planners by giving them a professional platform to streamline their processes and communication with their clients.
ISB: Finally, what is the number one lesson you’ve learnt on your journey to date you’d share with others looking to start their own business?
AT: Have patience and surround yourself with like-minded people. There were so many times in my journey where I beat myself up over not being where I thought I should be. Building a business takes time, and there is no such thing as an overnight success. You have to be willing to try new things, be open to different ideas, and keep moving forward to make progress. It’s hard to be what you can’t see, so surrounding yourself with like-minded people is key to your growth as a founder. Entrepreneurship can be isolating at times, so having a community you can lean into and support is incredibly empowering.