A personal story…Expanding to the UK – the first 6 months

Ciara Crossan, founder of WeddingDates, talks about her growth in the UK this year

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Having started a business in Ireland in the early days of the recession back in 2008, I was filled with what I can only describe as a nervous excitement. After four years of trading and doubling in size year on year, WeddingDates is now the top performing web business in delivering qualified wedding leads to hotels and venues. We are working with 65% of the total available market in Ireland and I have to admit, things had started to get a little stale for me. Sure, I was still fulfilling my dream of being my own boss, but the tension and buzz of the early days had gone.

Ireland was always meant as the “test market” to prove our concept that providing online availability schedules for weddings really does work thus making the wedding planning process a little less stressful for couples while also assisting hotels and venues to find and close high quality leads for the dates they have available to sell. With the brand well established in Ireland by 2011 and the company “standing on its own two feet”, I started my research into the UK market. Backed by Enterprise Ireland, aka the Irish government’s venture capital investment scheme, we obtained some initial support and funding for the expansion.

The first six months of bringing the business to the UK certainly has reignited the passion! I have been in the UK three weeks out of every four for the last few months and it has been hectic to say the least! I totally appreciate the importance of “wearing out the shoe leather” and getting out to meet your customers and prospects. Nowhere is this more important than when you are an unknown in a new market or territory. People need to see you, shake your hand and look you in the eye before they commit to signing up to something new.

I’m encouraged by the progress that has been made and we now have 50 fantastic hotel and venue customers already finding brides through WeddingDates. One customer booked two large weddings in their first eight weeks. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive; it seems there is a real appetite in the UK market for what our service offers – quality leads, simple software and excellent reporting. Back in the early days in Ireland there was still a lot of education around the benefits of engaging with wedding couples online, and utilizing social media for example, instead of the traditional approach to organizing weddings. Ask any bride now, the single biggest resource for them when planning their big day is Google! In the intervening years, hotels and venues have seen firsthand the prevalence of the internet and social media so now, in effect, I am preaching to the converted!

But, the excitement of expanding my business and the positive results aren’t the only things I will think of when I look back on my first six months in the UK. It’s certainly not the glamorous jet setting life that my Facebook status updates would have you believe!

I think I am one of Michael O’Leary’s best customers, but I still don’t relish being herded like a cow heading to the milking parlour for Ryanair flights at 6:30am for the first flight to London. As a “start up” you get used to being as thrifty as possible so I’ve relied on the generosity of my (thankfully!) large group of friends and relatives who call London home and who offer me a bed or a couch to crash on. I’ve also had the pleasure of getting very familiar with the UK trains…and have been to such far flung locations as High Wycombe and Stoke-on-Trent. With no underground or subway system in Ireland, the Tube was very much a novelty to me at the start and I remember my first trip on it, heading to a meeting suited and booted armed with my laptop, thinking that this was the most exciting thing ever – expanding my business in the UK… yipee! I was smiling my head off and actually said hello to the other passengers on the tube! I’d say they thought I was a loon, beaming at them trying to strike up conversations. But you get hardened to it pretty quickly and now I am one of the millions of London commuters who take the tube every day, head down, rushing through the tunnels. As my time over in the UK is so limited (2/3 days per week) I usually try to pack anywhere up to five meetings per day into my diary, so I usually end up just grabbing a pre-packed sandwich in Boots and I’ve probably tried every single thing on the Pret menu at this stage!

The travel is gruelling and there is no way I could keep up this pace if it was for some other company. But the reward for me is seeing the hard work paying off and thankfully I have a great team back in the office in Cork keeping the homefires burning. The Irish business hasn’t suffered at all despite the expansion, which is proof that the brand is now bigger than me, it can cope with me being away and can stand on its own two feet. In another 12 months I hope to be able to say the same about the UK market as we cast our net even further afield.

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