From hopeless to hopeful: An INCLT Pivot Story

At the beginning of the pandemic, “survive” was the word on everyone’s minds. 

Six months later, we now know survival isn’t enough. We must rethink our old ways of doing business. We must pivot.

That doesn’t mean the process of shifting course is easy. That’s why INCLT is sharing the stories of local entrepreneurs who have been forced to change their fundamental business models. We want to shed light on the transformation process and the role mentorship can play. 

Last month, we told the story of Macie Mata, former founder of MAZE Services. This month, we interviewed Samie and Ryan Roberts, the husband-and-wife team behind Charlotte-based startup Bustld, which makes the wedding planning process easier for both couples and vendors. 

The startup launched in 2016 after Samie, a wedding planner, worked with a client who wasn’t the right fit. The wedding itself had been a success, but Samie wanted to find a better way to serve both sides of the wedding marketplace so that couples could find the right vendors to bring their dream weddings to life. Her husband and co-founder, Ryan, brought his data and technology background, as well as his entrepreneurial spirit, to the conversation and got to work figuring out the analytics and algorithms to take the idea from concept to reality. 

The result was Bustld, and it wasn’t long before the business had gained traction in Charlotte. That inspired Samie and Ryan to expand their services to Raleigh in 2017. After more than 100 people attended their Raleigh launch party, the two knew they were onto something big. Then, in 2019, they joined the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service. 

“One thing that’s missing when you’re bootstrapping is the guidance that you can get from your investor,” Ryan said. “We were in our own little bubble, but to get that outside perspective is incredibly powerful. Innovate Charlotte allowed us to get that level of mentorship without the financial obligations or bias that an investor can bring. Especially when you come from corporate, you remember what it’s like to have access to everything — an HR department, a financial department, accounting and sales department, leadership and all these different things. [When you’re a startup], it’s really just a handful of us. It helps to have that guidance.”

With the INCLT mentorship program, that guidance comes from a team of mentors, which has provided significant value for Bustld as it has grown. 

“Having multiple perspectives is really nice because everybody comes with their own perspective of what their work life is like and what they’ve done in their past, and they can provide us that insight,” Samie said. “It’s nice to hear different things and take that back and use that information to make our own decisions.”

Samie and Ryan’s mentors have helped them consider possibilities and ask questions they may not have thought of before to make more informed decisions. The mentors also helped the two network with other INCLT mentors and local business owners. In February 2020, just over a year after the couple joined the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service, Bustld saw its most successful month in the history of the company.

Then, the pandemic hit, and widespread panic ensued. States across the U.S. went under lockdown. Paper towels flew off the shelves, and hand sanitizer was out of stock online. But it didn’t become real to Samie and Ryan until weddings started to get postponed and then flat-out cancelled. 

“It was really scary,” Samie said. “We only had this one product, and it’s all based on wedding vendors. We started throwing around all these different ideas of what we could do to generate money and keep the business moving, given the state of weddings.”

Samie and Ryan put together a long list of ideas — one that included concepts like Bustld merchandise and a “wedding-in-a-box” concept — and brought that list to their mentors. Their mentors then helped them refocus their efforts and advised the two to pick one idea out of the many.

The question was, which one had the most potential? As the couple debated, INCLT Executive Director Keith Luedeman stepped in to offer his perspective: virtual weddings.

“He kept texting us both, telling us that we had to do virtual weddings,” Ryan said with a laugh. “Samie and I, being the romantics of weddings, were like, ‘No. We don’t like that.’”

The founders had seen the challenges that came with Zoom weddings: issues downloading the app, problems logging on, bad WiFi connections and an overall loss of the magic that comes with a wedding day. They knew what didn’t work, and they started to wonder, what could? 

“At that point, we thought, ‘We don’t like it, but we’re going to figure it out. But it can’t be Zoom,’” Ryan said.

Ryan started researching and reaching out to different producers at ESPN and NASCAR to explore how virtual weddings could happen without standard video conferencing software and offer couples the same special experience of a wedding. 

The result of all that research and repositioning became LoveStream, a new product that turned Busltd’s romantic founders from hopeless to hopeful.

LoveStream allows guests to stream weddings from any device just by clicking a link — no apps required. To get the footage, the bride and groom set up their phones on tripods, and Bustld takes over to control the camera angles and add slideshows, videos and music to give guests the full wedding experience from their screens. A live chat feature is available for guests to offer congratulations. Every couple gets their own wedding website, which includes the wedding video, a virtual guestbook and more. And the video is available on demand, which means guests in different countries and time zones are able to watch the wedding when it is convenient for them.

“It was so important to make it easy,” Samie said. 

While April and May were tough months for Bustld, LoveStream reignited the spark in the company. In August, as a global pandemic continued to batter the wedding industry, Bustld celebrated its most successful month to date. 

Looking ahead, Samie and Ryan are confident virtual weddings are here to stay as an important component of planning a wedding.

“It’s not going to have the same growth trajectory that it has now, but it’s going to be one of those things where you have a photographer, you have a caterer, and you have a livestream,” Ryan said. 

Now, Ryan and Samie’s mentors are challenging them to look ahead and prepare their team for the new roles that have come with the pandemic. As the company continues to grow, it helps to know there is a group of mentors guiding them and cheering them on through their success.

“Having someone who is unbiased, who truly just wants what’s best for us and guides us there is just so important,” Samie said. “I feel so grateful that we have found that in our mentor team.”

Creating opportunities for collaboration and guidance is core to INCLT’s mission, and it’s a critical part of building a more robust entrepreneurial ecosystem. Olga Muller, director of operations for local software development company Kepler Team, has seen that firsthand, both as part of a startup and as a member of the broader entrepreneurial community in Charlotte. “No business or founder can succeed in isolation. Success requires a collaborative approach and help from those who have been there and done that when it comes starting and building companies.

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