“Sheer ignorance was bliss,” Sheils said. “We had no idea what we were getting into.”
Sheils and her co-founder Nora Sheils (the two are sisters-in-law) were already working for Bridal Bliss, a successful wedding and event planning business that Nora started in 2002. But the two were frustrated by the lack of digital tools available for tracking contracts and payments between planners, vendors and couples getting married.
The wedding sector was so technologically out of date that the Sheils would sometimes have to advise younger digital-centric couples to order checkbooks before starting their wedding planning because so many vendors only took cash or checks.
“We were getting tired and fed up with tracking down contracts and checks,” Elizabeth said. And when you’re dealing with amounts totaling thousands of dollars, “it’s very stressful to lose a check.”
So in 2018, the duo created Rock Paper Coin, a Portland, Ore.-based startup that has six employees. The company recently raised $875,000 from two angel investors.
Between them, the Sheils have 29 years of experience in the wedding and event sector. Technology was their weakness, so hiring a development team was key to building a platform that’s currently available for free as a beta product. Next year, they’ll begin offering subscriptions to event planners and vendors.
The initial focus has been on creating tools for digital contracts and payments, and will expand to include workflow management for wedding planners. Elizabeth compared the field to the construction sector, drawing a parallel between event planners and general contractors, both of whom are responsible for coordinating and communicating with multiple vendors on behalf of their customer.
There are other companies providing contract management, Elizabeth said, but Rock Paper Coin supports three-way communication between the event planner, the couple and vendors such as photographers and caterers. The platform also works as a “wedding binder” with budgeting and other tools for couples managing their own event.
The challenge is getting small and medium-sized businesses to adopt this sort of technology after years of using Word documents and spreadsheets. Rock Paper Coin has an account manager who will do in-person onboarding with customers to ease the transition.
“Nora and I feel incredibly lucky and validated as more and more people begin to utilize — and love — our services,” Elizabeth said. “We knew it was something the industry desperately needed, but seeing it truly help others is incredibly rewarding.”
We caught up with Elizabeth and Nora Sheils for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for their answers to our questionnaire.
What does your company do? Rock Paper Coin is a user-friendly platform that brings together event professionals and engaged couples to streamline the often-daunting contract and invoice process. We offer a professional, inexpensive and easy way to process payments, contracts and invoices. The wedding and event space is incredibly outdated and most couples getting married today do not have the patience to print, sign, scan a contract or find their checkbook. Rock Paper Coin is essentially a digital project binder streamlining the planning process for couples and vendors.
Inspiration hit us when: We were out to drinks commiserating about constantly chasing down contracts, printing contracts, writing checks and, no joking, even faxing paperwork. We wanted to save the other Bridal Bliss planners time, so we set out looking for a platform that would work not only as a CRM (customer relationship management) but allow collaboration between three parties. After two years of trying out various event software, we determined nothing existed and decided to build it.
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: At the start of Rock Paper Coin, we decided to bootstrap and to make sure we had an idea that was worth spending our own money on. We truly believed in the software and were willing to bootstrap until we needed to add on additional investment. We secured two angel investors. Both were past clients to Bridal Bliss who saw the need for the product, trusted the our expertise and jumped at the opportunity to invest. We liked the angel route as we had a prior working relationship with both groups, and both also brought quite a bit of experience with their diverse backgrounds in business and tech.
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: One of the defining features of Rock Paper Coin is its ability to collaborate with a third party. All electronic contract and payment systems currently on the market in the events world are solely between two parties (vendor and client). Rock Paper Coin integrates a third party (event planner) who, with prior permissions, has the ability to act on behalf of their clients, review, approve contracts and make payments. While Rock Paper Coin will disrupt the wedding and event industry first, the third party collaboration is one that many businesses would benefit from.
The smartest move we’ve made so far: Before we hired a development team or made any decisions, we thoroughly research the needs of the market. We held focus groups, interviewed event professionals all over the country and confirmed what we already knew: a platform like ours was desperately needed and wanted. We still welcome feedback from users and add features that solve the needs of our clients and ensure a smoother experience.
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: We designed the initial onboarding experience to capture all the data needed for an event professional to open an account with Rock Paper Coin. We were requiring sensitive information, which users said was uncomfortable without seeing the inner workings of the product. Our team realized this mistake early on and quickly corrected it. Users can now sign-up with just an email address and enjoy what we have to offer, essentially trying before buying.
Which leading entrepreneur or executive would you most want working in your corner? Whitney Wolfe Herd, founder and CEO of Bumble, a female-focused dating and social app. She fights for women, invests in women and is what we consider an all-around badass female. Self-made and having triumphed through a dark time, she came out better and stronger. She is smart, tech savvy, prioritizes family and gives back in meaningful ways. Who else would you want in your corner?
Our favorite team-building activity is: Going out to eat, drink and unwind together is our favorite team building activity. There are various studies showing the importance of a family eating dinner together and we believe in this at the workplace, too. Encouraging a more casual conversation, listening to others and learning more deeply about a team member’s true self, builds trust and creates a bond that goes further than “co-worker.” The benefits this provides in a home setting carry over into the workspace.
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: We like to hire based on a quote from James Collins from his book “Good to Great”: “Look, I don’t really know where we should take this bus. But I know this much: If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great.”
This really resonates with us. As a startup, there are new ideas and directions for where to take the company. By having a team that works well together, respects each other and believes in the core of the product, that drives the direction of the company.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Fundraise, fundraise and fundraise. Start fundraising well before you think you will need it. Fundraising was one of the most stressful pieces for us because we waited longer to start than we should have. We were two newbies in a big world and no clue where to begin. We talked with countless advisors who offered great advice on whom to talk to and where to go, but never about when to start. If we could do this all over again, we’d save ourselves quite a bit of midnight oil and start the process earlier.
One thing that has been a wonderful surprise through this process has been the constant encouragement and support of tech entrepreneurs locally and nationally. Many have reached out to us unsolicited to simply pat us on the back, offer to help when needed and truly pay forward all the expertise they were given in their early stages. Being newbies in the tech space is intimidating and this has really meant a lot to us!