How I Started And Grew A Wedding Services Business To $2M/Year
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Brandon Wheeler, co-founder of Gulf Beach Weddings, a Beach Wedding Services company serving Tampa and Destin, FL.
We specialize in pre-designed destination beach wedding packages through our trademarked Beach WeddingStudio software (Link). Each year we conduct approximately 1,000 weddings across nine Counties in the State of Florida and Alabama. Our mission is to ‘Create a Once in a Lifetime experience, through the Magic of a Beach Wedding.’
Originally from Florida, I am very familiar with the beaches in which we serve. This business started out as a simple Officiate and Photographer. It sort of snowballed into Wedding Packages, etc. Not that its a blur however, we have been running fast for some time now. Two times we were named on the Inc. 5000 (Link) and Seminole 100 (Link) lists, which was incredible!
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
To be honest, the credit for the original idea ‘To offer Beach Wedding Packages’ was my former business partner’s idea. He had a ‘Try anything’ attitude, I was simply better at creating a system, web presence, hiring the right people.
I don’t consider myself an entrepreneur - that would be someone who, in my opinion, has started from scratch multiple business (that grow to over $1M in Sales per annual), in different industries, and often in different locations/markets. I am just a simple small-businessman, who is definitely not the smartest guy in the room. The key is I know it and so does everyone else, so I am a bit clever in this respect.
There is no substitute for putting your head down and doing the work, always work smart, but work.
In the early days, it was literally myself and Les Davis. He has since passed, but he would Officiate and communicate with the couple - I handled the setup, coordination and photography. I was moreso energetic 12 years ago and would setup the wedding, practice my Triathlon swim (to cool off) then coordinate and take pictures, take down, and unload that evening. Things were very simple, a Van that we purchased together and my Toyota Tacoma pickup truck. Now we have a fleet of Commercial Vans (mostly Nissan High-Top 2500/3500 models).
The business slowly progressed as I would teach others how to setup and coordinate, I’ve always been very hands-on so it grew quite quick. The turning points in the business was when I left my ‘Full-Time’ job in 2011 with CBRE (the largest Commercial Real Estate company in the world, which was my dream job out of college…). Once focused, I started putting processes in place (we still do this today to refine our customer experience and follow-up, as well as setting expectations early on).
It sort of quickly became a $500k business per year. In 2013, we purchased a Reception Hall on St Pete Beach (Link) and this brought us into the reception side of things. I also purchased a Nature’s Table Cafe franchise in Downtown St Petersburg the next year, but this was a failure from the start.
No one likes to talk about the $100K mistakes they make but this was one of mine. I thought ‘I’ll get a Franchise with a Kitchen, then Cater my own events’ but that was way out of our purview. Still is today - we leave this to the professionals!
It was however, my idea to expand, grow a fleet of vehicles (10 total now), purchase three commercial real estate properties (in cash) and renovate so we would have a strong foothold in these markets. The advent and proliferation of Google also helped - we didn’t know it at the time, however because our properties were neatly situated next to the beach...when you search anything ‘Beach Wedding’ related, we came up first!
We have always reinvested about 80% of profit - the first 1-2 years we split profits equally among partners. When I bought out my partner in 2014 - I paid myself $15K/year until he was paid off, the buildings were free and clear, and I had $250K in cash in the bank to run the company.
I still only pay myself 2.5 x’s the poverty level...it never was or is all about the money. Its much more than that - FREEDOM. Everything else goes back into the business. On this note, one piece of advice I adhere to is taking money off the table each 3rd year...i.e. Build, Build, Profit, Build, Build, Profit. Repeat.
Take us through the process of getting your first clients and launching the business.
Launching was the easy part - quitting a Full-Time excellent job with benefits, that’s the rough part. Federal Tax ID, Web Address, Registration with Sunbiz.org, and business cards and you are literally ‘In Business!’
Our business started real simple, Mr. Davis was the Officiate and I was the Photographer. We worked weekends mainly. When the recession hit our Business took off! Couples were all the sudden interested in a more ‘affordable’ option to traditional weddings.
Revenue and profit are simply the market’s way of telling if you are doing something right/wrong and are able to manage the business efficiently.
In October 2011, I left my full-time career as a Commercial Real Estate Investment advisor and gave everything I had to ‘not failing.’ All my friends had careers that were noteworthy in the community: Financial Advisor, Accountant, Doctor, Lawyer, Insurance Sales, etc. To be honest, there were several years when I wasn’t sure if I had what it takes, I remember constantly doubting my decisions - .
I remember answering emails, making updates to the site, and literally responding to every inquiry within minutes (24/7). At one point I counted how many days consecutively I worked - 17 days once, 13 days in a row twice. In a way, I was keeping score with myself and a conjured up competitor. I kept asking myself ‘What is my competitor doing right now?’ if I felt tired or needed that extra push to finish something noteworthy on the website/form mailer/update.
Our services were very basic: Beach Weddings. Originally, this was a simple arch, some basic chairs, and minor decor. Over time our clients asked for more: More customization, more options, more decor/furniture, etc. We simply listened and now many of our ‘Standard’ items were extras 3-years ago.
We don’t charge extra at this point as they are mostly stocked items (and they look better in my opinion). There’s no science to it, everytime I stayed in a nicer hotel or went on vacation or noticed something at a car dealership, I took note. This was the introduction of our Themed Wedding Packages (Link) that are literally ‘scenes on the beach.’ Further, couples needed help with places to stay, hotels/lodging, restaurants, fun activities in the area, etc.
All we did is listen and slowly update the website accordingly, meanwhile refining our recommended Wedding Vendors list.
There’s a couple innovations that really put us into a different class than our competitors:
Interactive Beach WeddingStudio
This is our Proprietary Software that is Registered with the USPT office.
This allows couples to interactively create a Beach Wedding Package to fit their needs from scratch. It automatically adjusts for permitting, # of Chairs, Colors, Decor, etc.
Standardization and Process
This allows us to currently perform 10 Weddings in Tampa at one time and 3 Weddings in Destin. Fleet of Vans, Standardized Decorations (Several), Training Videos, Quality of Training, Cross-Training, etc.
Further, we often get 10-15% discounts on materials because they are either assembled in-house and purchased in bulk from retailers.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
You must provide outstanding customer service and add massive value. I think our responsiveness continues to distance us from our competition and the legitimacy of owning our properties and branding continue to give us advantages. Further, our presence in terms of Google Rank also is a ‘Storefront’ for all our destination couples. We specifically target key words/phrases, in key markets, across our product lines. While I can’t get into specifics, know that we place a great deal of time, effort, energy, and strategy to continue to rank #1 Nationally for all combinations related to our business. This is done in a combination of ways and I recommend hiring a professional who is in-tune with the current make-up of the latest Google algorithm. Among these items are blog posts, publishing on Facebook, relevant backlinks, and simply working with other companies that also place this emphasis so there’s synergy.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, we continue to take risks and push the limits of our process. Revenue and profit are simply the market’s way of telling if you are doing something right/wrong and are able to manage the business efficiently.
There is a matrix that I use to gauge our current business called ‘Insights’ apart of our PayPal API (this is included with the Pro Merchant Account) that translates to a custom Excel worksheet I’ve created to measure month-over-month and year-over-year revenue comparisons. I then overlay this based on the Quarterly reports from my accountant (I like to think of him as a CFO) who gives me Profit & Loss Statement, Balance Sheet, and Statement of Cash Flows (this one is the most important).
Our Certificate of Occupancy was filed on May 17th, 2019. This marks the start of our second permanent location for Beach Wedding Services. Although risky to some, and it is on some level, it was a natural growth market for what we do. The main concern was ‘Can we afford it?’ ‘Who will be on-site full time?’ and ‘How do we cross-train both sets of teams so they are familiar with each location?’ While we grew too fast in Tampa, we will simply go from 2 weddings per day, then when ready 3 weddings per day, then when ready 4 weddings per day….etc. Destin has beautiful beaches (Link) and while the learning curve is steep, we are poised to manage it. Fortunately, we have great people that can take this business to the next level! Currently, there are 5 Full-Time Employees and we will add another by the end of the year. Possibly one more in the Spring.
Further, I got my Private Pilot License and Instrument Rating this past year. Purchased a plane with another gentleman, so we have the ability to be in either location in 2-hours (compared to a 7.5 hour drive time). Now and in the future, I think this gives us a huge advantage!
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Faith and save your money. Find creative ways to make the most of your small budget. If you are good at managing $.01, God will give you far more to manage.
At Gulf Beach Weddings, we pay for the Financial Peace University course (Dave Ramsey) that is committed to the 9-week training sessions. This involves your personal balance sheet, income, and expenses. I simply do the same in business. Many make it more complicated than it is - sort of like exercising. Its calories in vs. calories out (there’s no special powder or pill) paired with healthy balanced food and living.
There are those who run a company without it, but I cannot imagine what we would look like if we didn’t operate this company with Christian Values. That is the secret sauce, getting on your knees often - thanking God for the ups and downs, asking for discernment for that which you can and cannot see, and praying for those that we impact and lead.
Ultimately it’s his business anyway, I am simply a steward of it in the interim. I don’t want the reader to think we are ‘Soft’ - I play fair, but will leverage all resources and out-work almost anyone. In Business - Work Hard, Pray, Study, Care about your Clients & Team, Repeat.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We are a services company. We use a suite of Google products, WooCommerce, and WordPress.
Paypal handles our payment API but they are great to work with if you qualify for the Pro Merchant Program. They handle all the Credit Card processing currently - I don’t have any reason to leave them.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I’ve learned a ton from installing shock absorbers on my car, IFR training for piloting, and Everest climbing. History.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
There is no substitute for hard work and being clever. There’s a host of books, conferences, and ‘coaches’ worldwide. You have to get advice from smarter people than you and always look for another’s perspective.
They all serve a purpose and to be honest, I’ve been to some very cool, very expensive, and very exclusive ones. There is no substitute for putting your head down and doing the work, always work smart, but work.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always looking for great people that can advance our mission! We aren’t currently hiring for a specific position, however we do hire within and offer an amazing package: quarterly bonus structure, 401k plan, and pay the highest rates in the industry.
Average tenure is about 3-4 years for full-time team members. We’ve never done Internships however, we are a large enough organization now to warrant this type of program to students and nearly graduates interested in learning more and willing to work hard!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
Get our 5-minute email newsletter packed with business ideas and money-making opportunities, backed by real-life case studies.
- 4,818 founder case studies
- Access to our founder directory
- Live events, courses and recordings
- 8,628 business ideas
- $1M in software savings