Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
We are Celeste Durve and Kelsi Kitchener and we started VIPER (VIP Event Relations) in 2016 under our parent company The KCH Group. KCH is a branded house for our future ventures, meaning its the parent company behind our other ventures. Each company is selling something slightly different but they share clients and have similar market positions.
VIPER is an all-female team that operates guest experience + compiles data for events and venues. At the intersection of pop culture, hospitality and analytics, we can be seen at the doors of a wide range of popular events like Travis Scott's Astroworld, Kanye West’s listening parties, to Homeland security conferences and politicians' private events.
We are the only “front of house” operations team that exists and we’ve redefined a portion of the Los Angeles nightlife industry as an all women team. Running front of house means we operate guest experience and guest check-in for events and manage all logistics related to the portion of events dealing with the public - as opposed to anything backstage, in the kitchen, etc!
We started VIPER self-funded when we were both in our early 20’s (Celeste, 20 and Kelsi, 24) and today were valued at over a million dollars thanks to a combination of sales, strong branding, and A list clientele.
Now, 3 years later we have hundreds of clients, a team of 26 and we’re about to close our first round of funding.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Both of us were interns and freelance production assistants when we developed the idea for VIPER. We met while interning for Bolthouse Productions in 2014, a popular nightlife company.
We were working as production assistants on the side and were overworked and underpaid but we both had a ton of drive and ambition. One night towards the end of 2015, we bumped into each other while working the same event and were surprised to see the other person working.
In order to get this off the ground, we kept side jobs and pushed all the money back into the company and paying our staff.
There were so many cooks in the kitchen at this particular event and the budget was over a million dollars yet the door was a complete mess and no one was handling it or had even thought about it.
As interns and PA’s, we were always assigned to run the door due to our personable natures so on this particular night, we decided we should just create a “side hustle” where people could come to us to manage the door and we would just bring our girlfriends to help us and take a small cut off the top.
When the idea originated, we didn’t expect it to develop into a big brand and a long term partnership between us. We really just wanted to make some extra money and solve this issue at events!
We got together for coffee and made a list of supplies we would bring to each event as well as a list of some of our girlfriends we could call. We planned for about 4 months before we launched and we spent those months meeting with a lawyer, creating a basic pitch deck, building a little website and an Instagram. Our initial branding looked way different than it does now.
As we started to create more of a well-executed service, we started getting calls from people who had gotten our number from their contacts that wanted us to run their doors too. At first, we gave out so many discounts. It seemed like NO ONE wanted to pay our prices so we came down on budget every time just to get clients and showcase our work.
In order to get this off the ground, we kept side jobs and pushed all the money back into the company and paying our staff. We also opened up a credit card but it didn’t have a very high limit. (Which was ultimately a blessing!)
Take us through the process of getting your business of the ground.
In the past 3 years, our brand has evolved tremendously. I think when we started out, our first invoice was just a cropped image of an excel spreadsheet, ha!
Since we aren’t a product in some ways it’s hard to demonstrate any tangible evolution but we have different ways of measuring our growth. For example, Kelsi and I used to do every single thing for an event including all the prep work, managing the clients guest list, loading out all the equipment and managing the client and the team on site in addition to running the actual door. Now, Kelsi and I are rarely ever on site because our team is so well trained they can handle it without us.
When we began, we each saved up $800 dollars to throw in. We spent it getting some contracts drawn up from a lawyer to incorporate and have an operating agreement. We (poorly) designed our first website but once we had some money we had someone redesign it and make us a pitch deck. Although we were a startup, we didn’t want to look like it so we tried to keep all our aesthetics well branded.
Because we were interns and freelance production assistants, our first clients to hire our company were the same companies that hired us as freelancers and interns. They already knew our work since they were paying us to do the same type of role beforehand, and this time we had pitched that we could also bring the team and solve the staffing problem for them.
Launching the business
When we launched the business we created a website and small pitch deck and Instagram.
We didn’t really have any content or clients at the time but what we did have was a few people who had hired us before as freelancers or production assistants. We reached out to all of them and asked for testimonials and this is really what helped us get started. When we were brand new, we had no credibility but having a few recognizable names from the industry co-sign our abilities was tremendously helpful. So our website, to begin with, was really just bios, testimonials, and our services.
We made our own website at first but it was pretty tragic so we ended up hiring someone. We got played by our first two graphic designers and that taught us to be way less trusting and smarter about money and contracts. That was a big lesson.
We didn’t have any money so we took out one credit one to buy some iPads and equipment. To this day we are still self-funded and only have 2 credit cards and really low debt. However, we are now moving into our first round of funding.
When we launched, we surprised everyone because we hadn’t really mentioned that we were working on anything so it may have looked like VIPER came out of nowhere. We launched on social media and started emailing people who had hired us before and trying to spread awareness.
Here are a couple of super embarrassing screenshots of our first ever pitch deck:
And here are some pages of our current deck. This one needs updating as well but this is what it looks like currently.
Our first event
Our first event as a company was during Coachella 2016. We did the Nylon Party and Neon Carnival. And they were both a disaster for us. We were not incredibly well prepared or in the loop, and our team was not strong, at no fault to them.
We were underprepared and out of our home city so it was kind of a mess. We didn't have a real team yet so we had to put out so many fires and got hit with tons of learning curves. We worked back to back all weekend from noon to 5 in the morning. We had Kelsi’s car packed full of equipment and we were running around the dessert and losing money since no one wanted to pay us at first. We hadnt worked out a bulletproof system for our flow and we werent involved with any of the prep for the event so it was just back to back fires.
At 5am after our second night there, we almost wanted to give up but then Kelsi said this sentence that i’ll leave you with:
When Disneyland first opened, there was so much trash all over the park they almost considered closing it down because it was completely covered in trash, it was a huge problem. But they solved it by adding more trash cans. So whenever we are in the weeds, we need to remember not to give up and that we just need more trash cans.
This is when we realized we need way more development. We needed to be at walkthroughs and prep meetings for events, and we needed to actually train a team, we couldn’t just hire friends. Additionally, we needed a real system and this is how the development of the process started.
Creating something new is both a blessing and a curse. There was no company like VIPER that existed prior, no one was doing front of house logistics.
It was a blessing because we didn’t enter a heavily saturated market but it was a curse because many people didn’t understand what we did or what the need for us was. This was a challenge that we solved by proving our worth; but that came with giving many new clients discounts while simultaneously paying our team a competitive rate to ensure quality on site. So, as founders we played the longevity game. We kept side jobs and didn’t take salaries. We pushed all the money back into the company and our team- aiming to keep ourselves self-funded and build our brand and reputation.
Every day brought a new challenge, it still does. We learned countless lessons and lacked stability in our personal lives. There were days we would cry in grocery stores wondering how we could afford groceries. But our work ethic never let up, and we always over delivered to clients. We never did any generic marketing, we were all word of mouth. So we just kept showing up and doing a good job and eventually that built the soul of the brand; that the VIPER girls are the best at what they do and they are a necessity.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Since launch, we haven’t done any generic marketing with the exception of having a company Instagram and occasionally paying $5 to promote it.
We actually don’t do any targeted ads, newsletters, SEO, PR, etc. We don’t even have business cards. We just show up and meet people and do a good job and hope they spread the word.
We’ve built our client list on networking. We take endless meetings and take people for drinks and dinner and we focus on building relationships not just clients. One thing we used to always do, especially in the beginning, was send follow up gifts to big clients or anyone we had a great meeting with. Our favorite thing to send was cookies. (If any of our clients are reading this right now they will be like “YEP!!”)
After a meeting, we would email a neighboring cookie delivery shop and have them deliver cookies and a note to that person the very next day to say thank you for their time and let them know we are excited to work with them. This has worked well for us we’d like to think!
We have a saying in VIPER that we always get a second date! We’d say 9/10 our clients return to us and this truly comes down to our INCREDIBLE team. Our team is so good at what they do. They are fun and friendly and hardworking. They are solution based and so proactive. It’s important to us to always deliver a good experience.
We also remain easy to work with. As founders, we don’t ever go on power struggles or let ego come into play. We are fluid and we like to keep clients happy and lower their stress levels whenever we can!
We actually don’t do any targeted ads, newsletters, SEO, PR, etc. We don’t even have business cards. We just show up and meet people and do a good job and hope they spread the word. It’s hard to express how good VIPER is at running doors. We have a flawless system and our training process cannot be replicated.
Now that we have A-list clientele it speaks to our credibility and helps us attract new clients as well.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
VIPER today is in its first round of funding with some really incredible potential investors.
We are so picky when it comes to accepting money which we would recommend to anyone also in an open round. We are profitable as a business and we wouldn’t need an investor if we wanted to just keep pace however we really want to expand and have some really incredible ideas and future developments.
We’re also launching our second venture under KCH which is consulting and dot connection where we consult for brands and then broker appropriate deals for them. This network of clients is very similar to VIPER’s so its basically one hand feeding the other. We want to continue to expand our LA network and then also open up in New York and eventually Miami. Now that we have a team in place that can help with day to day logistics it’s easier for us to focus on the bigger picture and future development, but there are still days we have to manage the small stuff.
We have a ton of plans for the future, not too many I can discuss at the moment but they involve expanding into the tech space, the experiential space as well as real estate. We are in constant meetings with investors and partners about scaling so that’s been our focus as of late. Additionally, we are always promoting VIPER and working on reaching new clients and also just promoting our story as founders and as a brand.
The future is bright!
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
We have learned SO much through starting this business. We have learned to be less naive when it comes to trusting people immediately. We have learned to scale back our emotions when it comes to business deals but still listen to our intuition. We learned that stressing doesn't help solve problems especially when you can't pay rent, stress definitely doesn't pay rent!
It is challenging to be taken seriously as a young woman in any industry, nightlife especially but it is possible. We have worked really hard to maintain good reputations and we carry ourselves to a high standard at all times and train our team to do the same.
Ultimately everything is figureoutable if you believe so. We were both raised on the belief that we are not victims. We always have a choice and we dont blame anyone for our mistakes. When we first started VIPER, we would work late into the night at events until about 3 or 4 am.
And after every event, we would go to a diner and get a milkshake and recap on what went wrong, how we contributed, and how to plan better next time. We still maintain this process, just without the milkshakes and more often! We never blamed other people for where we could have been better. There were things outside of our control of course, but we always looked at those moments as opportunities for us to improve our responses.
We each have unique abilities that definitely help us. Were both incredible at navigating relationships and talking to people. And we are openly multidimensional. As co-founders, we go from managing 1000 people on a red carpet, to hosting clients at nightclubs, to closing deals in a boardroom full of executives. And no matter where we are, we bring our true selves with us. We don’t ever pretend to be something that we are not.
VIPER girls are smart and sophisticated and they’re also beautiful and fun. We want to make it clear that women can be more than one thing. We were told a few times to scale this image back to a more corporate one that is solely professional, and that’s a great example of terrible and unsolicited advice!
When we first created VIPER, it was intended to be a “side business” as I mentioned before. We didn't take it that seriously and we barely knew each other as co-founders: We respected each other's work ethic and that was about it. But once we started picking up we decided to really get to know each other and decided that we would always make sure we had each other’s back. If you can’t establish this dynamic with your business partner, you're in the wrong partnership.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
To be honest, for the past 2 years we have run like a small business on very little software/systems. I don’t necessarily recommend that, but it did allow us to understand each inner function of owning a company.
We just moved to QuickBooks which has been super helpful. We use Boomerang for Gmail because we work on different hours than most people so we can type emails at 10pm and boomerang them to send at 7am and have a response by the time we wake up.
We have tried several project management tools like Asana, Basecamp, Trello, ETC but none have really lasted for us.
We live by Google Docs and Google Sheets!
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
We are HUGE bookworms, but as of late, we have moved away from traditional business books. Right now reading for us is about relaxing so we've been indulging heavily in fiction and memoirs.
For us, we need a mixture of business, spirituality and women’s studies because that’s who we are as people and that’s what VIPER was built on.
Neither of us went to college and while we read articles and business books, we dont begin and end there. We are so much more invested in developing our emotional IQ and building relationships and understanding the world around us on a personal level.
As founders, we are both spiritual so books like E Squared and The Four Agreements help us feel balanced and tuned in and allows us to be more present at work.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Our advice to others who are starting out is to stay true to yourself and your brand and only sell what you can truly deliver. We have never been a “smoke and mirrors” brand but many others are.
When we started VIPER we offered extra services like promotions and outreach and cocktail servers and we actually scaled all that back to just the door and guest list ops. We wanted to stay true to our core brand and do one thing really well as opposed to doing many things decently. That’s just our personal preference but we would definitely recommend staying true to your brand and what you do exceptionally well.
As of late, we see a lot of other founders always retaining this flawless air and making it sound like everything is great and they are always killing it. And when we’ve asked for advice from others they have told us to be less transparent about shortcomings and remain more smoke & mirrors but we really disagree. We are transparent people and we have learned that when we are transparent about what we are struggling with we can actually SOLVE that issue and move forward. We dont understand the need to always seem like everything is perfect and we dont recommend people continuing to pretend that way.
Additionally, if you have a partner it’s so important to remain transparent with them. We have the best partner dynamic because we are honest, at all times. It's important to establish early on that you are working towards the same goal and remove any feelings of competition or like you are watching each other under microscopes. We believe in showing up WHOLE every day. So when one of us is having a bad day, we are just honest. When we need help, we ask for it. We dont pretend to have everything under control at all times.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always taking interviews for new VIPER Girls who want to join the team. We look for girls with a strong work ethic that do well in high paced environments and enjoy the hospitality industry!
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.
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