May 23, 2018
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Boston investors say ‘yes’ to Portland wedding directory startup

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
J. Sandifer, who just goes by his initial, runs Tide Creative in Portland.
By Whit Richardson, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — A small startup in Portland targeting the country’s $56 billion wedding industry has just received an infusion of capital from a group of investors, including several from the Boston area.

Attracting investors from Boston is not unheard of in Maine’s startup community, but it’s uncommon enough to make it noteworthy.

The business is called Tide Creative. It employs four people and is in the process of hiring a fifth.

J Sandifer, the company’s founder, believes he can grow the business to at least 30 employees in the next several years if his concept succeeds as he expects it will. The investors obviously agree.

Sandifer founded the company in June 2011 as a full-service branding and marketing firm for wedding venues. The company since has grown into an umbrella organization that encompasses a few different initiatives, including mobile apps (it has three apps: WeddingDJ, VenueApp and iSPYLove) and its latest project, Prepare to Wed.

Prepare to Wed is an online wedding directory where prospective brides and grooms browse wedding venues and vendors, such as caterers and wedding photographers. Sandifer acquired an existing, but floundering, directory in April 2013 and quietly relaunched it as Prepare to Wed in the past month.

The wedding directory business is not easy. Sandifer is going into direct competition with major websites such as The Knot and Wedding Wire, the latter of which raised $25 million last year. All are targeting the roughly 3 million people who are at any one moment planning a wedding in the United States.

But Sandifer is developing a new service that he believes will give his company an edge over his larger competitors.

Sandifer is entering this market with a depth of experience in the wedding industry. The former professional wedding photographer was an early employee (employee No. 16 to be exact) at Pictage, an online proofing service for professional wedding photographers that was acquired for $29 million in 2007. The company had 216 employees when Sandifer left a few years later. In addition, Sandifer’s wife, Emilie Sommer Sandifer, owns Emilie Inc., a well-known wedding photography business in the Portland area.

Because of the competitive nature of the industry, Sandifer declined to discuss specifics of his business plan, so as not to give up his edge. Using vague terms, he said his plan involves “using industry connections to facilitate a content marketing platform for wedding professionals.”

His investors, who spent time vetting Sandifer’s plan, liked the concept enough to invest $300,000 in Tide Creative. It’s not close to the $25 million Wedding Wire raised, but it’s “enough runway to prove the idea and approach scale over the next 10 months,” Sandifer said.

The Boston investors declined to be named or interviewed for this story. They account for half the $300,000. The other half came from the Maine Venture Fund, which is a venture capital fund based in Newport that invests exclusively in Maine companies that demonstrate a potential for high growth and public benefit.

John Burns, the fund’s manager, said Sandifer’s business model, which he called “elegant,” and his “depth of experience in the industry” are what attracted Maine Venture Fund to the deal.

“Those are the two key items that made it a good investment,” Burns told the BDN.

“I think they have worked very hard to understand where the pain points are” — business-school speak for the problems a business is trying to solve — “in this little niche,” said Burns. “They’ve identified a pain point, a solution and they have got partners identified.”

Another element that made the investment attractive to Burns is the quality of his co-investors, the group of Boston angel investors. There are several of them, and they all bring skills to the table, from financial to sales to business management, Burns said.

“It’s a nice mix that covers the disciplines of a company,” Burns said.

And that’s what any startup is looking for in investors, he said: “Somebody to roll up their sleeves and add value other than the capital they bring to the table.”

Sandifer is looking forward to tapping the potential experience his investors can provide, including Burns.

“I can’t say enough about John Burns. He’s a quality guy,” Sandifer said. “If you’re going to take money from someone, you want to align yourself with people you trust, who you admire and who add value to your company. He definitely does all three of those in spades.”

Burns acknowledged that it’s noteworthy whenever a Maine company attracts outside investment.

“I wish it were a little more commonplace,” Burns said, adding that Maine Venture Fund is working on forging relationships with out-of-state angel investment and venture capital groups to bring more Maine companies to their attention.

“I’m looking forward to working with J, putting an active board in place and getting the company on a good path to having its fiscal and operational house in order and doing everything we can to recognize the potential of Tide and grow it into a significant Maine company,” Burns said.

While a company such as Wedding Wire employs more than 200 people and works of out an “amazingly beautiful office” outside Washington, D.C., Sandifer is more conservative with his vision for what Tide Creative could become in the next five years.

He expects the company will become the marketing partner for tens of thousands of wedding vendors in the United States and be able to reach hundreds of thousands of couples preparing to get married. To do that, he estimates the company will employ between 25 and 30 people by remaining lean.

“We will have grown our company through a number of scalable stages right here in Portland, Maine, using all the available resources that Maine has to offer,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously referenced an online wedding registry. The product is an online wedding directory. It also incorrectly referred to Emilie Sommer Sandifer as Emilie Sommer.

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