The BBC’s weekly The Boss series profiles different business leaders from around the world. This week we speak to Ali and Dom Beaven, the husband and wife owners of online wedding gift list business Prezola.
When Ali Beaven arrived home to find that her husband Dom had cleaned and polished her beloved Land Rover, she should have guessed that something was amiss.
“She came in and said ‘thanks for cleaning the car’,” says Dom. “And I replied that we are selling it, and it was already up on eBay.”
This was back in 2011, when the couple were trying to get Prezola up and running.
They were investing their £50,000 savings, and borrowing more funds from friends and family, but Dom realised that they were still short. So the Land Rover had to go.
“And it was OK really,” says Ali, 48. “We could walk our two kids to the local school, and the money we got for the car paid for some full page adverts in the main bridal magazines.”
A year later the couple upped the ante by selling their family home to raise more funds for Prezola.
“It was a big leap of faith,” says Dom, 49. “But the fact we were both in it together helped.”
Thankfully for Dom and Ali, the gambles paid off, and their company is today one of the UK’s most popular online wedding gift list providers.
With an annual turnover of more than £15m, the Bath-based business is now used by more than 30,000 brides and grooms per year.
Soon-to-weds can collate a gift wish list from the products and services of the more than 500 brands that Prezola stocks, be it asking for a contribution to the cost of their honeymoon, or a set of posh cooking pans.
Yet while everyone, from French cookware company Le Creuset to holiday firm Mr & Mrs Smith, now supplies Prezola, Dom and Ali say that it was initially a challenge to get businesses on board.
Ali first came up with the basic idea for Prezola back in 2008.
“It was my birthday, and I had been given some underwhelming presents,” she says. “I though that it would be great if there was an online platform were I could choose lots of different things from different shops, and then send that wish list out to friends and family. I kept the nugget of an idea.”
Fuelled by a few glasses of wine, Ali and Dom dreamed up the moniker Prezola, and registered the domain name Prezola.com that every evening.
They then spent the next year and a bit thinking more about the idea, which they finessed into focusing specifically on wedding lists. In Christmas 2010 they finally quit their day jobs and launched the company.
Ali had been an interior designer, while Dom had been a magazine publisher who had also looked after the social media at charity Comic Relief.
With funds limited, even after they had sold the car and downsized to a much smaller house, they decided to focus on surviving six months at a time.
“We never had a six year plan,” says Dom. “It was instead always whether we could get through the next six months. That was always are target.”
While the couple were confident that their website would be popular with people planning their weddings, the fact that they were initially running it from their kitchen table put off many potential suppliers.
“It was quite a challenge initially,” says Ali. “We were running it from home, and we have always been online only. This put off a lot of companies, because we didn’t have a bricks and mortar presence.
“They automatically assumed that we were going to cut prices, which were weren’t.”
Dom adds that many companies simply didn’t reply to their emails, while one firm’s representative was once rude to them in a coffee shop.
“We had arranged a meeting with him, and it turned into a stand up row,” he says.
But despite the setbacks, the couple remained persistent, and a trickle of companies signed up. This then turned into a flood when others saw that Prezola was popular.
“It was a bit of a domino effect,” says Dom. “Once you got a couple of the big names on board, the rest followed.”
The couple then built up their customer base through regular advertisements in bridal magazines, and positive word-of-mouth.
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“The wedding sector is quite viral,” says Dom. “If you go to a wedding there is a strong possibility that you are planning your own, because you are in the same circle of friends.”
Caroline Gould, a professional wedding planner in the east of England, says that Prezola was one of the first businesses to take wedding gift lists online.
“Prezola’s continuing popularity was definitely helped by the fact that it helped to lead the way as wedding planning moved online,” she says.
“My business – The Wedding Planners – now gets 90% of its enquires via the website, and that is now the same across the industry.
“Meanwhile, a growing number of brides and grooms are setting up their own wedding websites, where their family and friends can access all the information they need. Prezola was a trailblazer in this general move online.”
Prezola now employs more than 50 people at its headquarters in Bath and distribution centre outside the city. Although it already posts gifts abroad, it is now looking at expanding internationally, with dedicated operations in the US and Australia.
It also owns sister business GettingMarried, which allows couples to build their own wedding websites.
But what is it like to run a company with your husband or wife?
“We are lucky in that we don’t see each other very much,” jokes Ali. “I’m very much the creative side, looking after the marketing, the vision of the website and the photo shoots.”
“While I’m the commercial and financial side, and to some extent also marketing,” says Dom.
Ali adds that “we respect each other’s strengths, and aren’t competitive with each other”.