RIVER NORTH — On the first day of business school at Northwestern University's Kellogg School, Sonali Lamba and Nicole Staple bonded over wedding woes.
Both recently had moved to Chicago from out of state and were "spending our weekends as 'wedding warriors,' either as bridesmaids or as guests ... and spending all our time outside of school shopping for dresses to be bridesmaids or guests."
Lamba, 30, herself was a newlywed, enrolling at Northwestern shortly after her nuptials in Orlando, which she organized from Boston with 12 bridesmaids scattered across the country.
"I was planning my wedding and applying to business school at the same time, and I think the context was right, because I was thinking about my long-term career goals and experiencing a very inefficient market," Lamba said.
She and Staple, 29, started chatting about their weekend plans — dominated by shopping trips to "brick-and-mortar boutiques" to buy dresses from the right dye lots for friends' weddings — and "kind of stumbled on bridesmaids as being a sector of the market that's really underserved," Lamba said.
So when their first assignment was to partner up and design a new business, it didn't take Lamba and Staple long to come up with the idea that today is a successful and growing business in Chicago's lively wedding market.
"We used to do fulfillment from my house," Lamba said. "A couple months later we were working out of an abandoned building that was being renovated. ... Needless to say, we're really excited about where we are today."
As they approach one-year anniversary out of beta in January — and "engagement season," according to Staple — their startup Brideside is shipping orders weekly throughout Chicago and as far as Australia from their corner office at the River North co-workspace Industrious.
Their concept adapts the Warby Parker business model, shipping dress samples to shoppers' homes for women to try on, then return and order a custom-fit piece from the line.
They haven't released their sales stats yet, but Staple said "revenue has definitely been growing steadily."
Both transplants — Lamba moved to Chicago from Orlando, Fla., Staple from Durham, N.C. — the duo said they were surprised to find Chicago had a booming bridal market.
"Chicago is a great market for us because women are actually planning and getting married here, so there's a lot of activity," Lamba said. "Chicago is like the epicenter of wedding planning" in the Midwest.
In the 2011 Wedding Report, the Chicago metropolitan area was the fourth-most popular wedding destination, trailing only New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Chicago weddings had the second-biggest guest lists on average, ranked just behind receptions hosted in the D.C. metropolitan area.
"There's lots of girls planning their weddings from New York, and lots of girls planning their weddings from San Francisco, but in Chicago there's a lot more girls planning and getting married here," Lamba said.
Much of their business comes from referrals, and they use "friends-only" and other discount codes to help track how customers find them.
But with many orders "from England, Germany, Australia, we're not always sure how they find us," Staple said. "We must be filling a niche that people are really seeking out."
Stumbling into a perfect market hasn't been the only surprise for the team at Brideside.
"We started the business because we knew there was a problem to solve, and it's not an easy problem. ... The purchase you make is a dress — [but] what we've started to offer brides is so much more than that," Staple said.
"We found ourselves playing 'wedding therapist' sometimes on other things going on in their wedding planning: balancing relationships and helping them handle difficult situations," she said.
Lamba said the six-person team has fielded its fair share of bridesmaid-zilla moments.
"We had one girl order a dress from us, but she found out she was going to be pregnant [for the wedding], and she told me before she told her family, because she knew the bride wanted her to place her order," Lamba said. "We had one bride call after her best friend picked the same color palette, so it was our responsibility to help her pick a new one. ... I had a bridesmaid who tore up her dress in a fit of rage and needed a replacement.
"On the flip side of that, we have customers who send us thank-you notes. ... They send us handwritten notes in the mail that say 'Thank you so much for making this process easier for us.' That was something we never anticipated. That's kind of also how we value our success."