Danielle Tate was fresh out of college in 2003 and interviewing in Beltsville, Md., to sell copy machines when the company president asked her if she was tough enough for the job.
“I told him I had the privilege of shaving the groins of numerous prison inmates while on a summer medical internship at Ohio State,” she said. “You looking for grit? There it is.”
Tate got the job.
Eleven years on, the confident entrepreneur from Potomac, Md., is trying to scale a niche business that helps brides navigate the maze of changing their names on everything from driver’s licenses to bank accounts, insurance policies, passports, voter registrations, Internal Revenue Service forms and Social Security cards.
The company, called MissNowMrs, recently signed a deal to put its gift cards in 4,700 Rite Aid stores, which Tate hopes will turn her $1 million enterprise into the newly married couple’s version of TurboTax, a top-selling software for tax preparation.
With the Rite Aid deal, her target audience has grown beyond the newly married to focus on the estimated 200 million wedding guests looking for a bridal or shower gift every year.
“You want to buy a girl a cookbook, or you want to save the bride 13 hours on their name change,” she says.
Tate, 32, also owns one-third of Sculpt Studio, a pilates business in Bethesda, Md.
Tate has been running MissNowMrs since she took it online in October 2007. That night, after pushing the button on her first Google ads, the first customer surfaced within half an hour. Tate and her husband, Culin, raised a glass of champagne in their home office in Bethesda, where they lived at the time.
Seven years later, the company has four full-time employees, who work at a Virginia office, in Tysons Corner. She also has six contract employees who man a toll-free phone line to help customers with questions including whether they should use hyphens in their names and which should be filled out first, Social Security or passport forms.
MissNowMrs, which was bootstrapped with $5,000 from each of its three owners, earned more than $1 million in revenue last year. It has a roaring 50 percent profit margin. About half of that is rolled back into the company. The Tates and a third partner, resident technologist Mike Bradicich, split the rest.
“We run a tight ship,” Danielle Tate said.
The company has no debt. Its biggest expenses are marketing ($300,000), research and development ($100,000) and support and overhead ($100,000). Danielle Tate takes a small salary.
MissNowMrs’s narrative is not all bouquets, smiles and toasts. After grossing $300,000 the first year, the company ran into the Great Recession’s effects in 2009 and 2010. The downturn resulted in postponed weddings and extended engagements, which hurt the business. The Tates also fought off copycats, resulting in a six-figure legal bill.
Since then, the start-up has grown 30 percent annually. Tate wants to continue to grow it, and she is open to an acquisition down the road.
That is not a surprise. Culin Tate, 43, who has an MBA from the University of Maryland, helped found a company that created a device to automatically feed chlorine and other chemicals into swimming pools. He eventually sold it, pocketing enough money to become semi-retired.
Tate grew up in south-central Pennsylvania, in a small town called Bedford. She graduated from Western Maryland College, now known as McDaniel College, with a biology degree.
She wanted to be a cardiologist, but she did not get into medical school. She refused to return to Bedford, where she felt her opportunities would be limited. So Tate posted her résumé on Monster.com and took the first job she was offered: selling Canon copiers for an office equipment company.
“It was not an easy job,” she said. “I needed 40 business cards a day to keep my job. So I learned to dodge security. You put on a big smile, shoot right through the lobby in your heels, in the elevator and up you go.”
The money wasn’t great, so the 21-year-old dived back into the job market, parlaying her biology degree and sales experience into a medical sales job.
At the ripe age of 23, she was driving 1,300 miles a week in her company-issued Land Rover Freelander to hospitals in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware. She was earning a six-figure income selling cancer diagnostic equipment to pathology departments. She was the company’s youngest No. 1 sales representative and the first woman to grab that title.
“I was earning six figures and helping fight cancer. It was a dream job,” Tate said.
She attributes her success to her biology degree, which enabled her to converse confidently with laboratory staff and pathologists. She also had hospital experience. As an undergraduate, she was awarded a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to spend a summer shadowing physicians and participating in research at Ohio State University Hospital.
The medical sales career was interrupted when she attended a friend’s luau in Bethesda. Tate saw a man across the room wearing a grass skirt. She ended up marrying him.
In September 2005, a few months after the marriage, she took a day off from her sales job and drove to the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration service center near Rockville to change the name on her driver’s license.
“I sit in line for two hours, get up to the clerk, hand them my forms and they smile up at me and said, ‘This is an outdated form.’ I told them it was the form from their Web site, and they said the site had not been updated,” Tate said.
She got the correct forms, went back to the end of the line and, after reaching the clerk again, was told that her marriage certificate had not been certified. They could not process the form.
When she told Culin about the need for a name-change service, he had a crisp response: “You should do that.”
That launched Tate on her research mission. She found an article in the Journal of Marriage and Family that told her there are about 2.3 million marriages a year in the United States, and 88.6 percent of the women change their name.
“That was the fact I hung my hat on,” Tate said.
She called the motor vehicle departments in all 50 states, sitting on hold for up to six hours. She pulled in Bradicich to help build a database, write code and supervise the creation of the Web site’s infrastructure. She hired a graphic designer for the site.
She bought Google ads. To spread brand awareness, Tate created strategic partnerships with WeddingWire, a wedding planning Web site founded by some former owners of technology company Blackboard, and LegalZoom, which assists with legal paperwork. She spent years stuffing envelopes and asking bridal magazines for coverage.
For the Rite Aid deal, Tate paid $75,000 to have 212,000 gift cards that can be redeemed for a MissNowMrs online name change account for $29.95.
The company is now in all 50 states and Canada, but most of the business comes from New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, California and the District.